Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
17 March 2020
“The Gemara relates: There was a particular eulogiser who went to eulogise an important person in the presence of Rav Nachman. Of the deceased, he said: This man was modest in his ways. Rav Nachman said to him (the eulogiser): did you go to the bathroom with him and know whether or not he was modest? As we learned, One can only describe as modest one who is modest in the bathroom, even when no one else is there.”
I am not drawn to toilet humour; too icky for me. I have therefore struggled through the copious passages in Tractate Berachot concerning defecation: the appropriate blessings to be recited in relation to visiting the lavatory, which directions to avoid (i.e. facing Jerusalem), and which hand to wipe your bottom with!
The concern of the rabbis is the serious pursuit of piety – even in the most unlikely of places, the toilet – and wellbeing. And I think/hope(?), their comments were also laced with humour.
At a time when we are obsessed with Coronavirus, the rabbis have a decent point: The hand we wipe with matters. It matters as we use our lead hand for matters that affect hygiene – eating – and in ritual reading Torah. The idea of saying a blessing when going to the toilet or at least afterwards as we wash our hands – a luxury the rabbis did not have – is perhaps the rabbis equivalent of reciting to two ‘happy birthdays,’ or whatever 20 second song aiding hand hygiene we have chosen.
Rav Nachman is commenting after a number of citations of students surreptitiously observing their Masters to learn what is the appropriate latrine etiquette. Therefore, how could the eulogiser know whether the deceased was ‘modest’ without having done the same!
There is an interesting halakhah that is derived from the following statement that “Just as the deceased are punished [they have died!]. so too are the eulogisers and those who answer after them [saying ‘amen’]”. The law code, Shulchan Arukh states: “One who eulogises the dead is prohibited from exaggerating excessively in practice of the deceased. Rather, one should mention their actual good qualities and embellish them a bit. They should not praise the deceased for qualities that they did not possess at all. If the deceased had not positive qualities, none should be mentioned. One who makes unfounded statements or extreme exaggerations in praise of the deceased brings punishment upon themself and the deceased.”
Whilst I am not a halakhic Jew, let alone Rabbi, I acknowledge and appreciate the universal wisdom contained in some of our chain of tradition. This particular observation very much informs my rabbinate. It also informs how I chair our COLRAC (LJ Clergy Conference). Our March agenda is full of considerations regarding death and mourning, from our liturgy to facilities of inclusivity at our funerals. As Liberal Jewish Clergy, we revisit our practices to insure that they remain consistent with our values as each generation understands them.
When we consider our hand hygiene and appropriate practices relating to death and mourning, we reflect the Liberal Jewish value of individual responsibility: educating oneself, seeking guidance from those with learning, and considering what life has taught us. Then acting for our own well-being and those around us. In that way we hope we bring berachot – blessings – to those who came before us and who will come after.
Follow Rabbi Aaron’s Daf Yomi journey through his blogs on the Liberal Judaism website
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