Reciting Brachos in the Presence of Unpleasant Odors
The source for this halacha is in this week’s parsha, Ki Seitzei.
Question #1: I work in a factory where many pungent chemicals are used. May I recite a bracha at work?
Question #2: I changed the baby’s diaper and the room still has a foul odor. May I bensch now? How long must I wait until I can bensch? Is there any way I can shorten that time? May I put the soiled diaper in the kitchen garbage without worrying about reciting brachos there?
Question #3: Two people are studying together when one of them detects a plumbing problem in the vicinity. His friend cannot smell any foul odor. May they continue?
Question #4: May I wash for bread in a public restroom? Can I discuss Torah while walking through city streets where there are dumpsters or dog droppings?
In other articles, I explored the brachos recited before smelling pleasant fragrances. As we all know, not all odors are pleasant, but we may not realize that there are halachos pertaining to foul-smelling odors. Specifically, one may not recite a bracha, study Torah aloud, or daven when he detects an unpleasant smell. Although this rule seems straightforward enough, its halachos are actually a bit more complicated, as we will see.
An introductory comment:
As a general rule, whenever one may not recite a bracha, one may also not daven, answer a davar she’bikedusha, such as kaddish or kedusha, or study Torah aloud. In these circumstances, one may not recite Divrei Torah in any language. One is permitted to speak Hebrew about everyday matters, even though Hebrew is the Holy Tongue (Gemara Shabbos 40b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 85:2) One may not mention names of Hashem in Hebrew; however, one may use words that refer to Hashem, such as Rachum, HaRachaman, and HaMakom (see Rambam, Hil. Keriyas Shma 3:5, based on Gemara Shabbos 10b). For simplicity’s sake, throughout this article I will refer to reciting brachos, but one should realize that all the other Torah activities mentioned above have the same halachic status.
For halachic purposes, there are three categories of malodorous circumstances that prohibit reciting brachos:
1. When the source of the odor is noticeable, such as manure, something rotten or a soiled diaper. This category is called reiach ra she-yesh lo ikar, lit., an unpleasant odor that has substance.
2. Places meant to hold human waste that are usually foul-smelling, where it is halachically prohibited to recite a bracha even when the area is clean, such as an outhouse (Berachos 26a). I will refer to these places by their halachic term, a beis hakisei. I will discuss later whether contemporary toilets, bathrooms, children’s potties, bedpans and catheters are included in this category.
3. When the unpleasant smell has no noticeable substance, such as after one has removed the source or in the case of flatulence. This is called reiach ra she’ayn lo ikar, lit., a foul odor without substance. I will soon explain the halachos of these three categories.
AN IMPORTANT EXCEPTION
Only substances whose malodor results from decomposition prohibit reciting a bracha, but not inherently foul-smelling items, such as pitch (Chayei Odom 3:12; Mishnah Berurah 79:23). According to this ruling, one may recite a bracha in the presence of exhaust fumes or the stench generated by a skunk, since it is not a result of decomposition. Thus, we can answer the first question asked above: “I work in a factory where many pungent chemicals are used. May I recite a bracha at work?” The answer is that you may, since this smell does not result from spoilage. However, one may not recite a bracha in the presence of foul-smelling compost or dead frogs or rotten fish, whether in Egypt or not.
1. MALODORS WITH SUBSTANCE
Reciting a bracha where one can smell a malodor that comes from a noticeable substance, such as manure or rotten food, is forbidden min haTorah. If the bracha was recited knowing that there is a foul odor, it is invalid and has the status of a bracha l’vatalah, a bracha recited in vain. One must repeat this bracha after the source of the foul odor has been removed and the odor has dissipated. I will discuss shortly whether one must recite the bracha again if one did not realize that the malodorous item was nearby.
In some cases, Chazal instructed us to treat an item as being malodorous even if we do not necessarily consider it particularly ill-smelling. For example, halacha considers the feces of a baby older than about six months (the age at which a child begins to eat grain cereals) as a malodorous substance. This is true even though this particular baby has not yet begun to eat solids (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 81:1). [It is noteworthy that the Rambam (Hil. Keriyas Shma 3:6) contends that the halacha depends on whether this particular baby is eating solids, and not on his or her age. However, the accepted psak halacha is to follow the Shulchan Aruch that this halacha is contingent on the age of the child, unless he is physically unable to eat solids (Magen Avraham 81:1; Mishnah Berurah 81:2).] One may recite brachos near the soil produced by a child younger than six months.
