Thursday, December 20, 2007

Privy Counsel: Jewish Spirit Etiquette for the Toilet

[Toilet unearthed in the City of David. I'd be worried]

So, as a former Registered Nurse, I often emphasize to my congregants that Judaism is a spiritual tradition that embraces every aspect of what it means to be human. Hence, at Kol Ami we encourage use of the b'rukhah of Asher Yetzer ha-Adam, the blessing for having a bodily function.

This prayer is said once you have completed your business. But the Shulkhan Arukh, the 16th Century digest of Jewish law by the legal and mystic genius Joseph Caro, also reveals a more complex spiritual tradition concerning defecation. In 3:3 Caro states:

If one wishes to palpate the rectum with a pebble or a piece of wood in order to open up the hole, he should do so prior to sitting but not after sitting in order to thwart sorcery.

OK, so perhaps only a person with a medical background would care that Caro is talking about mechanical digitalization for the purpose of relieving constipation [1]. But that aside, what's with the threat of witchcraft while sitting on the john? Well first of all, Caro may simply feel the obligation to reiterate this bit of folkish advice because it appears in the Talmud and relates to his current topic of proper deportment in the toilet (see below). But that answer only defers our questions back 1200 years earlier. So what were the Talmudic Sages on about?

Well, it all starts with the indigenous Jewish tradition that we are surrounded by spiritual forces:

It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, if the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the demons. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left hand and ten thousand on his right hand (Berkhot 6a)

By the same token, we are also equally hedged around by guardian spirits:

For He will order his angels to guard you wherever you go (Ps. 91:11)

If a person makes himself to be a righteous person and speak the truth, he is given an Angel who guides him along the path of righteous people and truth is always spoken to him . If a person makes himself to be wicked, to corrupt and speaks lies, then an angel will be attached to him who will corrupt him/her and mislead them in life . If a person makes himself a "chasid" - an especially kind and thoughtful person, accepting everything painful, then a special angel is given to the person which can guide along the pathway of the exceedingly righteous, giving them strength to sustain any pain (Tana Deve Eliyahu Zuta 3:4)

But there are circumstances and places where that protection is weakened, or not applicable at all. Thus, it's considered impolite to force the angels to escort you to the restroom:

Upon entering a toilet, a person should recite:
Honor yourselves, honored ones, holy ones who serve Above. Give honor to the God of Israel, leave me alone until I enter and fulfill my desire, and then I will return to you (Ber. 60a).[2]

The result of this leaving our spirit guardians outside the door is that we are spiritually vulnerable while doing our business in a way we aren't at other times of the day. This negative force is personified as the sheid beit ha-kisei, the djinn of the privy.

In the same way one becomes vulnerable to spirits, one also is subject to assault by witchcraft or the evil eye (here's Caro's Talmudic source):

Palpate yourself before sitting, but do not sit and palpate, for if one sits and then palpates, should witchcraft be used against him, even as far away as Aspamia he will not be immune from it. And if he forgets and does sit and then palpates, what is his remedy? When he rises he should say thus: Not for me, not for me; not for takhtim, nor takhtim [literally, "bottoms"]; not for these nor any part of these; neither the sorceries of sorcerers nor the sorceries of sorceresses! (Ber. 62a)

The concern here is, quite literally, with creating an opening to attack. In other places in the Talmud, we learn that unclean spirits enter through the orifices of the body like the mouth and eyes. Apparently, so too the anus. Now that was the formula against witchcraft; this is a handy phrase against daemons:

For [defeating] a sheid of the privy one should say thus: 'On the head of a lion and on the snout of a lioness did we find the demon Bar Shirika Panda; with a bed of leeks I hurled him down, [and] with the jawbone of an ass I smote him' [3](Shabbat 67a).

But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If spells are good, amulets are even better:

Rabbah bar bar Hannah said: We used to walk behind R' Yochanan,
And when he needed to go to the bathroom -
When he was carrying a book of Midrash he'd give it to us.
But when he was carrying tefillin, he wouldn't give them to us.
He would say: “Since the Rabbis permit us [to take tefillin into a privy],
They will guard me [against demons]!” (Berakhot 23a-b)

From whence does all this anxiety come? I can only guess, but here again, I turn to my prior profession for insight. And in my experience, more than a fair share of medical misadventures happen in the loo - bleeding hemorrhoids, vagal responses that result in syncope and fainting, rectal prolapse from over-straining...the list goes on and on. And these don't even include the classic slip-and-fall. Turns out, just as our modern statisticians tell us, bathrooms are dangerous places.

Zal g'mor - to learn more, read the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

[1] inclusion of such toilet hygiene and health advice, shocking to the modern 'religious' sensibility, is completely in keeping with the dictum of the Talmudic Sage Rav Hiyya, who declared seemingly mundane matters that nevertheless "concern the well-being of all humanity" to in fact be equal to religious imperatives. No spirit-body dichotomy here.

[2] This passage provides one of the only recorded exceptions to the claim of the great J. Heinemann, ‘It is a well-known fact that there are no prayers from the Talmudic period which are addressed to intermediaries of any sort - neither to angels, nor to saints or patriarchs.’ That some Jews did, in fact, pray to their guardian spirits is demonstrated by the necessity of this prohibition the Palestinian Talmud: If a person faces trouble, he should not cry out to the angels Michael or Gabriel. But he should cry out to Me, and I will immediately answer him. In this regard [it says], ‘All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered’ Ber. 9:1 13a. While praying to intermediary spirits was generally frowned upon by the Sages, the Rabbis of Eretz Israel were apparently somewhat more doctrinaire about this then the Rabbis of Babylon.

[3] It is sometimes the case in Jewish ritual declarations that the phrases of the incantation are meaningless to us. The assumption is either that the words function like a passcode (Ever experience this? "Your proposed password is too weak; it should not include words found in the dictionary") or are encrypted to us but comprehensible to divine beings.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geoffrey -
Excellent post! I've covered it over at Jewschool, and there's a question in the comments I was wondering if you'd be able to answer.


6:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great title! Fascinating article!

10:17 AM  

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