Monday, September 28, 2009

Mind control — bathroom edition

Several years ago, Eytan Kenter gave the List College graduation speech in a towel. "90 percent of your best ideas come to you in the shower," he stated. "Now it's time to do something about those ideas."

He then threw the towel into the crowd.

And the crowd erupted in applause.

Using an informal poll, I've discovered just how right Eytan was — people really do some of the their best thinking in the shower.

For example, raise your hand if you have great ideas come to you in the shower.

I thought so.

But there is a legal prohibition against Torah study from entering the bathroom, either the toilet or the bath. There is an underlying ethos that because the bathroom is not a modest or respectful place, therefore Torah should not be present there — but it should be everywhere else. For this reason, for example, a mezuzah is not placed on the doorpost of a bathroom.

So clearly, that means that the Bible is not good bathroom reading. But does it really mean that even thinking Torah thoughts are forbidden? Even during my prime thinking time of the day?

What if these thoughts will ultimately help others? I should really censor these thoughts? After all, this differs dramatically from trying to censor thoughts which have the potential to inflict danger, as I discussed in the previous post. These are thoughts which have the potential to do a great service for people.

I don't have any answers to these questions, but come, let us explore.

The law originates in the Babylonian Talmud (hereafter referred to as the Bavli), Kiddushin 33a. The Gemarra (commentary on the Mishnah) itself notes that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary thoughts in the bathroom. As I'll note, this is not the way the law is codified, though. (The word "hirhurim" is also used here, the same as noted in the previous post).

From Kiddushin 33a:
ה"נ מסתברא, דאמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר' יוחנן: בכל מקום מותר להרהר, חוץ מבית המרחץ ומבית הכסא! דילמא לאונסיה שאני
For Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said: One may meditate/have thoughts [about learning] everywhere except at the baths and in the toilet room. [That however does not follow:] maybe it is different when [done] involuntarily. (Translation: Soncino)

There is a parallel text in Masechet Berachot, as well:
ברכות כ''ד:ב
ומי אמר רבי יוחנן הכי? והאמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן: בכל מקום מותר להרהר בדברי תורה - חוץ מבית המרחץ ומבית הכסא

Berachot, 24b
Who said that Rabbi Yochanan spoke thusly? Rabbah Bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: In every place it is permissible leharher with words of Torah — except for the bath house and the toilet room.

Commenting on the Kiddushin text, Rashi (Rabbi Shelomo ben Yitzhak, 11th c. Provence) explains that involuntary thoughts (literally, thoughts "which are forced [into the mind]) occur against peoples' wills sometimes. Even when one specifically decides at the entrance to the bathhouse/modern bathroom that she is not going to think about such topics, sometimes they force their way into her mind and she thinks about them.

לאונסיה שאני - פעמים שהוא טרוד ומעיין בשמועתיה לפני כניסתו למרחץ, וע"כ היא שגורה בפיו ולבו ומעיין בה בבית המרחץ.

Legal exegesis of this concept:

Below are a series of the major Medieval legal exegetes and how they rule on the above question of excising particular thoughts from the bathroom.

Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (hereafter referred to as the Rif, 11th c. Morocco) codifies the legal portion of this Talmudic argument with Rabbi Yochanan's statement that it is forbidden to have hirhurim in the bathroom.

רי''ף, מסכת ברכות, פרק ג
אמר רב הונא תלמיד חכם אסור לעמוד במקום הטנופת שאי אפשר לו בלא תורה. ואמר רבי יוחנן בכל מותר להרהר חוץ מבית המרחץ ומבית הכסא

Ri''f, Masechet Berachot, Chapter 3
Rav Huna said: A talmid hacham (wise one) is forbidden to stand in a place of excrement, because it is impossible for him to be without Torah (ie. existentially, he is a person of Torah knowledge and will always think Torah thoughts). And Rabbi Yochanan said: In all places, one is allowed to have hirhurim — except in the bath house and toilet room.

