Tamid 27b ~ Open Defecation

On Monday, the first day of the festival of Sukkot, we will study Tamid 27. So print this up to read as you sit in your sukkah, or visit a friend who has invited you in.

While hiking in Alaska many years ago, one of my sons noted that there was one big advantage about urinating outside. “You can’t miss.”

תמיד כז, ב

א"ל רב לחייא בריה וכן א"ל רב הונא לרבה בריה חשיך תקין נפשך וקדים תקין נפשך כי היכי דלא תרחק תוב וגלי כסי וקום 

Rav said to his son Hiyya, and likewise Rav Huna said to his son Rabba: Relieve yourself when it gets dark, and relieve yourself before day break, [even if you have no particular need to do so. The reason is that the streets are mostly empty at these times, and one can relieve himself near his home without concern that he might be seen. This is important,] so that you will not have to relieve yourself [during the day, when the streets are full,] and you will be compelled to retain your feces while you distance yourself, which is liable to jeopardize your health. [Furthermore, when relieving yourself, you should behave modestly.] Sit down first and only then uncover yourself; afterward, cover yourself first and only then stand up.

Open Defecation - a Worldwide Problem

In 2018 a small team of public health and civil engineering experts conducted a survey of open defecation in the American city of Atlanta. Yes. Atlanta. America’s 37th most populous city, and home to the busiest airport in the world. They identified and mapped thirty-nine open defecation sites, the majority of which were located within just 400 meters of a soup kitchen. San Fransisco has also been challenged with open defecation on its streets. An NBC report last year found more than “300 piles of feces” throughout the downtown area, leading Dr. Lee Riley, an infectious disease expert at the University of California to conclude that areas of the city are even dirtier than the slums in some developing countries.


As its name implies open defecation is the practice of defecating in the open environment rather than using any kind of toilet. Although great progress has been made in reducing the practice, it still remains a serious challenge to public health. India is likely to be the country that comes to mind in association with open defecation, but that country has in fact made tremendous strides. “Sanitation is more important than independence,” Mahatma Gandhi remarked at a time when more than three-quarters of the population defecated in the open. Just two weeks ago, on the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared India free of open defecation. India launched its Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign in 2014, and Modi claimed that since then “toilets have been provided to more than 600 million people in 60 months, building more than 110 million toilets…No one was ready to believe earlier that India will become open defecation-free in such a short period of time. Now, it is a reality.” Critics are not convinced that the rates of open defecation have fallen as rapidly as Modi claimed, but there is no doubt the country has made a remarkable effort to improve the situation. According to the World Health Organization, the campaign saved as many as 300,000 deaths.

Defecating in the open is as old as humankind. As long as population densities were low and the earth could safely absorb human wastes, it caused few problems. But as more people gathered in towns and cities, we gradually learned the link between hygiene and health and, in particular, the importance of avoiding contact with feces. Today open defecation is on the decline worldwide, but nearly 950 million people still routinely practice it. Some 569 million of them live in India. Walk along its train tracks or rural roads, and you will readily encounter the evidence.
— National Geographic Magazine, August 2017
The percentage of people defecating in the open air declined worldwide from 1990 to 2015, with the most dramatic reductions in some of the least developed countries. Yet nearly 950 million people still practice this public health hazard. From   National Geographic Magazine  , August 2017.

The percentage of people defecating in the open air declined worldwide from 1990 to 2015, with the most dramatic reductions in some of the least developed countries. Yet nearly 950 million people still practice this public health hazard. From National Geographic Magazine, August 2017.

Open defecation, as strange as this may sound to Westerners, offers young women a welcome break from their domestic confines and the oversight of in-laws and husbands
— National Geographic Magazine August 2017.

Bathrooms with locks - a Jewish gift to humanity

Two days ago we read a Mishnah that introduced a rather radical notion for the time: lockable latrine stalls. Here it is:

משנה תמיד כו,א

ומדורה היתה שם ובית הכסא של כבוד זה היה כבודו מצאו נעול יודע שיש שם אדם פתוח בידוע שאין שם אדם

And a fire was burning there [in a tunnel off of the the side of the Temple in Jerusalem]…and there was a bathroom of honor in the Chamber of Immersion. This was its honor: If one found the door closed, he would know that there was a person there, and he would wait for him to exit before entering.

Restored view of Ithidiki’s lavatory on Amorgos, built in the mid-4th century BCE. From G.P. Antoniou,   Lavatories in Ancient Greece.   Water Science and Technology, Water Supply 7:1; 156-164.

Restored view of Ithidiki’s lavatory on Amorgos, built in the mid-4th century BCE. From G.P. Antoniou, Lavatories in Ancient Greece. Water Science and Technology, Water Supply 7:1; 156-164.

