Proof of the Oral Law

The Torah portion of Ki Teitzei contains a commandment for soldiers of the Israelite army to bury their excrement while out in the field (Deuteronomy 23:13). Years ago I was inspired by this verse to write a satirical piece entitled: "Proof of the Oral Law". If you don't have a sense of humor, please don't read it. My sarcasm not withstanding, every fact and source mentioned in the piece is genuine and accurate.

Warning: The following is satire, which may not be appropriate for younger and more sensitive readers. If you do not appreciate sarcasm, please stop reading. If the subject matter offends you, please be offended at the rabbis, ancient and modern, who have attributed such ludicrous things to our Creator and imposed them as heavy burdens on God's people. 

Proof of the Oral Law


Instructions on How to Relieve Oneself

by Nehemia Gordon

Oral Law, torah, law, instructions, god, blessing, forbidden, holy, Nehemia Gordon, Rabbanite, Karaite, keep the Torah, holiness, Moses, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, JewsThe basic Rabbanite argument which we Karaites are presented with over and over again, is how can we know how to perform the laws of the Torah without the detailed instructions contained in the Oral Law. For example, when the Torah tells us to build a Sukkah it does not inform us that the walls of the Sukkah must be taller than a certain minimum height and shorter than a certain maximum height.[1] These sophisticated and intricate details are only found in the Oral Law and without them we would not know how to properly keep the Torah. This is truly a convincing argument. Let us consider, for example, the laws surrounding the toilet. The Torah states:

"there shall be an area for you outside the camp, where you may relieve yourself. With your gear you shall have a spike, and when you have squatted you shall dig a hole with it and cover up your excrement." (Dt 23:13-14 [JPS])

So the Torah has a specific law about how to preserve the holiness of the army camp in which God walks (Dt 23:15). This is done by digging a hole and covering one's feces. Yet the Torah is completely silent on how to actually defecate! Surely God would not give such a law to Moses without detailed instructions of how to carry it out. Not surprisingly, these detailed instructions are actually preserved in the Oral Law! The following appears in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, a day-to-day practical guide on how to live according to the Oral Law, generally considered authoritative by Ashkenazic Jews:

Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, "Chapter 4: Behavior on the Toilet and Laws of the Blessing "Who has created":

"(Section 1) A person must make a habit of defecating in the evening and in the morning, which is quickness and cleanliness. If he is unable to defecate, he must walk four cubits, and then sit down and then stand up again until he is able to defecate, or he may distract himself with other things [in order to bring about defecation]. A person who refrains from relieving himself violates the commandment, "You shall not make yourselves abhorrent [by any bug that crawls on the ground]" (Lev 11:42). If he refrains from urinating when he needs to, he violates the commandment, "[You shall be blessed beyond all the nations;] there shall not be among you a barren man[, or a barren women, not even among your animals]" (Dt 7:14)."

"(Section 2) A person must be modest in the bathroom. He must not uncover himself until he sits down, and even then he must limit himself by only uncovering what is necessary to uncover, so as not to soil his clothing. He must be just as careful of this at night as during the day. If he defecates in an open place with no separating stalls, he must face southward with his backside to the north or vice versa, but it is forbidden to face east or west.[2] If there is a dividing stall he may face any direction as long as his backside is in the direction of the stall. One may urinate in any direction. One may not defecate in front of any person and it is even forbidden in front of a Gentile. Urination is permissible [in front of other people] even during the day in front of many people, if a person would endanger himself by holding back, but in any event he must urinate off to the side."

"(Section 3) One may not defecate standing up, nor may one force oneself by pushing too much, so as not to tear the rectum.[3] One may not hurry in leaving the toilet, until it is certain that he does not need to defecate any more. When a person urinates standing, he must be careful not to spatter on his shoes or his clothing. A person must be very careful not to hold his circumcision in his hand."

"(Section 4) It is forbidden to think about matters of Torah in the bathroom, therefore when a person is there, it is good to think about his business and finances, lest he end up thinking about Torah or God forbid thinking about sinfulness. On the Sabbath, when it is forbidden to think about business, a person should think about wonderful things which he has seen or heard and the like."

