Dear Jew in the City-
Are there Torah sources that encourage the idea of having a clean home?
I love this question, so I’d like to cast the net a little wider. Namely, I’d like to address personal hygiene, laundry and then clean homes.
For starters, forget that old chestnut about cleanliness being next to godliness; that’s not from the Bible at all. The sentiment was coined by John Wesley, an English theologian, as part of a sermon in 1778. It’s not a bad sentiment per se, it’s just not exactly on the same footing as a midrash or a Talmudic dictum.
You’ve probably noticed that we wash hands quite a lot in Judaism. The most noteworthy of these are upon awakening and before eating bread but halacha actually calls for handwashing on other occasions, such as after a meal (mayim achronim), before eating wet produce (as we do before karpas at the Seder), upon leaving a cemetery, and after using the washroom (which we take for granted as routine nowadays but such was not always the case). Additionally, there are times when both men and women immerse themselves completely in a mikvah. But our relationship with washing goes much farther than these halachically-mandated ablutions. The Talmud (Shabbos 50b) tells us that one must wash his face, hands and feet every day for the sake of his Creator as per Proverbs 16:4, “Hashem has made everything for His own sake.” Rashi explains that keeping clean honors Hashem in Whose image we are made.
Personal hygiene goes beyond washing our hands and faces. For example, one is obligated to bathe in hot water and to cut his nails in anticipation of Shabbos, as well as to get a haircut if one is getting a little too shaggy (OC 260:1). Similarly, a Torah scholar was not permitted to live in a city that didn’t have a bathhouse (Sanhedrin 17b). In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3), Hillel the Elder went so far as to call attending the bathhouse a mitzvah!
So, working our way from the inside out, we see that Judaism places a high value on keeping our bodies clean.
The gemara in Nedarim (80b) discusses the case of a spring of water that belongs to a city and when the residents of that city must forgo the water in favor of another city’s needs. The first opinion in the gemara is that another city’s need for drinking water takes priority over the host city’s need to do their laundry but Rabbi Yosi disagrees. Rabbi Yosi maintains that the first city’s need to do laundry supersedes providing drinking water to others. This is because inability to launder clothes would also lead to a public health crisis. On the next page (81a), Shmuel opines that the potential health effects from inability to wash clothes are worse than the potential health problems that might result from not bathing.
Along similar lines, Rabbi Yochanan says that a Torah scholar whose clothes are stained is deserving of Divine punishment because he disgraces both himself and God (Talmud Shabbos 114a).
The laws of clean dwellings start in Deuteronomy 23:13-15, the requirement for an army camp to have a latrine.
The Torah tells us, “You shall designate a place outside the camp to go out to (i.e., for use as a lavatory). You shall keep a spade among your weapons so that when you sit down outside (i.e., use the facilities) you will dig with it, go back and cover your excrement. This is because Hashem your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to deliver your enemies before you. Therefore, your camp must be holy, so that He should not see anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.”
Long story short: We want our homes to be clean because Hashem is with us in them.
Also touching on the subject of clean homes, the Talmud in Kesubos (110b) discusses moves that a man can and cannot impose upon his household. One can’t, for example, force a move from a village to a city. Rashi explains the reason one can’t compel such a move: cities are more crowded and filthy; even the air in a city isn’t clean compared to the air in a village. (One also can’t compel a move from a “nice” to a “bad” residence, though the terms aren’t defined so one can only speculate as to the parameters intended.)
But the idea of clean homes really kicks in when it comes to Shabbos.
No, not Pesach. Pesach isn’t about cleanliness. It’s about chometz-removal. The fact that people go into overdrive cleaning for Pesach is because people choose to. It’s not the intention of cleaning for Passover. But Shabbos? For Shabbos, it’s a mitzvah to clean!
Regarding Shabbos, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 262:1) says, “One must set his table, arrange his cushions and fix the appearance of the house in order to find things neat and organized when he returns from shul.” Similarly, the floors are to be washed and swept, the beds are to be made, the chairs arranged, the guest rooms set, the silver polished and the walls dusted (see Aruch HaShulchan OC 262:1). One should verbalize that one is doing all this in honor of Shabbos (Kaf HaChaim 262:19).
The source of this practice is the gemara in Shabbos (119b), where it says that a person is escorted by two angels on Friday night, one good and one evil. If the house is found clean and ready for Shabbos, the good angel pronounces a blessing and the evil angel is compelled to ratify it. If the house is found in chaos and disarray, the evil angel pronounces a curse and the good angel is compelled to ratify it.
Because of the various Sabbath laws, we don’t perform most forms of housework on Shabbos. Among the labors we would normally avoid are washing dishes and cleaning the floor. Nevertheless, there is a certain inherent value to a clean house beyond getting ready for Shabbos. Accordingly, one who would never leave a sink full of dishes during the week might be permitted (at least according to some authorities) not to leave the dishes unwashed on Shabbos, while particularly dirty floors or local spills might be cleaned. [In such cases, one must ensure to do the activity in a permitted fashion and not in the usual weekday manner; consult your own rabbi for guidance.]
So we see that Judaism values cleanliness in concentric circles, from our bodies, to our clothes, to our homes. The mishnaic tractate of Sotah concludes (9:15), “Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair used to say, ‘Zeal leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to purity; purity leads to restraint; restraint leads to holiness; holiness leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to piety; piety leads to Divine inspiration; Divine inspiration leads to the revival of the dead; and the revival of the dead comes about through the prophet Elijah, of blessed memory.’”
Cleanliness may not be next to godliness but it’s certainly an important link in the chain!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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