Simon Jackson
Legal Advisor to Torah Mitzion


One of the sources which underscores the paramount importance of cleanliness and hygiene is found in the opinion of Rabbi Yossi, cited in the Tosefta at the end of Masechet Bava Metzia: “Where a spring originates from within one city such that it belongs to the residents of that city… if there is not enough water for both cities, so that the residents of the first city must choose between the lives of others and their own laundering needs – the lives of others take precedence over their own laundering of clothes. Rabbi Yossi says: their own laundering requirements take precedence over the lives of others”!

Rabbi Yossi maintains that so much distress is caused by refraining from laundering that it is considered a life-sustaining issue. As the Gemara (Nedarim 81a) explains: “Wearing unlaundered clothes leads to dementia” by driving a person to boredom and insanity (Ran). Wearing laundered clothes thus becomes a critical element in a person’s life!

In Masechet Shabbat (114a), Rabbi Yochanan is reported to have said: “Any Torah scholar whose clothes contain a grease stain is liable to death at the hand of Heaven, as the verse in Mishlei 8:36 states: ‘All those who hate me love death’ – don’t read ‘those who hate me’ (me’sanai) but rather read it ‘those who cause others to hate me’ (masniai).” In other words, a Torah scholar who wears a soiled garment denigrates himself in the eyes of others, thus causing the Torah to be hated. And in his important work “Pele Yoetz,” R. Eliezer Pappo, the great Sephardi ba’al mussar and halachist of the 18th century, writes (see value of ‘Cleanliness’ – end): “Every person should regard himself as if he is a talmid chacham for this purpose.”

We can appreciate the tremendous importance of cleanliness in a person’s life, and the connection between the dignity of a human being and the dignity due to the Creator, from a Beraita cited in Masechet Shabbat 50b: “A person should wash his face, hands and feet each day in honor of his Creator, as the verse states: ‘Hashem does everything for His sake.” As Rashi explains: “Keeping clean brings honor to Hashem for man was created in God’s image.”


From Ancient Sources to Modern Times

The bye-laws for the new neighborhoods of Jerusalem outside the Old City walls contain a number of intriguing clauses governing the obligation to preserve the new towns’ cleanliness, not only in public but even in the private domain. The pioneers in this regard were the founders of what was once the poorest of neighborhoods (and is today one of the wealthiest!) in Jerusalem, “Mishkenot Sha’ananim,” the first city to be build outside the city walls in 1860. The relevant clauses read as follows:

E. Every inhabitant of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood shall command his charges to purge his house on a daily basis of all garbage and any unclean matter; he shall also sprinkle clean water on the floor of the rooms of his house at least once a day.

F. Every inhabitant of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood shall command his charges not to cast away any garbage in front of his house, and shall clean up all the areas around his dwelling, and throw away the garbage in the designated area and cover it immediately…

The ritual bath and the mikveh shall remain clean from any dirt at all times…

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that the great benefactor of the city, Sir Moses Montefiore, interested as he was in alleviating the poverty rampant throughout Jerusalem, wanted all of the city’s poor to benefit from the improved conditions at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, not just a small number of families. Thus the Mishkenot regulations specifically stated that residence in the new homes would be limited in time and that the apartments should change hands every so often. But the original residents refused to move out and Montefiore, impressed by their pioneering spirit, was not prepared to evict them. Montefiore’s heirs, however, considered imposing rent collection in order to avoid permanent squatters’ rights. The move, however, was unsuccessful and as late as 1948, several of the residents were still the descendants of the original inhabitants).

Similar provisions are contained in the 1889 bye-laws for the emerging “Mea Shearim” neighborhood, which was founded in 1874. Under the heading, “Hanhagat HaYishuv” (Rules of Conduct for the Yishuv):

“And your camp shall be holy” – This is a positive commandment. Therefore, all the members and residents of our society ‘Mea Shearim’ (may it be built up and established) are obligated to take care to keep the place clean, both in the public and also in the private domain. The same applies to the cleanliness of the latrines, so that no damage should be caused to the purity of the air. Garbage and fetid water shall similarly not be spilled. Anyone who transgresses this command once and twice, shall be punished on the third occasion. And may it go well with those who take heed of this command.”

The note (in Rashi script!) to this regulation comments: “Anyone who dares to spill garbage outside which could cause damage to others – even if he thereby declares his property and his ‘pit’ (bor) ownerless – his act will still be deemed an act of damage (under the category of bor)…”


Large Cities or Small Towns – Which Are Preferable?

The Rabbis of the Talmud noted that the environment undergoes more damage in large cities than in small towns. In explaining a law of the Mishnah, (Ketubot 13:10) that a husband may not compel his wife to move from a village to a large city, the Talmud (110b) cites the reasoning of the Eretz Yisraelian Amora, R. Yosi ben Hanina: “Life is more difficult in the city.” Rashi explains: “Because so many live there, its houses are crammed together, and there is no fresh air, whereas in villages there are gardens and orchards close to the homes, and the air is clean!”


Next Column: Air Pollution and Ketoret (Incense)!