Holy Laundry

Friends, don’t you ever wonder why the Israelites were told to do laundry before receiving the Ten Commandments? Or why a priestly ritual was not complete until the priest did his own laundry???

Wonder no more. This long-lost passage of Talmud from “Tractate Laundry” explains the spiritual significance of it all. (Readers: it helps if you have read Talmud before.)

Mishnah. Never wash a new red anything with anything else. Gemara. In hot water only, or also in cold? A tanna taught: Always sort by color. Can this enter your mind? Is it not written “Make it blue, purple, and scarlet?” Said Rav Dimi, in Israel we sort by fabric weight. As it is written “a garment mixed of linen and wool shall not come upon you.” Another: sort as it is stored, “They built storage cities.” If laundry is overflowing, wash it randomly? Underwear must be first, as is written “breeches to cover their nakedness that they bear not iniquity and die.” What is die? Of shame. A tanna taught before Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, anyone who whitens the face of his fellow in public is as if he sheds blood. Said Abaye’s nurse, wear clean underwear in case you are in a car wreck. Rav said, a malicious wife ruins laundry and you die. Beruriah laundered sixteen socks, eight returned. Said Rabbi Meir, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Rabbi Eliezer said, if halacha is in accordance with me, the washing machine will overflow. Imma Shalom fell on her face. It happened that Beruriah’s brother son of Rabbi Hananya ben Teradion requested a rule of laundry. She said twenty-six rules then came back with one, never wash a new red anything with anything else. After ten years Beruriah and the wife of her brother found under the bed of his friend his white towel splashed pink. Said his mother, “A foolish son is the vexation to his father.”

Contemporary scholars comment:

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: In the Torah, laundry is generally acknowledged to be the province of priests. Due to the secrecy surrounding this practice, after the destruction of the Temple no halakha was developed around it. Whether or not it is appropriate for women to do laundry is still a matter of controversy among rabbinic authorities.

Dr. Judith Hauptmann: By acknowledging that laundry is the province of women, yet giving it a scientific treatment, the rabbis are attempting to improve the status of women within the limitations of their social order.

Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams: The story at the end of this tractate shows it is really about the passing of tradition from family member to family member. Here “laundry” functions as a metaphor for Torah. Torah is like our clothing, endlessly renewable if we approach it with proper care.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner: We must ask ourselves, what is the logical form of this document before us? It relates an internally consistent set of propositions to another internally consistent set of propositions external to the first, by means of parody.


Note: I wrote this in 2002. The story about the rule of laundry and the pink towel is true, but the brother involved shall not be named. Images: blinkdecor.com, ehow.com

    1. Yes, it’s a lovely story! Illustrates that old metaphor of “sabra.” BTW, in a laundromat, if I have to use a dryer that has a pile of dry clothes in it, I always fold the stranger’s stuff…and someone did get angry about that once!

  1. In the spirit of this blog, I wonder: Does the Torah have anything to say about the significance of a dancing washing machine?

  2. Too funny – although I only sorta kinda got some of the Judaic in-jokes. However, my eyebrows went up at the thought of the white towel, stained pink, hidden under the bed – and my mind wandered into thoughts of identifying the state of [em]niddah[/em], but I could be reading too much into it…

    1. Thanks, Miriam. I hadn’t thought of that connection, probably because I know that the real life towel was unfortunately washed with a new red something. But who am I to deny metaphors latent in the text!

  3. That was hilarious! and very well executed!

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