As codified in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (12th c. Spain, Egypt, hereafter referred to as Rambam) the laws about proper intention while in the bathroom are listed under the "Laws of Keriat Shema" (reading the Shema) because the Shema requires particular intention in its recitation. The Rambam codifies the mahmir (stringent) opinion in the Gemarra, which forbids even thinking "Torah thoughts" while in the bathroom, or in the vicinity of it, for that matter (Hilchot Keriat Shema 3:4).

רמב''ם ,הלכות קריאת שמע ג:ד
ולא קריאת שמע בלבד אלא כל ענין שהוא מדברי הקדש אסור לאומרו בבית המרחץ ובבית הכסא ואפילו אמרו בלשון חול, ולא לאמרו בלבד, אלא אפילו להרהר בלבו בדברי תורה בבית הכסא ובבית המרחץ...

Rambam, Laws of reading the Shema

This does not apply only to reciting the Shema, rather any aspect [which could apply as] "Holy words" is forbidden to say in the bath house (referring Greco-Roman-style of the Rabbinic age, but applying to any parallel of the particular time) and in the toilet room. And it is even forbidden to say it in a mundane language (anything other than Hebrew). And not only is saying it forbidden, but even to think words of Torah in his heart while in the bath house or toilet room is forbidden...

The Shulkhan Arukh (edited by Joseph Karo, Spain/Tzfat, 15th c.) rules almost identically as the Rambam, which can be seen clearly here — don't even THINK about it.
שולחן ערוך, אורח חיים, פ''ה: ב
אפי' להרהר בד"ת, אסור בבית הכסא ובבית המרחץ ובמקום הטנופת, והוא המקום שיש בו צואה ומי רגלים. הגה: ואפי' הלכות המרחץ אסור ללמוד במרחץ (ר"ן פ' כירה וב"י בשם א"ח). דברים של חול, מותר לאמרם שם בלשון הקדש...
Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, 85:2
Even thinking about words of Torah is forbidden in the toilet room and in the bath house and in a place of refuse, defined as a place where there is feces and urine.

Okay, not that much difference, except for the extra details I gave you, which had previously been after the ellipses of the Rambam passage. But here's where it gets interesting.

How exactly do we define Torah? The Hebrew Bible? Halakhic texts? The gamut of philosophy in the Jewish tradition?

Tradition Renewed?

Hebrew grammar?

Yes, that's right.

As an individual who is particularly fond of grammar in any language, amen to that? (I should note that in seventh grade, my dad asked my English teacher if we would be learning to diagram sentences and he was extremely disappointed when the answer was no. "They're very important," he retorted. The dinner table made up for what we lacked in class. In 10th grade, Dr. Hemminger gave me the title "Grammar King," I'll have you know. Such nachas). It should be noted that my love of Hebrew grammar pales in comparison to those who have named their blog after a favorite vowel/grammatical form.

In his commentary on this section of Shulkhan Arukh, the Mishnah Berurah (R. Yisrael Kagan, 19th c. Poland) says that while one is in the bathroom he may not think about Hebrew grammatical details, such as verb tables, because that might lead the individual to think of a Biblical verse with similar constructs.

משנה ברורה פה:ה
בד"ת - וכן אסור לעיין בבה"כ במשקלי השמות והפעלים של לשון הקודש שאין דרך להגיע לידיעה רק ע"פ הכתובים ויבוא להרהר במקרא
Mishneh Berurah 85:5
It is forbidden to study Hebrew noun and verb tables in the bathroom, because there is no way to prevent one from only thinking about the Writings as they are related to the particular word, and he will come to think about the Torah...

I must note that this example is slightly different than my previous ones. One does not refrain from thinking about Hebrew grammar because this in itself is legally problematic. Rather, doing so is a harhaka (distancing) from breaking the actual law of thinking Torah thoughts in a location which is not suitable for them. For grammar aficionados (I'm looking at YOU, Emily Cook), it's also entertaining.

I don't know what it is about the shower that provides such fodder for thought. If you do, please share. Any general comments on such a prohibition?

More examples to come.

1 comment:

  1. Shana Tova, Zach! I'm very much enjoying your blog, and appreciate the shoutout :). Can't wait to read more!