Thursday, March 31, 2011

Not to bring "another substance" into the Temple; Urine revisionism revisited.

In 2007 I posted about how it is interesting that the Birnbaum siddur (1949) timidly refused to translate מי רגלים as urine, preferring to transliterate it: Thus, "Though mei raglayim might have been good for that purpose, it was not decent to bring it into the Temple." Or to mention in an American siddur, I might add.

I noted that an English machzor from 1796 actually also transliterated it as "mea raglayem" in the translation - but it included a footnote explaining that this means Urine. My guess was that at the time some people read the prayers from the English, and while the translator (David Levi) had no problem letting people know what the word meant, he figured it was nicer for them to read "though mea raglayem was proper for the purpose . . ." rather than "though Urine was proper for the purpose . . . ."


In either case, we see that in 1949 Philip Birnbaum felt that urine should not be mentioned in the synagogue. I came across David de Sola's translation - although this particular book is from 1878, I believe his translation goes back to the late 1830s.

As you can see, de Sola primly writes that "another substance" could have been used, but was not decent to bring into the Temple.

Here is the title page:

I was curious how a contemporary of the Birnbaum siddur, a siddur published by the Rabbinical Assembly in 1946, translated it. They took the easy way out - there is no פטום הקטורת, not after mussaph and not before shacharis (although I might add that it kept both sיקום פורקן!).

In 1839 Jeremias Heinemann published a very interesting book called the Hebräisch-Deutsches kursorisches und alphabetisches Wörterbuch zum allgemeinen Siddur. I have never seen anything quite like it. What Heinemann did was to go through the tefillos, prayer by prayer, and list all the principle Hebrew words with German translation. I suppose I have to think about it some more, but on the face of it it seems like one of the most effective methods of learning what the prayers mean that I have ever seen. It's a fascinating work - it begins with Mah Tovu, and just plows through it all, including the 15 Shir Hama'alos and the complete Pirke Avot after Shabbos Mincha (and, yes, it includes Yekum Purkan).

Here is how he translates our mei raglayim:

Nahme für Urin. I guess the Germans were less timid than the Anglos.

Heinemann is an interesting person. He was a modern educator in Berlin, originally associating with the Reformers in the 1810s, but he became more traditionalist. Apparently recognizing his valid role as a positive, modern influence, Rabbi Akiva Eger gave a haskama and subscribed to one volume of his edition of Mendelssohn's Chumash (with the addition of his own commentary). Another example of Rabbi Akiva Eger encouraging a similarly modern-leaning type of rabbi is Salomon Plessner, who was a noted preacher and translator of the Apocrypha into Hebrew. With Rabbi Akiva Eger's approval, Plessner published עדות לישראל, a book full of quotes by Gentiles about how wonderful the Talmud is. See here.

Getting back to urine - it is interesting to take note of the fact that apparently the idea that urine could even have been considered in the first place was considered shocking, so there are traditions which deny that mei reglayim, in this context, meant urine. Probably most famously there is the Kol Bo (#38), which says the following:

Namely, "some say that mei raglayim come from a certain spring called Raglayim; it is not possible to say mei raglayim literally (i.e., urine) since God forbid that it should enter anyone's mind to include urine in the making of the incense." According to this interpretation, then, what was proposed was that water from a spring called Raglayim might have sufficed for the incense. Since "water from Raglayim" is the same word/ name as mei raglayim, i.e., urine, then it would be wrong to use an ingredient with the same name as urine. But urine itself? Come on, don't be ridiculous. This interpretation seems to have been accepted as the best by Seligmann Baer, for he quotes it on page 248 of his siddur Avodas Jissroel, and even supports it by noting that the book of Joshua mentions an עֵין רֹגֵל numerous times. The Machzor Vitri gives the spring explanation as well as another one: יש אומ' עשב הוא ששמו מי רגלים ויש אומ' מעיין הוא ששמו מי רגלים ועזין הן וריחן רע - some say it's an herb named mei raglayim, and others say its a spring called mei raglayim, [with water that is] pungent and smells bad.

If I remember correctly, in David Golinkin's edition of the responsa of Louis Ginzberg, there is one letter from someone asking Ginzberg about this, and Ginzberg replies with some sources and also tells the correspondent that he is surprised and pleased that anyone in his time (1930s?) even cares about this.


  1. be'er sheva to krisus 6a strongly disputes the interpretation of the kol bo. Daf learners using vagshal edition may have come across it recently in the likkutim section to zevachim 95a here:

  2. The authorised English prayerbook, the Singers, omitted the reference even in Hebrew, ie they edited the Mishnah for taste, until a few years back

  3. Take a look at Wikipedia's article on Urine for some uses over the generations.

    Once I learned what Mai Raglayim was, it was so obvious to me that this was, in the old days, a commonly used substance for all sorts of operations. People have been saving and repurposing urine for just about as long as we have been peeing.

    Now, I can totally imagine that the ancients would not have wanted to use it for preparation of sacred incense.

    Reb Artscroll does not duck the issue though. According to my Artscroll (Ashkenaz) siddur, First Edition, 1984, "Even though urine is suitable for that, nevertheless they do not bring urine into the Temple out of respect." No waffling there.

  4. I guess one has to ask native hebrew speakers how they feel about it. Until recently, no such animal existed. Therefore, no one could really get sqeumish about saying "mei raglayim", because no one who prayed in the traditional hebrew was praying in his native language. As well as one might know a language, it is never the same as one's native tongue. By contrast, translations were made precisely for one's native tongue, and so one can see why some translators felt iffy about using such blunt language. Thus, you have to ask what the sabras think about it.

  5. It's interesting that "mei raglayim" itself would seem to be a euphemistic term.

  6. As noted, the standard UK siddur omitted the reference even from the Hebrew. The standard machzor - the Routledge - included it in the Hebrew but made no mention of it in the English. The Silverman translation of Rashi also omits translating certain passages of a a "delicate" nature.

  7. Joe in Australia10:08 PM, March 31, 2011

    Some of the purposes alluded to by Ed Greenberg include laundry (the source of the famous Latin tag "Pecunia non olet", "money doesn't stink"), dyeing (to remove grease from wool), and even consumption - apparently aged urine (called "lant") was added to ale. Perhaps the ammonia made it seem stronger?

  8. Sort of gives some color to the expression "that beer tastes like piss!"

  9. As I may have mentioned in the late lamented comments to your 1997 post, we should also consider the phrase "mashtin ba-kir," which sometimes appears in Tanakh (e.g. I Kings 16:11) as a synonym for "man." I had an uncle who used to take special delight in the King James translation, "he that pisseth against the wall." At some point it was modified to "man-jack" or just "male." An interesting treatment of I Kings 16:11 is given by "The Message," a streetwise and not very literal modern Bible translation, which has "like so many stray dogs" -- sounds cool, while avoiding the very idea that humans would ever act that way.

  10. I've wondered why some versions have "ba-mikdash" and some have "ba'azarah"

  11. It's interesting that "mei raglayim" itself would seem to be a euphemistic term.

    At what point is a euphemism no longer a euphemism?

  12. The Shita Mekubetzes on the Gemara (Krisot 6A - ) brings both opinions about the translation of Mei Raglayim. I don't know who he was and when he lived in relation to the Kol Bo.

  13. Thanks. The Shita Mekubetzes is by R. Bezalel Ashkenazi, who lived in Egypt in the 16th century. The Kol Bo is much older, and seems to be from the 14th century.

    Mistama the Shita Mekubetzes' yesh meforshim is the Kol Bo.



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