Monday, September 24, 2012

Sitting on the toilet makes you live longer? I explain why (Brakhot 54b)

So you're the sort of man (its always a man isn't it?) who enjoys a good long sit on the toilet. Good news. According to a teaching recorded on BT Brakhoth 54b this can extend your life.  Here is what it says:
Rab Judah said further: There are three things the drawing out of which prolongs a man's days and years; the drawing out of prayer, the drawing out of a meal, and the drawing out of [the time spent in] a privy
The modern inclination is to trick out such teachings with psychology or medicine. Thus, one person I discussed this with seemed certain that Rab Yehuda's point is that its important to chew your food slowly, and to make sure your bowel movements are regular and complete. Another believes that the message is we should live with as little stress as possible. Take your time on the toilet. Don't hurry. Chill-ax, baby.

As Rab Yehuda was aware of neither medicine nor psychology, I think its more likely that he is thinking magically or practically. He may be adducing some well known superstition, now lost to the mists of time. Or he might be connecting hearty appetites (and the world class dumps such appetites tend to produce) with strength and vigor. Or this could simply be an example of sympathetic magic, or the magic that ascribes power to imitation or correspondence.

Another appealing possibility is that Rab Yehuda is thinking of a sort of toilet that no longer exists and making a point about the three things that are believed to hold up the world. In antiquity (Roman antiquity anyway; I'm not certain if this applies to Persia as well.) men used the toilet communally. In the photo the follows, you can see what such a toilet looked like, and the video that comes after it depicts how they were employed:

As you can see, going to the bathroom was an opportunity to socialize and catch up on the events of the day. It was also where you could hold court, hear peoples troubles, and discuss solutions.

Elsewhere, a Mishna tells us: "The world stands upon three things: on Torah, and on Divine Service, and on acts of kindness. (Avot 1:2)." Drawing out your prayers, obviously, is a way to intensify your involvement in Divine Service. Drawing out your meals, which the Talmud says must always includes words of Torah, is a way to augment your connection to Torah. Possibly in Rab Yehudah's mind, going to the public toilet -- where neighbors met to discuss their challenges and struggles -- was a good way to involve yourself in acts of kindness.  R. Yehuda, perhaps, felt that if you were actively involved in the things that sustained the world, indeed if you were actually one of those three things yourself, God might be slow to take you from the world.

Perhaps this is what the Gemarah means on the next page, when it says R. Yehuda b. Ila would check himself at each of the 24 public bathrooms that stood between his house and the study hall. ArtScroll says he would check himself to see if he needed to defecate. (24 times?) But I prefer to think that the words "Badikna Nafshai B'chulhu" means that he checked the souls, ie the people. (Nafshai  means "himself'; the same root with a different suffix plausibly means "people", thus "he checked the people in all of them" and not "he checked himself in all of them") In this interpretation, Yehuda b. Ila  isn't telling us about his toilet troubles, but about how he kept track of what acts of charity were needed in his town. Each day, he'd poke his head into every public toilet in town to see what was happening and to ask what was needed. (I'm aware the grammar doesn't support this --but I'll take a corruption of the text, over believing that a Sage stopped to use the toilet 24 times during his walk to work. Wouldn't you?)

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