The mouth matters

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“One certainly considers his mouth a significant area.”

My post today is a public service announcement of sorts. Despite what the Gemara tells us is allowable, there are things that one should just not do for the greater good. We are in the middle of a public health crisis unlike any most of us have experienced in our lifetime, and it is critical that we wear masks and avoid spreading spittle particles. And gentlemen, please keep your “male members” firmly locked away and wait until you find a proper bathroom to relieve yourselves like women do. It does not matter if you are in a private domain, or within four handbreadths of a public domain, or are crossing through an intermediate one, keep your “male members” and your bodily fluids to yourself.

The Mishna tells us today that “a person may not stand in a private domain and urinate or spit into the public domain.” Rav Yosef tells us that such an act will bring a sin-offering. Perhaps there is a neighbor who witnesses this act and is brave enough to call the person out who is doing this, regardless of domain. Spitting by some odd extension of logic is compared with carrying, and we are told that one cannot spit on Shabbat because his mouth is not four by four handbreadths in size.

I would like to add that spitting is a mostly male unhygienic habit which I used to observe a lot more often on the street. New York, thank goodness, is a city where almost everyone wears masks, which serves as a mitigant. But who are the few people who walk around this city that saw so much tragedy back in March and April who do not wear masks? Why do they believe they are exempt from public health measures? I live near a police station, and for some reason, the officers hang out in large groups without masks. I do not understand why they are exempt from what is a city mandate.

The voice of the Gemara reminds us of the importance of intention and makes a leap of faith into an imaginary measurement. We are told that “one’s intent renders it an area of significance,” and by extension, “as one certainly considers his mouth a significant area, it is regarded as four by four handbreadths in size.” In other words, although no one’s mouth is actually that big, including the big mouths among us who always have something to say, one’s mouth can be considered four by four handbreadths in size even if it is not the actual measurement, because the mouth matters. This argument is strangely supported by the act of intentionally throwing a ball which is caught by a dog’s mouth. We are told that by extension, “here too, his intent renders his own mouth a significant area.”

Rava analyzes a scenario where a man is standing in a private domain and opens “his male member in the public domain”and he relieves himself. He asks if we should follow the domain where the urine leaves the bladder which is in the private one, or if we should follow the flow of the emission which lands in the public one. Did Rava really go there? He is unable to unravel this dilemma and the Gemara says to “let is stand unresolved.” First, just don’t do it gentlemen. Second, how can this act of public exhibition cross two domains? I get the picture; let’s move on.

The discussion does not get much better. We are provided with the image of someone who is crossing domains with phlegm “detached” from his mouth. This is a very unfortunate image, and especially during these coronavirus times. We are told that one may not “walk four cubits in the public domain” until it is “turned over.” And he may not expel it before his master (would that be his teacher? boss? significant other? perhaps anyone at all?) or he will be “liable for the punishment of death at the hand of Heaven.” This is a serious transgression by someone who has made himself “hateful” as the result of his actions. This is especially true during a pandemic and applies to those few people who are walking around New York City without masks.

As I write this, the days are getting shorter and colder, and I am fearful of what lies ahead. The cases of coronavirus are rising around the globe. This includes New York City where I live, although our numbers remain lower than elsewhere. But I know of people who attended large Halloween parties a few weeks ago against all logic and common sense. One actually told me that he was hoping to be exposed to the virus because he believes in “herd immunity.” I told him that I could no longer meet him for outdoor dining because I cannot risk being exposed.

But of course, everything I do is subject to risk analysis these days, including who I meet up with. I have constructed a hierarchy of risk, much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My hierarchy includes at the top where I am willing to take the most risk (the hair salon) and on the bottom the least risk (the subway). I cannot help but think that after everything that New York has been through, that those who are flouting the scientific guidance to wear a mask, maintain social distancing and wash one’s hands often, are not hateful themselves, but are acting in a hateful and anti-social manner.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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