HOW FAR MUST YOU BE FROM THE MALODOROUS SUBSTANCE?
How far from the foul odor must you be to recite a bracha? This depends on a few factors:
Is the malodorous substance covered? If it is uncovered, then you must be more than four amos, about seven feet, from where its odor ends (see Berachos 25a). That is, one must walk to where the average person can no longer detect the malodor, and then distance oneself four more amos from where the malodor ends, and there one may recite a bracha (based on Biur Halacha to 79:1 s.v. oh).
SEEING BUT NOT SMELLING
The Rishonim dispute whether one may recite a bracha from this distance if one can see the malodorous matter. According to the Rosh, one may recite a bracha from a different room if one is sufficiently distant from the source of the foul odor, even if one can still see the source of the odor, whereas the Rashba (Shu’t # 168) rules that one cannot recite a bracha if one can see it. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 83:1) rules leniently, like the Rosh, although other poskim conclude that one should be stringent, like the Rashba. Many poskim contend that even according to the Rashba, it is sufficient if one closes one’s eyes, since now one cannot see the malodorous material, provided one is in a different room. One may rely on this approach in extenuating circumstances (Biur Halacha, introduction to Chapter 79).
If the malodorous material is covered, the poskim dispute whether you may recite a bracha when you cannot smell it, even though you are within four amos of the substance (Byur Halacha, introduction to Chapter 79). The lenient approach contends that since the source of the odor is covered, one may recite a bracha as long as one cannot smell the foul odor. Others contend that even though the source of the odor is covered, one still may not recite a bracha unless one is more than four amos from where it can be smelled.
If the source of the odor is covered so well that no odor emanates at all, all poskim agree that one may recite a bracha, even when right next to it. This is true even if one can see the malodorous material through a plastic bag or pane of glass, since the soil is covered.
Therefore, if a soiled diaper has been placed in a plastic bag, one may recite a bracha anywhere around it, since no ill odor emanates at all beyond the bag (VeZos HaBeracha pg. 150).
We may now answer the last part of Question #2 above:
“May I put the soiled diaper in the kitchen garbage without worrying about reciting brachos there?”
The answer is that if one bags the diaper in a way that no odor emanates from it, one may recite brachos nearby without any concern. (If the baby is younger than the age when children eat solid food, then there is no concern at all.)
Someone who made a bracha without checking a child’s diaper and subsequently found that the child was soiled is not required to recite a new bracha (see VeZos HaBeracha, pg. 150).
One does not need to be concerned about reciting a bracha near a wet diaper, provided that there is no noticeable odor (Berachos 25a).
2. AREAS THAT ARE USUALLY MALODOROUS
One may not recite a bracha in certain areas that usually have bad odors even if they are presently clean and pleasant smelling. For example, one may not recite a bracha in or near a primitive commode or chamber pot made of earthenware, wood, of other porous material, even if it is clean at the moment and is odor-free (Brachos 25b; Shulchan Aruch 83:1). Since these items usually retain a foul odor even after they are emptied, one may not recite a bracha near them ever. Davening facing these items is prohibited min HaTorah (Rabbeinu Yonah).
However, Chazal ruled that if the beis hakisei is made of metal or glass and it is clean, one may recite a bracha near it since metal and glass do not absorb odors (Shulchan Aruch 87:1; Mishnah Berurah ad loc. See however Taz 87:2.). Therefore, one may recite a bracha near a metal bedpan, provided that it is completely clean and odor-free. Similarly, one may recite a bracha near a covered catheter since no odor emanates from it (VeZos HaBeracha p. 150, quoting Rav Ben Zion Abba Shaul 6:15). Some poskim require putting an additional cover over the catheter (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:27).
Many authorities contend that whether one may recite a bracha when one can see a beis hakisei is dependent on the same dispute I mentioned above between the Rosh and the Rashba, whether one may recite a bracha when one can see the source of the odor but is too distant to smell it. Following these authorities, the Rosh permits reciting a bracha while facing the open door of a beis hakisei, provided that one is more than four amos from where its odor ends, whereas the Rashba prohibits reciting the bracha under these circumstances. On the other hand, other authorities contend that all opinions forbid reciting a bracha when one can see any part of the beis hakisei, even its outside (Biur Halacha 83:1 s.v. im).
