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Simanim 92-93 Bodily Cleanliness for Tefilla

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #53:Simanim 92 and 93

Pages 248-252


by Rav Asher Meir



            I am always grateful for the letters I receive from students.  I try to answer them promptly; please bear with me if some letters get a late response.  A few people have written to tell me that my abbreviations are not always understood.  Here is a glossary:


The fixed abbreviations are:

MB - Mishna Berura

BH - Bi'ur Halakha

SA - Shulchan Arukh


The four parts of the SA:

OC - Orach Chaim (this is the section which the Mishna Berura is written on);

YD - Yoreh De'a - most of YD deals with categories of "permissible" or "forbidden," as opposed to OC which says when to do what.

EHE - Even HaEzer - men-women issues and personal status;

CM - Choshen Mishpat - monetary laws - who wins in court.


Also: KS is "Keriat Shema."





            There are various sources relevant to this siman:


"Do not degrade [teshaktzu] your spirits with all crawly bugs, do not make yourselves tameh from them, to be stupefied [ve-nitmatem - this also means to become tameh] through them." (Vayikra 11:43)


"Distinguish between the fit and the unfit beast, and between the unfit and fit fowl; do not degrade [teshaktzu] your spirits with beasts and fowl and with whatever crawls on the ground, which I have designated to you as unfit." (Vayikra 20:25)


            In context, this refers to eating carrion and insects. The Torah likens game (undomesticated beasts) also to carrion.  But from the context it is clear that the reason we refrain from eating these things is in order to be elevated and dignified (see Bava Metzia 61b), and the gemara explicitly extends the prohibition to other areas of undignified conduct:


"Rav Achai said: One who delays elimination transgresses 'Lo teshaketzu.'  Rav Bibi bar Abaye said: One who drinks from the blood-letters cup transgresses 'Lo teshaketzu.'"  (Makkot 16b)


            Note that this is not referring specifically to holding in waste matter while praying.  Rather, putting off eliminating uncleanness is considered degrading anytime.  (We mentioned in a previous shiur that this does not apply to holding in gas, which is not uncleanness with substance.)  The inference regarding prayer is in a different gemara (Berakhot 23a):


"It is taught [in a beraita]: One who needs to eliminate should not pray, and if he prays, his prayer is an abomination [to'eva].  Rav Zevid, and some say Rav Yehuda, said: This is only if he can not hold himself, but if he can hold himself, his prayer is prayer [bedi'avad].  And for long?  Rav Sheshet said: A parsa [parasang - about four miles]. ... R. Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: One who needs to eliminate should not pray, as it is said (Amos 4), 'Prepare yourself before your God, O Israel.'  And  R. Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: What is the meaning of the verse (Kohelet 4), 'Guard your steps [literally, your legs] when you go to the House of God?'  Watch yourself that you should not sin, and if you should sin, bring a sacrifice. ... Rav Ashi, some say R. Chanina bar Papa, said: Guard your orifices [of elimination - which are at the legs] when you stand in prayer before Me."


            Here the problem relates specifically to prayer. When one stands in prayer, it is not enough to be free of transgression, one must actively "guard" [shemor] oneself.  Before starting prayers, one is required to pause a moment to notice if he has a need to use the bathroom.  This requirement is implied in the MB (s.k. 8).  This problem exists even if there is no "bal teshaketzu" - as explained in the Rema (end of se'if 2).


            The MB (s.k. 7) mentions that when human dignity (kevod ha-beriot) is at stake, one may be lenient.  The source for this is Shabbat 33a, where we learn that Rava become ill from delaying elimination, because the students would crowd him with questions and he didn't want to excuse himself in front of all of his students.


            The usual rule is that maintaining dignity overrides any rabbinical prohibition, and in extreme cases overrides a Torah prohibition of "omission:" that is, one may transgress by NOT acting, if acting would involve a severe breach of dignity (see MB 13:15). But it never permits actually performing a transgression.


            In our case, we are being lenient in a case of COMMISSION - allowing study or prayer to continue.  This suggests that "bal teshaketzu" is only a rabbinical prohibition, at least in this context.  But actually, this inference is not obvious here.  The essence of the prohibition of "bal teshaktzu" is to maintain our dignity and not degrade ourselves; it could easily be that this particular prohibition is overridden even at a Torah level when it conflicts with fundamental dignity.  Alternatively, this could be considered a sin of omission since fundamentally he is transgressing by REFRAINING from going to the bathroom.  (Does the MB concur with this reasoning?  See s.k. 7.)


            I have heard in the name of our Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Lichtenstein, that "bal teshaketzu" applies to whatever is considered abhorrent to people.  Therefore, even bugs which are technically permissible according to the Torah, such as those which were not born on the ground (rather on plucked fruit or in wells - see SA YD siman 84), could be forbidden by "bal teshaketzu" in our day when people find them repulsive.


            The IDF used to have something called "mishma'at mayim" where water would be restricted, but now the opposite policy is in force: the commanders compel the soldiers to drink enough so that they will not become dehydrated.  But sometimes commanders (especially sergeants) can be strict about letting soldiers go to the bathroom.  Once when a sergeant ordered all soldiers to drink their canteens, a certain soldier (a friend of mine) refused to obey the order.  When an explanation was demanded, he said that he could not drink without making a berakha.  And why couldn't he make a berakha?  Because he was not being permitted to relieve himself!  This enraged the commander - which in this case was exactly what the soldier intended. However, from the strict halakhic point of view, this could possibly have been considered a case of "kevod ha-beriot." Without entering into the halakhic questions surrounding the extreme gravity of military discipline, it is at the very least embarrassing to be the only one in a unit neglecting an order.




