More Private Matters
Chapter 5, Law 6
"Torah scholars accustom themselves with great modesty. They will not
degrade themselves nor uncover their heads or bodies.
"Even when the Torah scholar enters the bathroom he will be modest and not
uncover himself until he sits. He will not wipe himself with his right
hand. He will distance himself from all others. He will enter an internal
room (lit., 'a room in a room') within a cave and relieve himself there.
If he relieves himself behind a wall, he will distance himself so his
fellow will not hear any sound if he passes gas. If he relieves himself in
a valley, he will distance himself so his fellow will not be able to see
his wastes. He will not speak when he is relieving himself even for a
great need. Just as he accustoms himself with modesty in the bathroom
during the day, so too during the night.
"A person should always train (lit., 'teach') himself to relieve himself
only in the morning and evening (i.e., early and late) so that he will not
have to distance himself [from others]."
The Rambam here is continuing to discuss the more refined behavior
appropriate for the Torah scholar. This week we again discuss the
scholar's private behavior -- this time a subject even less appropriate
for public discourse.
I'd like to begin by explaining a few quick surface issues which may be
unfamiliar to my readers. We'll then address this topic on a more
philosophical level (yes, really!).
First of all, as I'm sure all of you know, the Rambam lived long before
indoor plumbing and flush toilets (which only became widespread a century
or so ago). (I doubt even my oldest readers remember the days of
outhouses -- unless you hail from some underdeveloped part of the world.)
People would have to find a quiet but not too distant place to relieve
themselves. The Rambam here advises that one find a private indoor place
such as a cave, but if impossible, one should distance himself so as to be
as invisible to others as possible.
During the night the Talmud (Brachos 62a) states that one need not
distance himself as much as during the day, since people are much less
visible. Yet, advises the Talmud (and the Rambam here), one should be
equally modest in all other ways -- such as covering himself and behaving
Finally, the Rambam, also based on Talmud Brachos 62a, instructs that the
Torah scholar not wipe himself with his right hand. (In general, the right
side is considered more important than the left. See Talmud Sotah
15b: "Any turn that one turns should be only to the right.") The Talmud
offers a number of reasons why it is inappropriate to use one's right hand
for such an activity, ranging from the spiritual to the practical, as
follows: since the Torah was given from G-d's right hand (see Deut. 33:2);
since one typically uses his right hand for eating; since one ties his
Tefillin (phylacteries) with his right; or since a person shows the
Torah's incantations with his right hand.
Now onto something a little deeper. One of those perverse theological
questions people never think to ask (until I came along, that is) is why G-
d willed it that man must go to the bathroom. Of course, scientifically we
know just what happens and why (as well as the many things which can go
wrong), but certainly G-d could have easily done things differently,
creating man (or his food) in such a way which precludes producing wastes
which must be discarded.
(Keep in mind as well that the Sages state that the Manna Israel ate in
the desert did not produce any wastes (see Talmud Yoma 75b) -- one reason
why Israel complained about the "light bread" they were forced to subsist
on (Numbers 21:5, see Rashi there). Purely spiritual food ("soul food?")
can theoretically produce no wastes while nourishing man, both body and
soul. And though in a sense this was too good to be true, some of our
number were so unaccustomed to it that to them it was intolerably bizarre.)
There's a curious contradiction in the some of the statements of the Sages
regarding bathrooms (there are several actually). On the one hand, a
bathroom is considered an "unholy" ("tamei") place. One may not utter
words of Torah or prayer in or near a bathroom (see Talmud Brachos 24b).
One must also wash his hands upon exiting a bathroom, according to some
even if he entered without using the facilities. Finally, Jewish law
strongly disapproves of "holding it in," (I'm sure there's a more
scientific way of saying it, but it escapes me just now...) stating that
if one initiates his prayers when he requires the bathroom his prayers are
an abomination (Talmud Brachos 23a). Clearly, anything associated with
restrooms and defecation is antithetical to religion and spirituality.
Yet on the other hand -- and this one is really wild -- the Talmud
(Brachos 57b) lists various items or experiences in creation
which "resemble the World to Come" ("mai'ain olam haba"), and one of them
is relieving oneself. (The other two are the Sabbath and the sun.) I
suppose one could explain simply that for some it's such a relief to have
a BM that it's a heavenly feeling. But I actually feel the message here is
(You'll pardon my humor, but actually, I'm repressing a lot of poor-taste
wisecracks here... ;-)
There is a general concept in creation that everything G-d made is for a
purpose. Nothing would exist in this world if G-d did not have some reason
for its existence. Everything must have some place in G-d's scheme for the
In a sense, however, there is one exception to this: human excrement. When
man eats, everything beneficial and usable from man's food is consumed and
digested. The body extracts everything it can possibly make use of (and
often things it would be better off without). Man's wastes, by contrast,
represent that part of the food which has no redeeming qualities, which
serve man no purpose whatsoever and so must be excreted. They thus
represent purposelessness in this world, things which have no function in
G-d's universe. They are thus anti-existence, hearkening back to the
nothingness which preceded Creation. They are perhaps the only existent
matter on earth which stand in contrast and in opposition to G-d's plan
for creation, which represent existence without purpose.
Thus, the bathroom and excrement are "unholy" / "tamei": they are anti-
life. Divine service cannot be performed in their proximity, nor can one
pray to G-d when his body contains such wastes. Devotion to G-d can in no
way coexist with matter which denotes purposeless reality.
On the other hand, relieving oneself -- removing such wastes from one's
system -- resembles the World to Come. Disassociating oneself from
meaninglessness provides a taste of Heaven -- a place in which man (those
of us who will merit) will live in a truly real state -- of complete
connection with G-d. Further, the more we recognize that that which has no
purpose must be discarded, the more attuned we become to the purpose of
existence, and ironically, the more ready we become to ultimately cleave
to G-d in the hereafter.
So, actually a fascinating insight relating to one of our least
philosophical activities, to something we all live with but attach very
little significance to.
It's interesting to note, in addition, that man often wants to deny this
basic message. There's a lot of bathroom humor out there. Additionally,
foul words (in all languages) almost invariably relate to the lowest parts
of man's anatomy and his crudest bodily functions. The reason is because
man has a deep-seated drive to deny his potential for greatness. On a
level, man would like to see himself as a purposeless being -- one not
bound by any morals or constraints. He is no more than an excrement-
producing machine, living without true connection to anything higher.
We likewise often find great scholars and intellectuals possessing awfully
foul mouths. I believe the message such people are subconsciously trying
to convey is that they may be smart and capable, but they're not "holy" --
nor does their higher IQ obligate them to be any more human than anyone
else. My intellectual greatness in no ways implies I have any connection
to -- or need to strive for -- eternality.
I believe the Rambam's advice here can best be understood in this light.
One must be modest in the bathroom, not drawing undue attention to
himself. Don't convey the message that you are a "bathroom person" -- that
this is who you are and how you view your role in the world. Don't
identify with the part of you that stands for emptiness and
purposelessness. We must rather see ourselves as living beings, connected
to the purpose of the world and striving for immortality. And with that,
one of man's most bodily acts can actually lead him one step closer to
Many of the above ideas are based upon various lectures given by my
teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu).
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org