Siman 76-78 Reciting Keriat Shema in the Presence of Filth

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #45:Siman 76-78

Pages 218-221


by Rav Asher Meir






            The subject of filth is covered in many overlapping simanim.  For instance, our siman contains a reference to the rule of "graf shel rei" (a chamber pot) at the end of se'if 3; the halakha referred to, however, is not found until many simanim later, in siman 87.


            The guiding principle is the one which opens our siman, quoting the gemara Berakhot 25b: the main problem of filth is its smell - actual or potential - so that if it is covered, or if it is out of sight and out of smell, there is no problem.  (One does have to distance oneself minimally from the smell - siman 79.)


            In a recent shiur, we cited the gemara (Berakhot 25b) which infers from the laws of "kedushat machaneh" - the sanctity of the camp (specifically a military encampment) that the problem of saying KS in the presence of immodesty is due to visibility ("lo yira'eh bekha" [Devarim 23:15] - immodesty should not be visible), whereas by filth the problem is solved by mere covering ("ve-kisita et tze'atkha" [Devarim 23:14] - "cover your excrement").




            A very important principle of faith is learned from these halakhot, and in fact the underlying idea is controversial.  We can introduce the idea by examining the rule of learning Torah silently:


Torah and other "divrei kedusha" may not be UTTERED in the presence of immodesty , nor in the presence of putridity.  What about merely contemplating Torah and kedusha?  Here there is a difference: in the presence of immodesty it is permissible (65:29 in MB) as long as there is no problem of immodest thoughts, but in a filthy place it is impermissible - siman 85.


            The problem regarding erva is "lo yira'eh bekha," that the erva should not be seeable.  KS is forbidden in the presence of erva even when there is no one else present; the source of the prohibition is that one is in a shameful state vis-a-vis others.  This is a problem for speaking, which is a form of communication between people, but not for contemplation, which is purely internal.


            What about uncleanness?  Why should even THINKING about Torah be wrong in the presence of filth?  Isn't it true that God's presence is everywhere?  This is actually a perplexing problem.  When the early Chasidim started to expound God's omnipresence, as emphasized especially in the Kabbala (as taught in the Zohar [Tikun 57] "leit atar panui minei" - there is no place empty of Him), the Vilna Gaon was reportedly concerned that the common people would misunderstand and ponder Torah in the bathroom - a very serious lapse, especially according to the Kabbala itself!


            Even though God's presence extends to everything He has created, not everything in creation brings man closer to an awareness of that presence.  On the contrary - some aspects of creation help us grow in holiness, and others distance us from it.  From our point of view, the material world is a mixture of good and evil.


            For instance, there is something very holy about food.  The gemara explains that before we make a blessing on food, it is considered "kodeshei shamayim" - sanctified to heaven!  (Berakhot 35a)  Yet part of the food is not assimilated into our bodies, nor is it consumed to fuel our service of God.  It is simply unfit to advance us in holiness, and is excreted.  (As opposed to the manna, which had no negative component and did not lead to excretions - Yoma 75b.)


            For this reason, what is excreted from the body becomes the very symbol of unadulterated evil.  (See Nefesh Ha-Chaim II:7.)  This is why an idolatrous religion like that of Ba'al Pe'or could turn elimination into an act of worship (Sanhedrin 64a), since the essence of pagan worship is precisely to ally its adherents with the forces of evil (see Orot Ha-Kodesh pg. 488).  (For this reason, the stricture of excrement does not apply to other issues such as mucus, blood and so on, which are not waste products per se but rather have outlived their usefulness.)


            The Torah on the contrary affirms the elevation of the potential for holiness in the material.  We are required to learn Torah when we eat (Avot 3:3), to emphasize that we intend to ally ourselves with the good in the food - the aspect which will make us grow in holiness.  Otherwise, we may give the impression that we intend to assimilate the negative aspects of the food - and that would be like eating excrement, as it explains there in the mishna in Avot.  (This is elaborated upon in Ruach Ha-Chaim III:3.)  The mishna itself compares this to idol worship (zivchei metim).


            According to the same principle, learning Torah in the presence of filth could suggest that the Torah itself was God-forbid allied with the power of evil.  According to what we have explained, this would be almost like idolatry.


            If SOMEHOW one's Torah thoughts were freed from this implication, the severity of the problem would be less - and this principle finds expression in the halakha.  One is in our siman, 76:5.  Another application is in MB 85:8.


            Our Rosh Yeshiva Rav Amital reminds the students every year that even though Judaism affirms the potential for good in the material, and is not an ascetic religion, we are very far from "Pe'or-ism" and its modern offshoots which in effect worship nature and refuse to view it through the prism of values, religious or even humanistic (simple human dignity dictates modesty in performing bodily functions).


            (This principle also holds the key to understanding a very cryptic aggada on Berakhot 57b.)


            Note that in Gan Eden before the sin, Adam and Chava were naked, but they were not ashamed.  There is no inherent shame in nakedness; however, after the sin this state is a reminder of the base elements that entered human nature at that time.  But in Gan Eden there was no filth.  The food they ate, like the manna, consisted only of elements which advance holiness.  (See Nefesh Ha-Chaim II:6 in the gloss, and Ruach Ha-Chaim III:3.)  The  need for elimination is a symptom of the presence of sin in the world.




            A simplistic understanding of 77:5 could give the impression that before the days of baby wipes (not to mention before the days of toilet paper) nobody could ever have said KS except right after a bath.  Look at s.k. 10 in the MB and you will see why a thorough wiping may be sufficient.




            Some people check the baby's diapers before making kiddush etc.  Although it is praiseworthy to be clean, if there is no smell, any filth is usually covered by the diaper, so such a check is not really necessary.




            "If one prayed and then found excrement nearby: Raba says, even though he transgressed, his prayer is valid.  Rava objected: Is it not written 'The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination.'  Rather, Rava said, because he transgressed, even though he prayed, his prayer is an abomination." (Berakhot 22b)


            Why is one who prayed and then found his place dirty "wicked?"  After all, we just learned in se'if 7 that one is not required to check the house for dirt before KS!  (The source is the gemara Berakhot 25a.)


            Several Rishonim do in fact infer from this that the gemara is only talking about someone who is really wicked - but someone who said KS in a house where no checking is necessary, has fulfilled his obligation.  This is the approach cited in the Beit Yosef and ruled in the Shulchan Arukh.


            However, the Shita Mekubetzet makes the exact opposite inference.  The gemara can't really be talking about someone wicked - after all, checking is not necessary and the one who prayed and then found dirt is not wicked at all!  It must be that one's prayer is an abomination even if one had no requirement to check beforehand.  The Meiri also rules this way.


            There does seem to be a difference between the two approaches.  The Shita Mekubetzet seems to attribute the disqualification of the prayer to the very fact that uncleanness was there.  No element of guilt is implied.  Whereas the Meiri seems to suggest that even though there is no requirement to check, a certain amount of negligence is evident, since after all uncleanness was present.


            At any rate, the halakha is like those Rishonim cited in the Beit Yosef and the MB: only if there was a priori negligence in failing to check a place where there is a reasonable probability of finding a problem is one's prayer disqualified.


            The gemara refers to prayer, but the commentators assume that the rule of KS (and other blessings and prayers) is the same.