By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
The Torah considers human dignity to be of primary importance and it is even a factor when deciding halachic matters. In fact, it was in order to maintain a high standard of both individual and national dignity that the Torah commands us not to engage in any activity that could be viewed as disgusting. The prohibition against doing anything disgusting is known as “Bal Teshaktzu”.
The principles of Ba’al Teshaktzu are continually subject to re-evaluation and application based on both personal preferences and social norms. Indeed, we see throughout halachic literature that there have been authorities who would prohibit something under the clause of Ba’al Teshaktzu while other authorities would permit the same things – each based on their own understanding of what is “disgusting”. Some examples of Ba’al Teshaktzu:
One is forbidden to eat any food that most people find disgusting even if one happens to enjoy it. Foods which most people do enjoy though a significant minority of the population will consider disgusting may be eaten. One should be sure never to chew with one’s mouth open. Similarly, it is forbidden to remove chewed up food from one’s mouth or to eat previously chewed food. One is obligated to wash one’s hands before touching any food. Don’t ever share drinking glasses with anyone. Some authorities suggest that eating and cooking utensils that have absorbed disgusting substances be kashered prior to being used again. One should not use vulgar and inappropriate language, ever.
Touching anything revolting is also forbidden and should only be done with the assistance of an interposition such as gloves and the like. One should also not pick one’s nose, spit in public, nor engage in any activity which onlookers may find offensive. Need one be reminded that embarrassing others is also a severe prohibition? One who gains honor by degrading another has no share in the world to come. It is imperative that we impart such values to our children as well.
While swallowing a live fish is essentially permissible most rabbis have forbidden doing so, deeming it a disgusting practice subject to Ba’al Teshaktzu. So too, although eating certain bugs and even drinking urine is essentially permissible,these things should not be done under the principles of Ba’al Teshaktzu.
A common application of Ba’al Teshaktzu applies to those who resist the urge to relive themselves. The point in which one is required to immediately relive oneself is when the urge is so great that one cannot stop thinking about it. If, however, it is due to considerations of human dignity that one is unable to go the bathroom then it is permitted to continue to abstain. So too, it is permissible to abstain from relieving oneself where medical considerations are a factor. There are documented cases of illnesses that were brought on by withholding oneself from bodily eliminations.