Thoughts to Ponder Number 59

20 Elul, 5760; September 20, 2000

Surround Yourself with Cleanliness,
A Project of Common Interest

"Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays,
for cleanliness is made an essential
and godliness is regarded as an offence."
C.K Chesterton, On Lying in Bed, Tremendous Trifles, 1909.

Judaism has been known throughout the centuries for its emphasis on a high level of cleanliness. Religious Jews were often seen as people whose hygienic standards were far more advanced than those of most other peoples were. Indeed, thousands of years ago, Jewish law had already developed a far-reaching codex for personal and environmental cleanliness that may surprise many of those who, in the Twenty-first century, are highly active in this field.

Besides numerous laws prohibiting the destruction of nature and natural resources, pollution and all sorts of nuisances, there are laws guaranteeing the preservation of animal life and the cleanliness of the home and the public domain.

In a most fascinating narrative, the Talmud tells of the great Rabbi Huna who asked his son why he was not attending the lectures of Rabbi Chisda, who was a younger, brilliant colleague. The son, in his innocence, answered that he wanted "to hear words of Torah and not about worldly matters." Taken aback by this response the father asked his son which "worldly matters" Rabbi Chisda was actually discussing. The son responded that the sage was discussing matters concerning cleanliness in the toilet and bathroom and even how to behave oneself in those quarters of one's home. After hearing this, the father exclaimed, "Here are matters of life and death (and thus of Torah), and you call them worldly matters!!" (Shabbath 82a)

On another occasion, the Mishna (Baba Metzia 10:5) states that "it is not permitted to soak clay in the public highway…During building operations, stones (and other building materials) must be deposited immediately on the building site (and not left on the road)." Obviously, this also includes matters such as dropping bottles in the public domain without bothering to pick up the pieces (Baba Kama 29b). The purpose of this is not only to protect the public against injury, but also to enforce matters of cleanliness.

With their keen insight into human nature, the sages took such regulations far beyond the parameters of bodily and environmental hygiene. They understood the direct impact of these laws on the mental condition of human beings. The Talmud (Nedarim 80b) quotes an earlier source which states that if a spring serves as a water supply for two towns but does not have sufficient water for both, the nearer town takes precedence for all its needs such as drinking water, animals, laundry, etc., and the other town will have to find other ways to get sufficient water. This is true when both towns' needs are identical. However, when it is a question of choosing between the farther town's drinking water and the nearer town's laundry, then the farther town's drinking water comes first.

To our surprise, another sage, by the name of Rabbi Jose, objects to this rule and states that even in the last case the nearer town has precedence! The Talmud, explaining the reasoning of R. Jose, refers to a statement of the famous authority, Shemuel, who says that the constant wearing of dirty clothes causes depression and mental instability!

In other words: there is really no significant difference between man's needs for drinking water and for wearing clean garments.

It was the great halachic authority, Rabbi Ahai Gaon (8th century) who stated that the law is like Rabbi Jose's opinion (She'eltoth: Re'eh, 147). A wealth of similar laws and observations are to be found throughout traditional Jewish literature.

It is consequently difficult to understand why these matters are, again, (like the importance of beauty, art and music, see Thoughts to Ponder 58) consistently ignored by so many religious communities and educational programs. While secular observers may be incorrect when they claim that in orthodox communities one finds more scattered litter and garbage lying in the streets than in secular communities, it cannot be denied that in communities which are so committed to Torah and Tradition these laws do not get the attention they require.(1)

If anything, in orthodox neighborhoods streets should look cleaner than anywhere else. While it is true that many orthodox families are blessed with many children, and poverty increases the possibility of dirt, it is incomprehensible why rabbis and other religious teachers do not speak out on this on a regular basis and try to install a level of observance in this field. To deny this part of Jewish teaching is most dangerous and reminds us of the selective attitude towards mitzvoth for which the reform movement is often correctly criticized.

Living in highly polarized Israeli-Jewish society, it may be suggested that this matter may give an opportunity to bring the religious and the secular Jews together. (2) It may be very worthwhile to collect all Jewish traditional sources on this topic and create study groups around the Jewish communities in the world and especially in Israel. It will impress the secular community of the wisdom of Judaism, and it may teach the religious communities how much harder they have to work before they can fully claim to be the official spokesmen of Torah values.

(1) See the excellent essay by Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld and Dr. Avraham Wijler: The Ultra Orthodox Community and Environmental Issues, Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, no 415, 21 Tishrei, 5760, October, 1999.

(2). Ibid .

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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