"(Section 5) A person must be careful to wipe himself well, for if even a drop of feces remains on the rectum, he is forbidden to speak any holy matter. A person may not wipe with his right hand because he ties his phylacteries with it. A lefty should wipe with his left hand, because it is equivalent to the right hand of the majority of people."

"(Section 6) Every time a person defecates or urinates, even a single drop, he must wash his hands with water and make the blessing "Who has created". If a person urinates or defecates but forgot to make the blessing "Who has created" and afterwards urinates or defecates a second time, and remembers that he forgot to make the blessing the first time, he still only needs to make the blessing once. A person who drinks a laxative and knows that he will need to defecate several times, should not make the blessing until he is completely finished."[4]

Now in light of the above we Karaites must admit that there is truly no way to keep the Torah without the Oral Law. Without the Oral Law we might think it permissible to defecate in the woods facing east or west, while in actuality this is "forbidden" (אסור). Without the Oral Law we would not know that the solution to irregular bowel movements is walking four cubits, and we might end up walking 3 cubits or no cubits at all, thus remaining constipated indefinitely. Without the Oral Law we would not have the good sense to avoid pushing so hard so as to tear our rectums (this holy instruction actually originates in the Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 82a). Without the Oral Law we would not know that when God blessed us with the blessing, "You shall be blessed beyond all the nations; there shall not be among you a barren man, or a barren women, not even among your animals" (Dt 7:14) He really meant that we are forbidden to hold back when we feel the need to urinate. Without the Oral Law we would not know that when the need arises we are in fact required by our religion to urinate without delay, even in public (try telling that to a cop!).

Of course, the Oral Law is vast and deep, so not surprisingly different rabbinical works contain slightly different instructions. Thus the Shulchan Aruch, the definitive legal compendium for all Rabbinic Jews (of which the previously quoted Kitzur Shulchan Aruch is an abridgement), contains the following holy teaching:

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim, Chapter 3 Section 3:

"If a person wants to poke around in his rectum with a pebble[5] or a stick, in order to open up his cavities, he must poke around before he sits down, but may not poke around after he sits down, because this distances him from witchcraft [literally: 'because it is difficult on account of witchcraft']."[6]

Surely we Karaites must concede that without the Oral Law we would be totally lost. The Torah commands us in Dt 18:10 "There shall not be found among you... one who practices witchcraft", but without the Oral Law we would not know the details of this commandment. Just think how many Karaites there are out there at this very moment falling into sin because they do not know that poking around in their rectum with a pebble while sitting (huh?!) can result in witchcraft. This holy teaching is already alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 82a (see Rashi's explanation of the words "Because you do not wipe yourselves with potsherds").

The Arba Turim, a more detailed compendium of Rabbinic law teaches us the blessing one must say upon entering the bathroom:

Arba Turim, Orach Chayyim, Chapter 3:

"When a person enters the bathroom he must say: "Be honored, O sublime angels,[7] servants of the Most High! Protect me! Protect me! Assist me! Assist me! Wait for me until I enter and leave, for thus is the way of human beings." In this manner must one say every time he enters."[8]

Without the Oral Law we would not know to ask the angels for protection and help when we alleviate ourselves. Interestingly enough, later rabbinic authorities mention this blessing but explain that it no longer need be recited. I wonder how they survive the ordeal of the toilet without the protection of the holy angels? Of course, the fact that this blessing is no longer recited does not diminish from its sanctity, since the Rabbis teach that when two diametrically opposed opinions are stated in the Oral Law, "both these and those are the words of the living God" (Babylonian Talmud, Erubin 13b).

[1] Judah Halevy, Kuzari 3:35

[2] Maimonides explains that the prohibition to defecate facing east or west is because the Holy of Holies was located on the west side of the Temple (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Bet HaBechirah 7:9).

[3] Lit. "so that he not disconnect the rectal teeth". The Talmudic Rabbis believed the rectum was attached by three "teeth".