The later-day poskim dispute whether our bathrooms have the halachic status of the beis hakisei of the days of Chazal. Some poskim are lenient, since our bathrooms are much cleaner than old-time outhouses (Shu’t Zakan Aharon 1:1; Shu’t Minchas Yitzchok 1:60). Others contend that our bathrooms should still be treated as a beis hakisei (see Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 3:1). Both the Chazon Ish (Orach Chayim 17:4) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 1:114) rule that we should treat our bathrooms as a safek (questionable) beis hakisei. The universal practice is to not recite brachos in the bathroom, but some people are lenient about washing their hands there. Rav Moshe rules that one may not wash for bread in our bathrooms, but one may wash his hands there before davening, although one should dry one’s hands outside the bathroom.
According to what I have explained above, if we assume that our bathrooms have the halachic status of a beis hakisei; one should not recite a bracha, sing zemiros, or say divrei Torah facing the bathroom when its door is ajar. However, if we assume that it is only questionable, then one may have grounds to be lenient.
WASHING FOR BREAD IN A PUBLIC RESTROOM
According to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 83:1), one may recite a bracha if there are mechitzos (walls or dividers) between yourself and a beis hakisei, provided you do not smell any foul odor. According to his ruling, one may wash for bread and recite a bracha inside the restroom, provided one is beyond the mechitzos separating the hygienic facilities and one cannot smell any odor (Chazon Ish 17:5). According to the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling, one need not be four amos from where the odor ends to recite a bracha. Many poskim add one more qualification to this case before permitting it — they require that the area between the bottom of the facility dividers and the floor be less than three tefachim (about eleven inches) so that the dividers qualify as full mechitzos (Bach; Mishnah Berurah 83:4).
However, many poskim disagree with the above-quoted ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, for two reasons: 1. They contend that one needs to be 4 amos distant from where the odor ends. 2. They contend that the wall of the beis hakisei is itself considered part of the beis hakisei. According to the stricter ruling, if we assume that our bathrooms have the halacha of a beis hakisei, one needs to be more than four amos from where the odor ends and one must be facing away from the dividers that surround the commodes (Taz and Magen Avraham 83:1; Mishnah Berurah 83:5). Note that according to all opinions, if the sinks in the restroom are separated from the comfort facilities by their own divider or mechitzah and they are more than four amos from where the odor ends, one may wash for bread and recite a bracha there, provided one is not facing the commode dividers when reciting the bracha.
The contemporary poskim dispute whether a child’s potty is halachically equivalent to a beis hakisei, or whether it is more like our bathrooms, where there is more grounds for lenience. According to most opinions, one may not recite a bracha in the presence of a potty, even if it is completely clean and has no odor at all. One may recite a bracha if one does not smell any odor and the potty is completely covered by a cloth or something similar (Shaarei Teshuvah 81:2) or if it is in a different room (Mishnah Berurah 83:13).
Some poskim contend that if a potty has a seat and a bowl that are two separate pieces, the seat is not considered a beis hakisei (Chazon Ish 17:3). According to this opinion, one may recite a bracha while this seat is in the room, provided that there is no foul odor and the bowl is not here. However, most poskim contend that this seat should be treated like a beis hakisei and it must be covered completely or removed to a different room (Chayei Odom 3:10; Mishnah Berurah 83:13).
Since most dumpsters are malodorous, many poskim contend that we should treat them like toilets or potties. Thus, if one can see the dumpster, one should preferably not recite brachos etc., even if one cannot smell any malodor. According to the Rashba, this is true even if you and the dumpster are in different areas, such as you are indoors and can see the dumpster through an open window. (According to all opinions, there would be no problem reciting a bracha while seeing a dumpster through a closed window, since it is not worse than seeing a covered malodorous material.) Other poskim contend that a dumpster is not as strict as a toilet (VeZos HaBeracha pg. 151). According to this opinion, there is no problem with reciting a bracha near a dumpster, providing there is no objectionable odor emanating from it.
EXAMPLE: In one Beis Medrash where I used to learn, through the window was a prominent view of a dumpster. Thus, according to Rashba, one should not learn Torah while facing the dumpster through an open window, whereas according to other poskim, this poses no problem.
