Judaism has a blessing for virtually everything. Hearing thunder, seeing an interesting looking person, at least seven blessings for food and drink… and guess what else! Going to the bathroom.
Known as asher yatzar (translation – He who forms), the text of the blessing is below.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים .גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ, שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ
. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before the Throne of Glory, that if even one of them would be ruptured, or if even one of them would be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before you. Blessed are you, Hashem, who heals all flesh and does wondrous acts.
Our immature sides may chuckle at the thought of having to pray after relieving ourselves. But if we think about just how much can go wrong with the many intricate systems of the body, it’s a wonder that problems don’t arise more often. Kidney stones, UTIs, colon cancer, hemorrhoids, incontinence… and that’s just dealing with that area of the body. Asher yatzar pertains to the whole body. The point is, there’s no shortage of gratitude we should have for every function of these bags of bones we’re living in. And as clear as that is, there are some odd things about this prayer. Considering them may clue us in to even more miracles about the body that may not be so obvious.
A Different Kind of Throne
The prayer invokes Hashem’s Throne of Glory, the Kisay HaKavod. In Kabbalistic thought, God’s throne sits atop the pinnacle of creation. Our physical plane of existence is at the bottom of a spiritual ladder that extends through thousands, if not millions, of spiritual dimensions, the top of which is God’s Throne. Few other places in our prayers do we mention the Kisay HaKavod, so why would we invoke it over the least holy of acts?
To answer that we should consider why Hashem made us with the need to use the bathroom at all. One thought references when Moses goes to Pharaoh to send the plague of blood. Hashem says, “Go to Pharaoh in the morning when he goes out to the water. “ (Shemos 7:15) According to Rashi, that’s when Pharaoh would relieve himself. Pharaoh insisted that he was a deity and as proof of that, he made the claim that he didn’t use the restroom. Pharaoh hid his bodily functions by going to the Nile and relieving himself in the morning. Hashem sends Moses at such a moment to remind Pharaoh that he’s not, in fact, a god. (Interesting side note, it has been reported that North Koreans are told to believe that their dictator Kim Jong-Un is a perfect being, untarnished by any base human function such as urination or defecation).
For us that’s relevant because, as the first of the Ten Commandments says, we must know that Hashem is God. Meaning that we have to remind ourselves that we are not God. No matter how much we exalt ourselves, whether that is success at work, mastery of our crafts, the honor of our community, or positions of power, there’s nothing we can do to escape the fact that we still have to perform animalistic bodily functions. There is a King above us, no matter who we are.
A Lot of a Lot
The blessing says that we have many openings נְקָבִים נְקָבִים and many cavities חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. It isn’t uncommon for Hebrew to double a word to emphasize a plurality. Some translations really run with this idea, listing many appropriate organs to drive home the point.
But the doubling up of the language also alludes to something else. According to Rav Shimon Schwab, the human entity is comprised of not only many organs, but a parallel spiritual organ system. The introduction to the Chofetz Chaim’s Shemiras HaLashon speaks more about this idea.
“If a person uses a limb of his body to perform a mitzvah in this world, Hashem’s radiance will rest upon that limb in the World to Come. However, if he forsakes one [of the mitzvahs]… then his soul will lack the corresponding spiritual ‘limb’ in the World to Come. Therefore, if a person joins the ranks of those who speak lashon hara, and gives free rein to his mouth and ear to speak and hear lashon hara, he will be punished in the World to Come by having these faculties impaired.”
The implication is that some of our ailments may come from a spiritual malady. We have further proof of this in the prayer for healing which starts,
רְפָאֵנוּ ה’ וְנֵרָפֵא. הושִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵנוּ אָתָּה. וְהַעֲלֵהרְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּותֵינוּ
“Heal us, Hashem, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our ailments.“
Heal us and we shall be healed? Obviously if God heals us, we’ll be healed. Why do we need to say that? But if we continue, notice the prayer acknowledges that we must praise Hashem before asking Him to heal the bodily ailments.
Regardless of whether you believe in these spiritual elements or not, we know that emotional and mental stress can heavily impact a person’s physical health. When we connect to God, we can come to understand that our stress and suffering has purpose. That peace of mind alone can do wonders for the body. But then to reflect on the idea that maybe God is giving us a hint about our character or behavior through an issue with the body… That takes some wisdom to deduce. Wait, doesn’t the blessing start with “who forms the body with wisdom?” Interesting.
Is Healing Enough?
The blessing ends “who heals all flesh and does wondrous acts.” After emerging from the bathroom, hopefully everything functioned as it should and we have gratitude for the parts that make up the body. Shouldn’t “who heals all flesh” be enough? Why these “wondrous acts?” It seems redundant.
However, given all the amazing understandings modern medical science has given us, from vaccines and medicine, to magnetic resonant imaging, to being able to detect and modify genetic abnormalities, the one thing it hasn’t given us is the ability to create life out of nothing and give it a soul. Even as we approach sophisticated A.I., that intelligence is still just algorithmic programming. Hashem, on the other hand, gives us pleasures, drives, and free will while binding it to an earthly body.
The slightest trauma – a blood clot to the brain, a microscopic virus run amok, a prolonged drop in temperature outside a rather narrow 100 degree range – can result in the loss of permanent functions, if not severing the soul from the body entirely. It is this union of body and soul which is what these wondrous acts refers.