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Peninei Halakha > Women's Prayer > Chapter 09: Preparing the Body for Prayer

Chapter 09: Preparing the Body for Prayer

01. Netilat Yadayim

One who prays the Amida must cleanse herself; it is therefore a mitzva to wash one’s hands before prayer. However, there is a distinction between a situation in which she knows that her hands are sullied and the normal case where she does not know whether her hands have been dirtied.

For example, if one knows that her hands are dirty because she relieved herself or touched body parts that are normally covered – areas that soiled from perspiration – she must wash her hands before praying. Le-khatĥila, she should pour water over her entire hand with a vessel, as one washes before a meal. However, be-di’avad, if she rinses her hands with water without a vessel, she fulfilled her obligation of preparing herself for prayer, because most important is that her hands are clean before she prays.

If there is no water nearby, she must take the trouble to walk up to the distance of a mil (912 m). If there is no water even within a mil, or there is water but the designated time for prayer will pass if she treks to it, she may rub her hands with sand or on her clothing in order to remove any trace of dirt from them – and then she may pray (SA 92:4; MB 92:20, Peninei Halakha: Prayer, 5:2 n. 1). 1 the [normally] covered parts of one’s body, because they contain beads of sweat. For instance, scratching one’s head [is considered touching a dirty place].” This refers to rubbing the roots of one’s hair, but if someone only touches the top of her head, she does not need to wash her hands (SAH; MB 162:58, 164:10).

Concerning a woman who knows that her hair is clean, for example, one who just recently washed her head, in the opinion of some Aĥaronim, she does not need to wash her hands even is she scratches the roots of her hair (Tzitz Eliezer 7:2:14). One may rely on this opinion as long as she feels that this area is clean from the washing, although when her hair is covered, sweat accumulates there faster. See Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 5 n. 2.

Concerning one who touches other normally covered parts of the body: If her body is washed clean and does not have beads of sweat on it, the Aĥaronim disagree as to whether or not she must wash her hands. Eshel Avraham (Buczacz) 4:21 is stringent, and Yabi’a Omer, part 5, 1:4-5, cites poskim who are lenient.

Touching earwax and mucus is considered touching a normally covered part of the body (Rema 92:7 and Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 5 n. 2).

With regard to Torah study and reciting berakhot, one who normally touches covered parts may be-di’avad rub her hands on her clothes and then study Torah or recite berakhot (SA 4:23 and MB 4:61). ]

Under normal circumstances, that is, when a woman did not wash her hands recently but does not remember touching something dirty or body parts that are normally covered, the poskim disagree about whether she must wash her hands before prayer. Hence, if there is water available, she should wash her hands. However, if there is no water near her, she does not need to wash her hands and may rely on the poskim who maintain that hands under normal circumstances need not be washed before prayer. To dispel uncertainty, she should preferably rub her hands on her clothing (SA 92:5, 233:2; MB 92:26; BHL s.v. “Ve-im”).

One who leaves the bathroom after having washed her hands and is then careful not to touch the parts of her body which are normally covered need not wash her hands again before praying. However, if she was not mindful of that, she must wash her hands. If no water is available, since she is not certain that her hands are unclean, she may pray without washing.

  1. If one is walking on her way and within the four mil (c. 3.65 km) ahead of her there is water, she must walk to it and only then pray. SA 92:7 states: “A dirty area is [defined as

02. Preparing One’s Body for the Amida

The Sages teach that one who needs to use the bathroom, be it to urinate or to defecate, may not pray (Berakhot 23a). There are two reasons for this: 1. The need for relief is likely to disrupt one’s kavana (Rambam); and 2. It is not proper to come to pray before God when the body is made repulsive by the excrement inside it (Hagahot Maimoniyot). Even if one is uncertain as to whether or not she needs to use the bathroom, the Sages say that le-khatĥila one should use the bathroom (Berakhot 15a). The Sages support their statement with the verse (Amos 4:12), “Israel, prepare to meet your God.” It is also written: “Guard your foot when you go to the House of God” (Kohelet 4:17), which they interpret to mean that one should ensure that she does not need to relieve herself when she gets up to pray.

One who has a cold should wipe her nose before praying so that she need not do so while praying. If the phlegm in her throat bothers her, she should expel it before praying so that it does not distract her during prayers (SA 92:3). If she must wipe her nose while praying, she should do so in the most polite way possible. Similarly, if she needs to yawn, she should cover her mouth with her hand, because one who stands in prayer must be very careful to show honor to heaven, and all actions that are considered impolite before people are also prohibited during prayer (see SA 97:1-2).

03. One Who Must Relieve Herself While Praying

There are two levels of need: 1) a need so pressing that the person praying estimates that it is impossible to wait even the amount of time it takes to walk a parsa (approximately 72 minutes); 2) a need to relieve oneself, but which can be held in for longer than 72 minutes. We will now describe the particular laws of each level.

If one begins to recite the Amida when she will not be able to hold in the need to defecate for 72 minutes, her prayer is considered abominable and she does not fulfill her obligation. She must repeat her prayer after relieving herself. If she recites the Amida when she when she will not be able to hold in the need to urinate for 72 minutes, though she clearly acted improperly, there is a dispute among Aĥaronim about whether her prayer is considered abominable. Since this ruling remains in doubt, she is not obligated to repeat her prayer, but one who wishes to avoid uncertainty may repeat the Amida as a voluntary prayer (tefilat nedava) (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 8 n. 7).

