To the best of my knowledge, there is no other religion that has a blessing upon taking care of one’s business. Washing hands after relieving oneself is just good hygiene and probably prescribed by many religious orders, but saying a blessing prior to and after a visit to the loo is, to my mind, unique to Judaism. [students of comparative religion and anthropologists: please correct if you know differently].
For better or worse, we no longer recite the prayer before entering a bathroom (in Hebrew בית הכסא lit. house of the chair) , but the prayer prescribed after-the-fact is not only still recited by the faithful, but preserved in the standard prayer book and part of the daily morning prayers. It is called Ashar Yatzar (אשׁר יצר ) Here is the text of the prayer:
Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for one hour). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.
ברוך אתה ה’ א-להינו מלך העולם אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה וברא בו נקבים נקבים חלולים חלולים גלוי וידוע לפני כסא כבודך שאם יפתח אחד מהם או יסתם אחד מהם אי אפשר להתקיים ולעמוד לפניך (אפילו שעה אחת ***) ברוך אתה ה’ רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות
All bathroom humor aside… the blessing is actually quite beautiful and the English does not do it justice. “many openings and many hollows” actually echoes the biblical method of emphasis by repeating a word (Epizeuxis) such as “Justice Justice shall you [certainly] pursue of Deut. 16:20. Or more appropriately, think of Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” Here it is “openings and [more] openings, hollows and [more] hollows… it is a paean of awe to the workings of the human body, in all it’s incomprehensible and unquantifiable complexity. No wonder so many Jews became doctors!  From the most humble and humbling activity comes a prayer of radical wonder.
The Talmud records the discussion regarding the exact text of the closing benediction.
How does the blessing conclude? Rab said: ‘[Blessed art Thou] that healest the sick’ (רופא חולים). Said Samuel: Abba has turned the whole world into invalids! No; what he says is, ‘That healest all flesh’. R. Shesheth said: ‘Who doest wonderfully’. R. Papa said: Therefore let us say both, ‘Who healest all flesh and doest wonderfully’.
אמר רב רופא חולים אמר שמואל קא שוינהו אבא לכולי עלמא קצירי אלא רופא כל בשר רב ששת אמר מפליא לעשות א”ר פפא הלכך נמרינהו לתרוייהו רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות
According to Rab, this could have been our blessing for the healing of the sick.. The final form of the blessing relates to healing and wonder, in equal measure.
According to Maimonides , we recite the Ashar Yatzar in conjunction with the other blessings upon rising and dressing, but according to our prayer book, the Ashar Yatzar is placed right before the prayer for learning Torah. The irony is not missed by Ellen Frankel, a commentator in the My Peoples Prayer Book series, who also brings a feminist perspective to her comments. She writes:
“what a strange juxtaposition it is – thanking God simultaneously for teaching us Torah and for giving us internal plumbing that works! Could any two spheres be further apart? And yet in this odd pairing we find the genius of Jewish prayer: on the one hand, if our tubes and valves fail to function, how difficult it is to focus our minds on study! But on the other, how healing it can be for us to “make the words of Your Torah sweet to us and to the house of Israel, your people,” despite physical distress.
Frankel continues: For women, whose anatomical system is far more complex than men’s, this blessing is especially meaningful. The very word for duct “n’kavim (נקבים), shares its root with n’kevah (נְקֵבָה), the Hebrew word for “female.”
Frankel goes on to point out, that while, by tradition, every human is a vessel and a void created to hold holiness and life, yet it is a woman whose spaces and hollows permits the birth and wonder of new life. For those of you who are students of Jewish mysticism, you certainly appreciate the meaning of a void and how mankind redeems the world through filling the void… מלא את החללל.. this sense of “hollows and hollows” חלולים חלולים was certainly not lost on the author of this prayer.
If I am even partially correct that this prayer does not exist or at least feature in other religions and cultures then I wunder … Did it come out of a vacuum, what were its author’s intentions? Were the original authors aware of it’s radical nature and potential for derision?
I first came across a derogatory reference to this prayer as an undergraduate student while reading… of all people, Karl Marx. It’s possible that this unique prayer was part of a long list, compiled by anti-Semites to demonstrate Judaism’s embrace of the physical, mundane and crass. It may be that it was his own innovation, due to a rabbinic background or a fixation on feces , but in one of his earliest works written in 1843 called: On the Jewish Question Karl Marx writes:
The monotheism of the Jew, therefore, is in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism which makes even the lavatory an object of divine law. Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society, and as such appears in pure form as soon as civil society has fully given birth to the political state. The god of practical need and self-interest is money. (see )
I would argue that it was Judaism’s embrace of the physical and material which made Marx possible. Afterall, it was Marx who championed Historical Materialism with its focus on material modes of production. Marx would not be the first thinker to distance himself and rebuke his mentors and those antecedent thinkers who influenced his thought. In fact the “Jewish Question” was itself a diatribe against his mentor Bruno Bauer. In any case, the uniqueness of Jewish law’s attention to the lavatory and the Asher yatzer and it’s materialism was noted in 19th century thought.
In a Pulitzer Prize (1974) work named The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker dedicates a complete chapter to the bathroom (The meaning of anlality). I quote this student of 19th century psychoanalysis at length because it seems to me, more than any contemporary thinker, Becker appreciates the significance of literature and, in our case, a prayer relating to the movement of the bowels. He writes:
The tragedy of man’s dualism, his ludicrous situation, become too real… We now understand that what psychoanalysts have called “anality” or anal character traits are really forms of the universal protest against accident and death. … To say that someone is “anal” meant that someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal. … We read that men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to have sealed up their anus and not to need to defecate. An obvious triumph over mere physicalness. Or take the widespread practice of segregating women in special huts during menstruation and all the various taboos surrounding menstruation….
Anality explains why men yearn for freedom from contradictions and ambiguities, why they like their symbols pure, their Truth with a capital “T”. …. The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture, all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is. …
Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams.
But even more immediately, it represents man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation; to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty, the veritable goddesses that beautiful women are; to bring this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles again within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out – the eye that gave even the dry Darwin a chill: to do all this, and combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us, and poets live to torture. pp 55 – 58
In my reading, the Ashar Yatzar prayer, by itself, embraces physicality and implicitly rejects a worldview that claims that the spirit, the intellect and beauty are all mocked by our finite, putrid and decaying nature. Combined with the prayer for Torah learning, the Ashar Yatzar is a radical rejection of any attempt to insert a wedge between body and soul.
But is my read, also the rabbi’s read? Did the authors of the Ashar Yatzar prayer recognize, nay, intend it to be such a rejection?
As they say in the Talmud…. Come and listen.
God instructs Moses to meet with Pharoah, in the morning at the Nile (Exodus 7:15)
Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand.
behold, he is going forth to the water: to relieve himself, for he had deified himself and said that he did not need to relieve himself; so, early in the morning he went out to the Nile and there he would perform his needs. — [from Mid. Tanchuma, Va’era 14; Exod. Rabbah 9:8]
הנה יצא המימה – לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו
Like Becker’s Chagga tribe, Pharaoh knew that gods don’t shit. If he wanted to be taken as a god, he needed to hide this aspect of his being. More importantly, for our purposes, the Rabbis who composed the Ashar Yatzar were aware of the conflict between the most basic bodily movement and any aspirations to godliness.
I will argue below, that for the authors of the Ashar Yatzar the emphasis on the wonder of man’s physicality not being at the expense of his spirituality differentiated Judaism from paganism but also differentiated Rabbinic Judaism from some emerging ascetic sects; namely the Essenes who are considered by many to be precursors of the early Christians.
It is only when we visit the “latrines of the Essenes” that we understand that the Ashar Yatzar was not simply an embrace of physicality.. it was a polemic against those that would have us deny our physical nature and aspire to be angels.
In The Jewish War, Josephus writes of Jewish sects in the First Century AD including the Essenes who, he explains, had a year-long trial before joining the sect in which they:
“Observe the same rule of life as the members, receiving from them a hatchet, the loin-cloth mentioned above and white garments.”.. He goes on to explain that “they abstain from seventh-day work more rigidly than any other Jews; for not only do they prepare their meals the previous day so as to avoid lighting fire on the Sabbath, but they do not venture to remove any utensil or to go and ease themselves. On other days they dig a hole a foot deep with their trenching-tool (for such is the hatchet they give to the novices) and draping their cloak round them so as not to affront the rays of the god, they squat over it; then they put the excavate soil back in the hole. On these occasions they choose the more secluded spots; and through emptying the bowels is quite natural they are taught to wash after it, as if it defiled them.” (See The War of the Jews, Excursus I – Jewish Sects)
To be sure, the Bible includes provisions to take care of one’s needs outside of the camp:
And thou shalt have a paddle among thy weapons; and it shall be, when thou sittest down abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee. (Deuteronomy 23: 14)
וְיָתֵד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ, עַל-אֲזֵנֶךָ; וְהָיָה, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ חוּץ, וְחָפַרְתָּה בָהּ, וְשַׁבְתָּ וְכִסִּיתָ אֶת-צֵאָתֶךָ
But this provision is only for an individual who becomes impure and in order to purify himself must leave the camp. (Deuteronomy 23:11)
It was the Essenes who universalized the shameful nature of the most basic bodily function to the extent that moving one’s bowels on the Sabbath became prohibited!
Josephus is no longer our only source for this animus to the anus… The Dead Sea scrolls provide additional support. Temple Scroll prohibits the act of defecating in the city of Jerusalem.
Note: While the rabbis refer to the bathroom as a “house of the chair” בית הכסא in the Dead Sea scrolls it is referred to as “place of the hand” מקום היד …
13 And you will make for them a place of the hand outside of the city where they shall go;
14 outside to the northwest of the city – houses with beams and pits in their midst
15 into which excrement shall drop and shall not be visible to anyone at a distance
16a from the city of three thousand cubits vacat
Similarly, the Qumran community built latrines to the northwest of Khirbet Qumran in the War Scroll:
6b And there shall be a distance
7 between all of their camps and the place of the hand two thousand cubits. And any immodest nakedness shall be seen around any of their camps.
(see A SCROLL IN ONE HAND AND A MATTOCK IN THE OTHER: LATRINES, ESSENES, AND KHIRBET QUMRAN by Ian Werrett, Saint Martin’s University for a review of the current literature/controversy over the Dead Sea Scrolls and this issue).
I believe that the Rabbis who wrote the Ashar Yatzar were profoundly aware of the asceticism, escapism and rejection of the physical that characterized the Essenes and the author’s of the Dead Sea scrolls, living in the desert. Which brings us to our closing text and the rejection of the Jewish version of the Greek’s nectar of the gods.
The Rabbis record a tradition whereby the manna contained nutritious matter only, without any waste products, so that during the whole time the Israelites lived upon it the grossest office of the body remained unexercised. The Israelites, nevertheless, complained of it [seemingly anticipating Modern medical science which suggests that the lack of microbes associated with feces would cause severe bowel problems]
but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nought save this manna to look to.’—(Numbers 11: 6)
וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה, אֵין כֹּל–בִּלְתִּי, אֶל-הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ
“Shall a human being not discharge of what he eats? our bowels will surely be swollen” (Yoma l.c.; Sifre, Num. 87-89; Tan., l.c.). see and see
שהיה המן נבלע באברים ולא היו צריכים לנקבים, והתאוננו שמכיון שאין מוציאים מה שמכניסים הלא עתיד המן לתפח כריסים, כי כלום יש ילוד אשה שמכנים ואינו מוציא.
According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Jews of the Exodus rejected the godliness of the manna for continence …which confirms the punch line of most Jewish bathroom humor and also confirms the intention of the Ashar Yatzar.
Ultimately, the Ashar Yatzar is a radical rejection of those who would have us be angels, of those who would have us live our lives devoted to a future life not confined to the physical and the material. To paraphrase the famous Midrash  … The angels want God to give them the Torah and not Moses. According to the Midrash, God asks the angels, do you earn a living that you need a commandment not to steal, do you eat that you need commandments on being kosher… to which I would add: do you crap that you need to elevate the mundane and spend a moment every morning in contemplation of holy crap?
 see BT Berachot 60b
On entering a privy one should say: ‘Be honored, ye honored and holy ones (angels) that minister to the Most High. Give honor to the God of Israel. Wait for me till I enter and do my needs, and return to you’. Abaye said: A man should not speak thus, lest they (the angels) should leave him and go. What he should say is: ‘Preserve me, preserve me, help me, help me, support me, support me, till I have entered and come forth, for this is the way of human beings’.
הנכנס לבית הכסא אומר התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון תנו כבוד לאלהי ישראל הרפו ממני עד שאכנס ואעשה רצוני ואבא אליכם אמר אביי לא לימא אינש הכי דלמא שבקי ליה ואזלי אלא לימא שמרוני שמרוני עזרוני עזרוני סמכוני סמכוני המתינו לי המתינו לי עד שאכנס ואצא שכן דרכן של בני אדם [ברכות ס ב]
Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 3) Misha Brura (Chovetz Chaim) writes that this is a prayer to God that the angels who accompany a person should wait until he returns from the bathroom. We no longer say it since people are no longer presumed to be God fearing people who have angels accompanying them. The Sharay Teshuva writes that many authorities disagree and say one should say this. (see note 1)
 Not surprisingly, on the previous folio of Talmud that establishes this blessing is a discussion which records rav Aha who takes the position (similar to the Christian Scientists) that people should not practice medicine and that healing should be left to God שאין דרכן של בני אדם לרפאות אלא שנהגו to which Abbai responds:
Abaye said: A man should not speak thus, since it was taught in the school of R. Ishmael: [It is written], He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed. (Exodus 21: 19) From this we learn that permission has been given to the physician to heal.
אמר אביי לא לימא אינש הכי דתני דבי רבי ישמעאל (שמות כא, יט) ורפא ירפא מכאן שניתנה רשות לרופא לרפאות
Mishneh Torah: Ahava: Tefilah and Birkat Kohanim – Chapter Seven Halacha 4
When one hears the crow of a rooster, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who gives the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.
When he puts on his clothes, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who clothes the naked.
When he puts his cloth on his head, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who crowns Israel in glory.
When he passes his hands over his eyes, he recites: [Blessed…] who opens the eyes of the blind.
When he sits up in his bed, he recites: [Blessed…] who unties those bound.
When he lowers his feet from the bed and rests them on the ground, he recites: [Blessed…] who spreads the earth over the waters.
When he stands up, he recites: [Blessed…] who straightens the bowed.
When he washes his hands, he recites: [Blessed…] who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding the washing of hands.
When he washes his face, he recites: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who removes the bonds of sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. May it be Your will, God, my Lord and Lord of my fathers, that You accustom me to the performance of [Your] commandments and do not accustom me to sins or transgressions. Cause the positive inclination to rule over me and not the evil inclination. Strengthen me in Your commandments and grant my portion in Your Torah. Allow me to find favor, lovingkindness, and mercy in Your eyes and the eyes of all who see me and bestow upon me benevolent kindnesses. Blessed are You, God, who bestows benevolent kindnesses.
Whenever one enters the toilet, before entering, he says:
Be honored, holy honorable ones, servants of the Most High. Help me. Help me. Guard me. Guard me. Wait for me until I enter and come out, as this is the way of humans.
After he comes out, he recites:
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who formed man in wisdom and created within him many openings and cavities. It is revealed and known before the throne of Your glory that if one of them were to be blocked or if one of them were to be opened, it would be impossible to exist for even one moment. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and works wonders.
When one fastens his belt, he recites: [Blessed…universe,] who girds Israel with strength.
When he puts on his shoes, he recites: [Blessed…universe,] for You have provided me with all my needs.
When he walks to depart on his way, he recites: [Blessed… universe,] who prepares the steps of man.
[Also,] every day, a person should recite:
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a non-Jew.
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a woman.
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has not made me a servant.
These eighteen blessings do not have a particular order. Rather, one recites each of them in response to the condition for which the blessing was instituted, at the appropriate time.
What is implied? One who fastens his belt while still in his bed recites [the blessing] “who girds Israel with strength.” One who hears the voice of the rooster recites [the blessing] “who gives understanding to the rooster.”
Any blessing in which one is not obligated should not be recited.
An insight into Marx’s psychology may be garnered by examining his attitudes towards bodily functions. According to Weyl “his favorite expression in his correspondence with Engels is “shit”. In his attack on the Jewish editor of the Daily Telegraph Marx wrote that just as “all the lavatories of London spew their physical filth into the Thames” so too did all the “social filth” pour into the “central sewer called the Daily Telegraph.” He suggested that, as Levy was the presiding alchemist of this sewer system, he should have a plaque on his office building inscribed “Wayfarer, stop and piss”. In attacks on everyone, Marx would call them “that shit”. Even when he was tired of writing his own books, he would describe his work as “this shit”. When an infant daughter died, Marx wrote Engels that “this time the whole shit has affected me deeply”. After his death, Marx’s youngest daughter made a diligent effort to piece together scraps of information about her late father’s childhood in Trier. Although she “idolized her father and made up the most beautiful legends” there is a ring of truth to this vignette of his childhood:
“I have heard my aunts say that as little boy, he was a terrible tyrant to his sisters whom he would ‘drive’ down the Markusberg in Trier at full speed. And worse, he would insist on their eating the ‘cakes’ he made with dirty dough and dirtier hands. But they stood the ‘driving’ and the ‘cakes’ without a murmur for the sake of the stories Karl would tell them as a reward for their virtue.”
Two familiar Marxian characteristics emerge from this story. First, Marx’s passionate need to dominate others; and second, his almost obsessional preoccupation with dirt and excrement, or as he would put it in his correspondence with Engels, crap (“Dreck“) and shit (“Scheiss“).
 Devarim Rabba, Parasha 2, Section 37
2 responses to “holy crap”
Don’t forget as well that the Talmud allows us not only to defecate on the sabbath but even to violate the sabbath for that purpose. The person who finds himself unprepared, away from a latrine, and outside an eruv may still carry stones and use them for this purpose. Thus even a biblical law is overturned to preserve the dignity of humans as we meet our physical needs.