[4] Lest someone think I am making up the above, I hereby append the original Hebrew text which can be easily authenticated:

קיצור שולחן ערוך, "הנהגות בית הכסא ודיני ברכת אשר יצר": "[סעיף א] ירגיל את עצמו לפנות ערב ובוקר, שהוא זריזות ונקיות, אם אינו יכול לפנות, ילך ד' אמות, וישב ויעמוד עד שיפנה, או יסיח דעתו מדברים אחרים. המשהה נקביו עובר משום בל תשקצו ואם משהה מלהטיל מים בעת צרכו, עובר גם משום לא יהיה בך עקר. [סעיף ב] יהא צנוע בבית הכסא, לא יגלה את עצמו עד שישב, וגם אז יצמצם שלא לגלות רק מה שמוכרח לו לגלות, שלא לטנף את בגדיו, ויזהר בזה גם בלילה כמו ביום, אם נפנה במקום מגולה שאין שם מחיצות, יכוין שיהא פניו לדרום, ואחוריו לצפון, או איפכא, אבל בין מזרח למערב אסור, ואם יש מחיצה יכול לפנות בכל ענין אם אחוריו לצד המחיצה. ולהשתין מותר בכל ענין. לא יפנה בפני שום אדם, ואפילו בפני עכו"ם אסור, אבל להשתין מותר, אפילו ביום בפני רבים, ואם צריך לכך, משום דאיכא סכנה אם יעצור את עצמו, ומכל מקום יש לו להסתלק לצדדין. [סעיף ג] לא יפנה בעמידה, ולא יאנס לדחוק עצמו יותר מדאי, שלא ינתק שיני הכרכשתא ולא ימהר לצאת מבית הכסא, עד אשר ברור לו שאינו צריך עוד, וכשמטיל מים בעמידה, ישגיח שלא ינתזו על מנעליו ובגדיו. ויזהר מאוד, שלא לאחוז בידיו במילתו.[סעיף ד] בבית הכסא אסור להרהר בדברי תורה, לכן בהיותו שמה, טוב שיהרהר בעסקיו ובחשבנותיו, שלא יבא לידי הרהור תורה או הרהור עבירה חס ושלום. ובשבת שאין להרהר בעסקיו, יהרהר בדברים נפלאים שראה ושמע וכדומה.[סעיף ה] יזהר לקנח את עצמו יפה, כי אם יש לו אפילו משהו צואה בפי הטבעת, אסור לו לומר שום דבר שבקדושה. לא יקנח ביד ימין מפני שקושר בה התפילין, ואיטר יד, יקנח בשמאל דידיה, שהיא ימין של כל אדם. [סעיף ו] בכל פעם שנפנה או שמטיל מים, ואפילו רק טפה אחת, ירחוץ ידיו במים ויברך ברכת אשר יצר. אם הטיל מים או נפנה, ושכח מלברך אשר יצר, ואחר כך שוב הטיל מים או נפנה, ונזכר שבראשונה לא בירך, אינו צריך לברך רק פעם אחת. ומי ששותה סם המשלשל ויודע שיצטרך לפנות כמה פעמים, לא יברך עד לאחר הגמר."

[5] Jastrow p.856b translates, "stimulate the rectum with pebbles".

[6] Again, I reproduce the Hebrew original lest someone think I am making this up:

שולחן ערוך, אורח חיים סימן ג: "אם רוצה למשמש בפי הטבעת בצרור, או בקיסם, לפתוח נקביו, ימשמש קודם שישב ולא ימשמש אחר שישב, מפני שקשה לכשפים."

[7] Lit. "holy ones", often an epithet for angels, even in the Tanach, e.g. Ps 89:8.

[8] ארבע טורים, אורח חיים סימן ג: "ובכניסתו לבית הכסא יאמר התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון שמרוני שמרוני עזרוני עזרוני המתינו לי עד שאכנס ואצא שכן דרכן של בני אדם וכן יאמר בכל פעם שיכנס"

  • Nancy Troutman says:

    This is the funniest thing I have ever read! Thank you for a wonderful laugh!

  • Pam says:

    I can’t get enough. Why have I believed such things for so long. I can no longer accept the orthodox way of Judaism as it is clearly lost its way.
    Thanks for this. The comical twist is refreshing.

  • daniel says:

    So funny! There’s a time and place for everything, and you found an appropriate use of ‘potty humor’ in a legitimate Bible study – and made your point very well. I’m now wondering if the Oral Law didn’t cause so much frustration and neuroticism, thereby inducing so much constipation, that it had to be dealt with by another topic in the Oral Law!