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Shabbat Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim | 5769
Ask the Rabbi: Making blessings in or opposite bathrooms
Question: I am part of a group of around 10 Jewish prison inmates (some, like me, are studying for conversion). Our cells (5 ft. X 9 ft.) have a toilet in them and during the time for Shacharit and Ma’ariv, I am not able to get out. Can I put on my tallit and pray at that time, in a “dirty place,” or is it an abomination to Hashem? Our rabbi died a few years ago, and we don’t have anyone to answer our questions any more. Also, could you send us some texts to study from?
Answer: It is a problem to involve oneself in holy things in proximity of excrement, as we will briefly discuss. Those who are not Jewish yet are not bound by those requirements, which are not included in the seven Noahide laws. However, your letter [shortened above] makes it clear that you want to follow the laws like a Jew. Therefore, we will present the laws for your whole group under your difficult circumstances (and this will serve as one of the study materials we will send).
One may not pray or make blessings in or opposite bathrooms (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 83:1). However, not necessarily is every room with a toilet a bathroom. Poskim (halachic authorities) have discussed to what extent rooms with a toilet that are used also for things such as washing hands, shaving, etc. have the status of a bathroom. In your case, the room is as multi-purpose as it gets, which gives grounds for leniency.
The very presence of a toilet, even a cleaned one that is outside a bathroom, raises problems. One may not recite things of sanctity within approximately six feet of a waste receptacle or any distance when one is facing it. There is a distinction regarding whether it is made out of an absorbent material. Absorbent materials that are coated with a glaze, like most modern toilets, are also the subject of dispute (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 87:1 and commentaries). However, this is of limited help when the utensil is used only for the “dirty” purpose (ibid. 83:5). However, if one can cover the toilet all around or get a 30 inch partition in front of it and smell does not emanate from it, this problem is solved (ibid. 76:1).
There is another reason for leniency in modern bathrooms. The Talmud (Berachot 26a) says that Persian bathrooms do not have a status of a bathroom because the hole is built on an incline so that excrement rolls down and away. Poskim compare and contrast our modern toilets, which flush (as opposed to those in Talmudic times), to the Persian ones. On one hand, during most of the day, the toilet is (relatively) clean. On the other hand, the excrement stays put until one gets around to flushing. In general, under normal circumstances (hopefully when you and your friends will be out of prison), we would not allow one to make blessings or pray in such a room. However, under the circumstances, there is room for leniency, if there is not a bathroom smell where one is.
The Rama (Ashkenazic counterpart of the Shulchan Aruch, ibid. 62:4) says that when one is in a place that is not fully clean, he can and should contemplate the words of the Shema (and other holy texts), rather than to recite them. Although it is generally forbidden even to think of such things in an unclean place (Beit Yosef, OC 25), this is a good solution for borderline places.
Therefore, we suggest the following. When you have to recite a prayer or blessing while in your cell, try to get out of a six foot radius of the toilet (probably possible with the diagonal), face the other way and read the texts without uttering them with your lips. Your tallit is not a matter of holiness, although it is an important thing since it is used for prayer. Therefore, in your cell, which does not have a full status of a bathroom, you may wear it without making a blessing, or as mentioned, by contemplating the blessing.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of
R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
Hemdat Yamim is
Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.