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The Bathroom Blessing Whisperer

February 7, 2016 | by Ruchama Feuerman

The sublime act of thanking God after going to the bathroom.

My brother was trying to decide if a friend of mine was too religious for him to date. We were both in our teens then. I had no idea how he defined “too religious.”

“Just tell me,” he said. “Is she the kind that says that weird blessing when she comes out of the bathroom?”

He was referring to the after-bathroom-blessing, also known as Asher Yatzar (meaning, ‘that was formed.) It loosely translates as: “Thank You, God, who formed human beings with wisdom and created them with openings and orifices. If one of these orifices were ruptured or one of them blocked, whoa – it would be impossible to stand before You and survive. Blessed are You, God who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

I had recently taken up the practice of saying Asher Yatzar myself and I sort of got why it was his litmus test for an over-the-top religious person. It required a real commitment. Asher Yatzar wasn’t the sort of thing you could say once a day, like the morning prayers, in the privacy of your home, and then move on, blending seamlessly into the outside world. The bathroom blessing followed you. For every single tinkle, every movement of the bowels, one had to praise the Almighty, sometimes is the most unlikely locations .

I have said the Asher Yatzar blessing in McDonalds (after using their bathroom, not eating their food), outside Porta-potties at hog fares in New Jersey, at train stations, coming out of tiny airplane stalls, in my voluminous wedding dress, when in labor, and then post-labor, when I could barely keep my eyes open.

I have uttered Asher Yatzar at all my jobs, some of which oppressed me body and spirit. Yet whenever I recited the brief blessing, I’d feel a tiny awakening, or even a frisson of subversive delight. The prayer reminded me that I had a life outside of work, that I had a self, and, corny as it sounds, a soul. For that moment, no obnoxious boss or snooty co-worker or endless filing could wound me.

I have said the prayer absent-mindedly, yawning in the middle of the night, reflexively, quickly, rushing through the words like a train passing through some non-descript town, and I have also lingered over each word, giving each its own breath, as though uttering a love song to my sweetheart.

When people catch me in the Asher Yatzar act, sometimes I have to explain to people what I’m doing. Then their jaws drop. They find it hilarious, outrageous, or cool. Some don’t get it. Why should anyone thank God for going to the bathroom? But it seems intuitively right to appreciate this most basic bodily function. My father who struggled with constipation for most of his life would get tears of relief and joy whenever he was able to relieve himself.

And yet, perhaps the sages waxed a little too poetic with the wording, as in: "Blessed are You, God who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.” Heals all flesh? Come on! What did that even mean?

One day I got an inkling.

A few years back my then seven-year-old daughter came down with a terrible case of psoriasis – a freak reaction to strep throat. Red scaly amoeba-like patches covered nearly 85 percent of her body, her scalp, soles of her feet, between the toes. None of the hydrocortisones, sun lamps or powerful creams helped, or if they did, never for very long. At his wits end, the dermatologist suggested methotextrane, low-dosage chemo. That’s when I turned to an Italian octogenarian chiropractor who had devoted his life to healing psoriasis. Dr. Pagano said that elimination was the answer. Her gut needed healing. He put my daughter on a strictly anti-inflammatory diet that aimed for two to three bowel movements a day.

Body and soul don’t have to be enemies. They can dance together.

After six weeks her skin felt like butter, more soft and beautiful than it had been as a baby. Not a trace of red remained. Apparently, it’s not news to holistic doctors or Chinese medicine that so much health depends on proper elimination. I couldn’t resist sharing the Asher Yatzar blessing with Dr. Pagano. He was deeply moved and impressed that these sages of long ago understood that a good bowel movement was the key to good health.

A sixteenth century rabbi composed a poem: Pay attention to the soul. But Asher Yatzar tells me, Pay attention to the body. There’s wealth there. Maybe spiritual wealth. Sure, a mind can apprehend God – but so can a body. Sometimes the body knows things that the mind can’t. In fact, body and soul don’t have to be enemies. They can dance together, a little. Work with each other. Here’s how: Say Asher Yatzar.

Want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Say Asher Yatzar.

Want to feel a moment of liberation or transcendence in the midst of your day? Say Asher Yatzar.

Eric Hoffer wrote, “The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” Saying Asher Yatzar helps me master that math.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Forward.


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