            There is a certain ambiguity in our siman if there is a positive obligation to wash one's hands before prayer (since IF hands are dirty one must wash them specifically with water), or whether mere cleanliness is sufficient (see BH s.v. Ve-hisiach).  This ambiguity is resolved in siman 233:2.




            In se'if 7 we learn that any part of the body which is customarily covered, and also the scalp, are considered to be dirty and one who touches there needs to wash before learning Torah or reciting blessings.  Merely touching or rubbing the hair a bit is not included, but scratching the scalp is.




            The source is mentioned in the MB (s.k. 36, based on Bava Batra 10a).  The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (12:2) includes this halakha in the same paragraph as a related one: "It is proper to give charity before praying, as it is written (Tehillim 17:15), 'In righteousness [tzedaka] shall I behold Your face.'  One should also resolve to observe the commandment (Vayikra 19:18), 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' and should firmly intend to love every member of the Jewish people as his own self.  For if there is, God forbid, division among the hearts of Israel below, then even on high perfect unity is lacking."


            I have read that the source of this custom is from the Arizal (A-donenu R-av Y-itzchak Luria Z-ikhrono L-ivrakha - a contemporary and colleague of Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Arukh), but I do not know where it is written in his name.  Even without the tconsideration mentioned (which is beyond my ken), it makes sense that there is a severe deficiency in one's prayers if they are not uttered out of a feeling of complete solidarity with the entire Jewish people, since the prayers themselves are all formulated in the plural as requests on behalf of the nation as a whole.





            In my observation, this halakha is one which is somewhat neglected even among Torah scholars. The source is in tractate Berakhot:


"One should not approach prayers except in a frame of mind of gravity.  The early pious ones [chasidim] used to pause an hour and only then pray, so that they would have the proper intention of the heart towards their Father in heaven." (Mishna, Berakhot 30b)


"It is taught (in a beraita): One should not approach prayers in the midst of judgment, nor in the midst of a halakha, unless it is a determined law (halakha pesuka)... One should not approach prayers in sadness, nor in sloth, nor in jest, nor in idle chatter, and not in levity...

The [mishna says that the] early chasidim used to wait before praying.  Where do we learn this from?  R. Yehoshua ben Levi said, from the verse (Tehillim 84), 'Happy [ashrei] are those that sit in Your house' [and only then, 'Forever may they praise You'].  And R. Yehoshua ben Levi also said: One who prays would pause for an hour AFTER his prayers, as it is said (Tehillim 140), 'The righteous will acknowledge Your name, [and then] they will sit straightforwardly before Your face.' ... It is taught [in a beraita]: The pious ones of old used to pause one hour, and then pray for one hour, and then go back and pause for one hour.  If they spent nine hours a day in tefilla, how was their Torah maintained, and how was their work accomplished?  Since they were pious, their Torah was maintained and their work was blessed." (Gemara, 32b)


            As is pointed out in the MB (s.k. 1), it is obvious from the beraita that the hours are real hours - "hour" is not just an expression for "some time."


            Surprisingly, the same verse given as a source why we should ideally wait a full hour before praying, is also brought as the reason we pause for a few seconds before saying "Ashrei" - in order to say "Ashrei" itself.  That is, before we say psalm 145 at Shacharit (where it is the most important component of pesukei dezimra) and at Mincha (where it is the only psalm we say), we say two introductory verse from other places in Tehillim, the first of which is "Ashrei" - which itself is the source for not rushing into prayers. (Psalm 145 is CALLED "ashrei," but actually the word does not appear there.)


            The concern with praying in the midst of judgment or study (referring to a suit in Beit Din) is that one's mind will be preoccupied with whatever knotty question one was dealing with.  This problem does not arise with a simple, uncontroversial law - "halakha pesuka."


            It may be that the place of "judgment" at the head of the list is meant to hint to the fact that tefilla relates to the aspect of God's mercy, not His judgment.  On Berakhot 10a we learn that R. Meir used to pray for the demise of some wicked neighbors, until his wife Beruria explained to him that we pray for the demise of wickedness, not of the wicked.  (Even regarding R. Meir, the gemara says that he used to beg mercy on them for their demise, since the demise of the wicked is really mercy - Sanhedrin 71b.)  It is considered a grave crime to pray for misfortune to befall anyone, and some sources suggest that the misfortune is liable to befall the one who utters such a prayer.


            Jesting is in general not an activity encouraged by the Torah.  Even so, a little joke can help put the students in a receptive frame of mind for learning Torah (Shabbat 30b).  However, for tefilla, even this is inappropriate.


            According to some opinions, pesukei dezimra (or at Mincha, Ashrei) is itself meant to be a fulfillment of this halakha, just as some opinions say that the rule that one must pause for four paces after praying before moving is fulfilled by saying the "yehi ratzon" at the end of the Amida.  In that case, anyone who says pesukei dezimra or Ashrei is fulfilling this mandate and, strictly speaking, is not praying in the midst of levity etc.  (This view is mentioned in Tefilla KeHilkheta 7:64.)