Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Shabbat 82 – Successful Bodily Functions

Lest you begin to think that the Talmud’s excursions into the details of outhouse procedure are irrelevant to its overall project of explaining and exploring the Oral Torah given to Moses on Sinai, we find an amusing anecdote of a father-son dispute that also highlights the difference in mindset between Talmudic times and our own. Rabbi Huna once said to his son Rabba, “why don’t you go to study with Rabbi Hisda, who is such a wise man?” Rabba answers, quite understandably, “I go to him to learn Torah and holy things and he gives me milay d’alma. [translated by Soncino as “secular discourses,” literally “words of the world”] For example, he tells me ‘when you enter a privy, don’t sit down too fast or strain too much because you might dislocate one of the three glands in the rectum.” I can imagine teaching this in a Jewish adult education class today and getting shocked stares from an audience expecting something very different.

Rabbi Huna’s response is very telling – “he speaks of the life of God’s creations, and you think he’s teaching milay d’alma. All the more reason to learn from him!” In other words, even the most mundane, secular or even profane matter that has to do with God’s creation is fodder for religious exploration. Today we understand the world divided into “religious” matters and “secular” matters – working at our job, fixing our roof, going to the bathroom all in the latter category. While rabbinic Judaism did have words for “holy” [kodesh] and “secular” [khol], they didn’t really have the same sense, since even the “secular” was suffused with a sense of omnipresent and omnipotent divinity. It is only when our concept of God shrinks to accommodate to real-world experience that space for the “secular” is created.

Thus advice for the person who needs to “evacuate” but cannot (i.e. constipation) is not just advice, but part of the tradition of living a healthy life. One Rabbi suggests standing up and sitting down; another suggests moving side to side; and there is a dispute over whether concentrating on it or not thinking about it at all will be more helpful. There is even a traditional blessing for successfully leaving a bathroom with every tube and orifice in working order! And even the most secular of us may let out some religious vocabulary (from other religions too!) when we’ve had to go and finally have success.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For more on this topic, see my entry for Berakhot 60, which is also where the “bathroom blessing” is found. A traditional (and straight-faced) exploration of the “bathroom blessing” that contains its full text can be read at: