Shabbat 81 – How to Wipe Yourself
Early in tractate Berakhot, we saw how preoccupied the Rabbis became with rules concerning outhouses [in Hebrew, beit kisay – house of “the chair”]. The Talmud again returns to the subject in the context of stones – one is prohibited from carrying out a chip or a stone large enough to throw at a bird, and this is the tangent to leap to privy procedures. Why? Because in Talmudic times it was evidently customary to clean oneself after “evacuating” with small stones – paper being tremendously more scarce and thus expensive at the time! And there are special considerations to carrying stones on Shabbat, of course.
Initially, the standard of stones used in a privy was to use three of specific sizes, but an authority points out that one is hardly inclined to weigh them on a scale to find out, so the standard is changed to “maleh ha-yad - a handful.” One is not supposed to “evacuate” on a ploughed field on Shabbat, lest it cause a clod of dirt to fall in a hole and qualify as the forbidden action of ploughing; nor should one cleanse with a potsherd – not because of any danger or suspicion of witchcraft, nor because it might unintentionally tear out hair, but because Rabbi Yokhanan said it lest you think that as a utensil, a shard would be permitted. In other words, they can’t find a real reason, but because a famous rabbi said it, they have to at least find a reason for why he said it even if not for the rule itself.
We also find Rabbinic advice for avoiding takhtoniot, or hemorrhoids – do not eat leaves of vines or reeds, the spine of a fish, or drink the lees of wine; and do not wipe yourself with lime, clay, or [read on at your own risk!] a chip one’s neighbor has already used. Now Rabbi Sheshet would allow this last case, since the stone would be evidently of a size permissible to handle on Shabbat since a previous user had already done so.
This entire question brings two thoughts to my mind. First, there has to be a limit to reusing items in the bathroom. When, a few years ago, my wife suggested that we start buying recycled toilet paper, I stared at her aghast until she quickly clarified that we should buy toilet paper made from recycled paper – I had obviously understood her very differently. Second, knowing how to wipe yourself is one of the basic steps to independence – at first you’re taught by a parent, but you soon figure out how to do it best for yourself. If we didn’t think the Talmud’s rabbis were a little anal retentive before now, it is certainly more plausible than ever before.
Rabbi Adam Chalom