This notion of privacy was not always shared. Prof Ann Olga Kolowki-Ostrow of Brandeis University is the world’s expert about Roman toilets, and author of the fascinating Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Toilets, Sewers, and Water Systems. Virtually every home excavated in Pompeii and Herculaneum has its own private toilet she notes, but the Romans used two terms for their toilets, latrina and forica. The latrina was found in a home or private space and was not publicly accessible, whereas the forica was an open plan multi-seat facility. In contrast, the Mishnah and this passage of Talmud remind us that for Jews, the toilet was supposed to be a very private space.

More Advice on Hygiene

Today’s page of Talmud continues with more advice about what today we would call hygiene:

שטוף ושתי [שטוף] ואחית וכשאתה שותה מים שפוך מהן ואח"כ תן לתלמידך 

When you drink wine, rinse the cup first and only then drink from it; after you drink, rinse the cup and only then set it back in its place. But when you drink water, it is not necessary to rinse the cup afterward; rather, pour out some of the water to rinse the rim of the cup, and afterward you may give the cup to your student, if he wants to drink.

The Essenes and Hygiene

Although ancient Judaism often encouraged frequent bathing and the washing of shared utensils, some sects really emphasized it. One of the most well known was the Essenes, a sect that broke away from Jerusalem and whose members lived around the Dead Sea from the second century BCE to the first century CE. It was this sect that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the these scrolls are strict rules for where the Essenes were allowed to defecate. According to a report published in Nature, these places had to be “far enough away from the camp not to be visible, sometimes as much as 3,000 cubits (1.4 kilometres) away in a northwesterly direction. They also had to bury their feces and perform a ritual all-over wash in the local waters afterwards.” The report continues:

At Qumran, following such instructions would take the Essene men to a nicely secluded spot behind a mound. And … the soil there bears the hallmarks of a latrine — and one not used by the healthiest of people.

Dead eggs from intestinal parasites, including roundworm (Ascaris), whipworm (Trichuris), tapeworm (Taenia) and pinworm (Enterobius vermicularis), were preserved in the soil. "If you look at a latrine from the past you will always find these parasites," comments Piers Mitchell, a medical practitioner and archaeologist at Imperial College London, UK.

It seems a pretty ordinary picture of ancient ill health, says Mike Turner, a parasitologist at the University of Glasgow, UK. He describes the pinworm rather aptly as "common as muck", adding that to use its presence to argue that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls is "an interesting bit of lateral thinking…”

[One researcher, J. Zias] is certain that the toilet was used by the scrolls' authors. He was already convinced that the Essenes lived at Qumran from previous studies of the local graveyard, which contains remains of almost exclusively men, which fits with the fact that the Essenes were a monastic sect.

What's more, the men buried there had an average age at death of 34, making them a sickly bunch. But it wasn't the toilet parasites that finished them off, Zias suggests, but their ritual of post-poo bathing in a stagnant pool.

Geography worked against the Essenes because the pool in which they cleansed themselves was filled with run-off collected during the winter months. "Had they been living in Jericho 14 kilometers to the north, where one finds fresh spring water, or in other sites whereby one has an oasis, they would have lived quite well," Zias says.

What rotten luck: a religious code that emphasized bathing, but not the cleanliness of the water itself.

Although it lacked any idea about the causes of communicable diseases, the Talmud sometimes contained what we now understand to be very good public health advice. And the requirement to remove human waste far from habitation predates the Talmud. It is found in the text of the Torah itself:

וְיָד֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לְךָ֔ מִח֖וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וְיָצָ֥אתָ שָׁ֖מָּה חֽוּץ׃ 

וְיָתֵ֛ד תִּהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֖ עַל־אֲזֵנֶ֑ךָ וְהָיָה֙ בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֣ ח֔וּץ וְחָפַרְתָּ֣ה בָ֔הּ וְשַׁבְתָּ֖ וְכִסִּ֥יתָ אֶת־צֵאָתֶֽךָ׃ 

כִּי֩ יְה-וָ֨ה אֱלֹקיךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ ׀ בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּֽילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֙יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ וְהָיָ֥ה מַחֲנֶ֖יךָ קָד֑וֹשׁ וְלֹֽא־יִרְאֶ֤ה

בְךָ֙ עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר וְשָׁ֖ב מֵאַחֲרֶֽיךָ׃

Further, there shall be an area for you outside the camp, where you may relieve yourself. With your gear you shall have a shovel, and when you have squatted you shall dig a hole with it and cover up your excrement. Since the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.

As we sit in our temporary dwellings and celebrate the festival of Sukkot, perhaps now is the perfect time to think about how fortunate we are that we no-longer have to dig our own outside latrines. It’s something that the Children of Israel, wandering for forty years in the desert, might have really appreciated.

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