Ancient Jewish texts are full of shit.
Literally. Poop is everywhere in our sacred texts.
As a parent, I can relate to this. Kids make poop a daily topic of conversation. Certain phases, like newborn blowouts and potty-training accidents, can heighten the presence of poop even more dramatically. It is an unglamourous but inevitable aspect of parenthood that most of us don’t actually talk about very much outside of our homes and doctor’s offices.
Want to know who loved talking about poop? The Rabbis who wrote the foundational texts of Judaism. Sacred Jewish texts are full of references to and arguments about bodily waste: a fact that, as a parent who is currently trying to potty train her child, I find bizarrely fascinating and somehow reassuring. Reading my daughter “Where Do You Poop?” for the fifth time in a row as she stubbornly refuses to go to the bathroom (even though she’s been sitting on her tiny little potty for 45 minutes and I know she has to go) is not necessarily the warm, touching image I had in mind when I thought about having a child, but reading through ancient texts in which Rabbis argue across centuries about poop somehow humanizes these unglamorous parenting tasks that can feel so frustrating.
OK — I also find these references wildly weird and entertaining. Curious? Read on to find out what ancient Jewish texts have to say about poop.
Poop can be many things in ancient Jewish texts. It can provide comic relief, like in the Megillah when Haman’s daughter mistakes her father for Mordecai and throws the contents of a chamber pot on his head. Poop can be a punishment, as in the “Gittin” section of the Talmud, when we are told that “mock[ing] the words of the Sages will be judged with boiling feces.” It can also be a great way to insult witches. As the Talmud tells us, “One who encounters witches should say this incantation: Hot feces in torn date baskets in your mouth, witches; may your hairs fall out because you use them for witchcraft; your crumbs, which you use for witchcraft, should scatter in the wind.” Sick burn, Rabbis.
Beyond these passing references, the Rabbis also carried on detailed conversations about poop. In the Mishnah, Rambam writes: “The Shema may not be recited in the presence of human feces.” The Shema is arguably the most important prayer in Judaism; reciting it near poop is a mark of disrespect for the sacred words. Simple enough, right?
Rambam includes very specific instructions regarding the Shema and poop. For instance, one does not need to worry about distancing themselves from poop if it belonged to a child who is “unable to eat the weight of an olive of grain cereal” — a complicated way to define an infant — and you better believe that there have been centuries worth of Rabbinical debate regarding precisely how much cereal that is. Rambam also indicates that one may not recite the Shema near (adult) human feces, “even if they are as dry as a shard.” However, he stipulates, “if they were so dry that, if thrown away, they would crumble, one may recite the Shema facing them,” though later Rabbis disagreed over exactly how dry the human poop needed to be to pass Rambam’s text. Of course.
Rambam goes on to define a dizzying array of instructions regarding how close one can or can’t be to human poop when reciting the Shema, with special stipulations for whether it is in front of, behind, or to the side of a person. Or if it is above them. Or in a hole below them. Other Rabbis, however, were skeptical of this, and were especially concerned with what would happen should someone get poop on their sandal. I truly could not be making this shit up.
The lack of indoor plumbing in c. 500 CE Babylon necessitated the use of chamber pots, which were another troublesome issue for Talmud-era Rabbis. Most Rabbis agreed that chamber pots were always considered dirty, even when empty, but disagreed on the specifics. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel argued that as long as the chamber pot is behind the bed one may say the Shema, but if it is “before the bed” one must move at least four cubits away before reciting the Shema. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar disagreed, arguing that, “Even in a house one hundred cubits in size, one may not recite Shema until he removes [the chamber pot] or places it beneath the bed.” Out of sight, out of mind — though, as someone all too familiar with the smells than can emanate from a top-of-the-line diaper pail, I can’t help but wonder how the smell impacted the argument. In case anyone is curious, the Rabbis also argued about what to do if the smell of farts is in the air.
The Talmud even has an answer for what to do if a child has an accident on the floor during Shabbat. If this happens, “one may overturn a bowl on top of a child’s feces so that he will not touch it and dirty himself,” without violating the labor restrictions. Good thinking, Rabbis. Women in particular might want to note Rabbi Aha’s Talmudic advice that women who launder poop out of children’s clothes on Shabbat will die during childbirth. While I have no empirical data that his prediction is true, what mom doesn’t need an excuse to skip laundry on Saturday?
Rambam even provides very specific advice for how to deal with constipation, though, given its graphic nature, I will refrain from quoting that passage. Anyone who is curious can check out the section on “Human Dispositions” in the Mishnah but please note that his advice is for sure not approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
I am sure it’s clear that I am no Talmud scholar, and, if I’m being honest, I find it all too easy to poke fun at the ancient Rabbis’ concerns about poop. However, there is also something deeply endearing to me about these Rabbis and their preoccupation with poop, especially when it comes to matters of kids’ bathroom habits and where to put the chamber pot. They are small reminders that these revered Rabbis were just people: people with bodies and families and practical issues just like the rest of us.
So the next time I’m stuck rereading “Where Do You Poop?” for the umpteenth time it will make me smile to know that ancient Jewish Rabbis were thinking about that same question.