Yoma 30

Employees must wash hands … and feet?

If you’ve been with us a while, you know that the Talmud is sometimes … scatological. While these conversations may make you blush, they also demonstrate the rabbinic notion that Judaism informs everything that we do. For example, we recently learned this mishnah about the priests:

This was the principle in the Temple: Anyone who covers his legs (a euphemism for defecating) must immerse afterward; and anyone who urinates requires sanctification of the hands and feet with water from the basin afterward. 

Great, thanks for sharing. This is the ancient equivalent of the “employees must wash hands before returning to work” sign. A modern reader may appreciate the notion of washing our hands after going to the bathroom, but our feet too? For the Gemara, however, it’s the opposite. It’s clear to the Gemara that a man must sanctify his feet with water after urinating because it is likely that some urine dripped on them. (We might imagine the sandaled ancients squatting over a hole in the ground to manage their business — a posture that puts the feet at significant risk.) Instead, the Gemara is curious about why the sanctification of the hands is also required.

Rabbi Abba explains that we should imagine the priest has used his hands to brush urine off his legs, and this is why the hands require immersion. Rabbi Ami elaborates on this idea, and it is pretty wild:

It is prohibited for a man to go out with the drops of urine that are on his legs, because he appears to have a mutilated urinary canal. People who see urine on his legs might suspect that he is suffering from this condition and can’t have children, and they will spread rumors about his children saying that they are illegitimate. Therefore, one must be certain to brush the drops of urine from his legs.

So, in order to protect the reputation of his children, a man should use his hands to wipe drops of urine from his legs after going to the bathroom — and then wash his hand before returning to work. Sounds like a great basis for a Seinfeld episode. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was.

But we don’t need sitcoms to advise us; we have the Talmud:

A person who exits a meal to urinate washes one of his hands, the one that he used to brush off drops of urine, and enters to resume the meal … And when one washes his hands for the meal he should not wash them outside and then enter, due to the concern that doing so will arouse suspicion that he did not wash his hands. Rather, he enters and sits in his place and washes both his hands, and returns the jug of water to pass among the guests and ask if anyone requires water, to make certain that everyone is aware that he washed his hands.

The Torah was not given to the ministering angels, say the rabbis, it was given to people. The angels don’t have to deal with bodily functions, but we do. And some of us are naturally suspicious. So the rabbis tell us that it’s a mitzvah to wipe your legs and wash your hands after you go to the bathroom — and make sure other see you doing it. Doing so allows you to serve in the Temple (if you are a priest), protect your children’s status in the community, and ensure that you’ll be invited to dine with others. Seriously, just wash your hands. And maybe your feet too. 

Read all of Yoma 30 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 11th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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