We are now in a position to discuss one of the questions asked above: “May I discuss Torah topics while walking through the streets, although there may be dumpsters, garbage cans, or dog droppings on the street?” Whether or not the dumpster presents a halachic problem is a dispute among contemporary poskim, and each individual should ask his own Rav. In reference to the dog droppings, it should be noted that not all animal manure possesses an odor foul enough to be considered a problem. The Gemara (Berachos 25a) implies that dog manure is not automatically considered malodorous enough to be a rei’ach ra (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 79:4). Similarly, the manure of some other species is also not considered to be ill-smelling (Rosh, Berachos 3:46), whereas the manure of turkeys, cats, and donkeys is considered to have a pungent odor (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 79:5; Chayei Odom 3:6).
3. ODOR WITHOUT A SUBSTANCE
Halacha calls foul odors that have no visible source as “rei’ach ra she’ain lo ikar, lit., a foul scent without any substance. This class includes situations where one removed the ill-smelling matter from the room, yet some vestigial odor remains. The category also includes foul smell caused by flatulence (Rashi, Berachos 25a).
Reciting a bracha while smelling items included under this type of malodor is prohibited only miderabbanan (Mishnah Berurah 79:30, quoting Pri Megadim and Ramban), and, as such, its halachos are somewhat more lenient than the previous groupings we studied. For example, if there is no foul-smelling substance nearby, but only a foul odor, one need distance himself only from the scent, but does not need to distance himself the additional four amos (Rambam, Hil. Keriyas Shma 3:12; Mishnah Berurah 79:32).
A lenience applies also in the following case: Since the prohibition is only while the air smells foul, spraying room deodorizer to cloud the scent suffices to allow you to recite a bracha (see Shu’t Maharsham 2:38). Thus, the answer to Question #2 above: “I changed the baby’s diaper and the room still smells. May I bensch now?” The answer is that one may not recite any brachos until the odor dissipates; however, one may spray deodorizer to mask the odor and then bensch immediately.
I mentioned above that whenever one may not recite a bracha because one can smell a foul odor, one may also not daven, answer a davar she’bikedusha such as kaddish or kedusha, and usually one may not learn Torah aloud, either. However, a foul odor that does not have a source has a lenience concerning learning Torah. One may study Torah when smelling this type of malodor, provided it was not the result of one’s own flatulence (Berachos 25a). Since the prohibition in this instance is only miderabbanan, Chazal were lenient in order to avoid excessive bitul Torah.
If someone smells flatulence in the middle of davening, he should wait until the odor subsides and then continue davening from where he was (Berachos 24b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 79:9). However, one may not daven knowing that one will be flatulent during davening. To quote the words of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 80), “it is better for him to miss davening altogether than to daven and be flatulent during davening. If he missed davening as a result, it is beyond his control and he should daven the next prayer with a make-up shemoneh esrei”. These words of Shulchan Aruch are a direct quotation of the Rosh (Shu’t 4:1).
SOMEONE WHO CANNOT SMELL
Someone who cannot smell, either because he has a bad cold or has a permanent impairment, is bound by the same halachos as someone who can smell (Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 79:1). Therefore, he may not recite a bracha or learn Torah unless he is more than four amos distant from the point at which a person with a normal sense of smell would no longer be able to smell the odor.
Similarly, at night one is required to distance oneself from the source of the foul odor the distance that one would be able to see it by day (Rosh, Berachos 3:46, quoting Yerushalmi).
However, in this halacha there is a tremendous difference between a substance that smells foul and a case of a rei’ach ra she’ein lo ikar, where there is no visible source of the odor. If the foul odor is without a visible source, then one who does not smell the bad odor may recite a bracha even though other people who smell a foul odor may not (Magen Avraham 79:9; Mishnah Berurah 79:19).
When making a presentation to a human king, someone would be exceedingly careful to have his clothes clean and in neat order, and certainly would be exceedingly careful that there are no objectionable odors. Certainly when we are davening, learning Torah, or reciting brachos in Hashem’s service, we too should be careful that there is no objectionable odor. The Gemara (Taanis 20b) tells us that the disciples of the Amora, Rav Adda bar Ahavah, asked him why he merited longevity. Rav Adda answered that this was because he was careful in several halachos, including not thinking about Divrei Torah in inappropriate places. Thus, we see that that carefully observing these halachos leads us not only to a greater honor of Hashem, but also leads to long years.