If one is able to control herself for 72 minutes and she recites the Amida, her prayer is considered valid because her need to relieve herself is not so urgent. Le-khatĥila, even one who can wait 72 minutes should not pray. If the time to pray will pass if she goes to the bathroom, she should pray immediately so that she will not miss praying altogether (SA 92:1; MB 92:5).

The determination of how long one can hold it in depends on the person. If one initially thought she could wait 72 minutes after praying realizes that she cannot hold out that long, her prayer is still considered valid since at the time she started to pray she believed that she could contain her need (BHL 92:1, s.v. “Shi’ur Parsa”). 1

  1. The Rishonim disagree about one who needs to relieve herself but can wait 72 minutes. According to Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, Rambam, and Rosh, she should not pray, and that is the ruling in SA 92:1. Rif and Rashi maintain that she may pray le-khatĥila. In practice, when the need to relieve oneself is slight, one may be lenient, especially since there are people who always feel a slight need to relieve themselves. If, in order to relieve herself, she needs to exert herself to help push out the waste, then there is an opinion that she is not at all transgressing the prohibition, “Do not abominate yourself” (“bal teshaktzu”), and she may pray (the notes of R. Mordechai Eliyahu to Kitzur SA 12:3, in the name of an opinion cited in Ben Ish Ĥai, Vayetzei 3). As I initially mentioned, le-khatĥila one must try to relieve herself before prayer, as explained in Berakhot 15a and SA 2:6. Also see Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 5 n. 8.

04. One who Needs to Relieve Herself in the Middle of the Amida

If one began praying when she had no need to relieve herself but a great need arose in the middle of her prayer, since she began praying in a permitted state, she may continue her prayer for as long as she can hold it in. Even if she knew ahead of time that she needs the bathroom, but she thought she could hold it in for 72 minutes, but when she started praying she suddenly felt that she could no longer control herself for 72 minutes, although le-khatĥila she should have relieved herself before praying, since she began praying with the thought that she would be able to wait, she may finish praying.

If her need to relieve herself is so urgent that she cannot wait any longer, she should go immediately. If the interruption in her prayer lasts long enough that in that time she could have prayed the full Amida prayer from beginning to end, she must start the Amida again. But if the interruption lasts less time, she continues from the berakha at which she stopped. 1

  1. A woman who recites the entire prayer service and started to pray when she did not need to relieve herself, yet suddenly feels that she cannot wait 72 minutes, but still does not need to urgently hold it in to suppress the need to relieve herself, and if, when she goes, she will have to exert herself slightly to relieve herself: since she began praying in a permitted fashin, and her need is slight, she may complete the section she is reciting. If the need arises in the middle of Pesukei De-zimra, she waits until she finishes all of Pesukei De-zimra by saying Yishtabaĥ, and then goes to relieve herself. If the need arises during the recitation of Birkhot Keri’at Shema, she relieves herself at the end of the berakha or passage she is reciting (MB 92:9; BHL s. v. “Ya’amid”; Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 5 n. 10).

    If her sudden need is so pressing that she must actively suppress it to prevent herself from urinating or defecating, at which point she transgresses “bal teshaktzu” (Rema 92:2, based on SAH 3:11), the law is as follows: If she is in the middle of Pesukei De-zimra or Birkhot Keri’at Shema, since interruption at that point is not so serious, she must go immediately to relieve herself. However, if she is in the middle of the Amida, where a pause at that point is serious, and if, when she began reciting the Amida, she did not feel the need to relieve herself, she should finish praying. If she cannot wait at all, should she go relieve herself (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 5 n. 11).

05. The Status of One Who Needs to Relieve Herself vis-à-vis Other Sacred Matters

Just as one who needs to relieve herself and cannot wait 72 minutes is forbidden to pray, so too she may not recite berakhot, say Shema, or study Torah, for it is not proper to engage in sacred matters when one’s body is offensive. Yet there is a significant difference between the Amida and other sacred matters (“devarim she-bikdusha”). During the Amida, we are like subjects standing before the King. If one does not pray in the proper manner, she disgraces the honor of heaven, and her prayer is an abomination. Therefore, when the person reciting the Amida cannot control her need for 72 minutes, her prayer is invalid. This is not so regarding other matters of sanctity. While saying them, one is not considered to be standing before the King. Hence, be-di’avad, if she recites berakhot or Shema even when she is not able to control her need for 72 minutes, she fulfills her obligation (MB 92:6; BHL s.v. “Afilu Be-divrei Torah”; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 3).

One who can wait 72 minutes, according to most Aĥaronim, is permitted le-khatĥila to recite berakhot and study Torah, though there are those who say that it is preferable for her to relieve herself first (MB 92:7). However, if she must exert herself in doing so, she is not required to relieve herself.

One who begins studying Torah when she does not need to relieve herself, but in the course of studying feels a need, to the point where she can no longer wait 72 minutes, should le-khatĥila go and relieve herself. If she is in the middle of a topic, some say that she may continue to learn until she completes it (BHL 92:2 s.v. “Koreh”; Yalkut Yosef, vol. 2, p. 338), whereas others say that she should relieve herself immediately (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 3:48).

If she is teaching Torah, she should finish her class and then relieve herself, for human dignity (kevod ha-briyot) is so great that it overrides the rabbinic prohibition of “bal teshaktzu” (MB 92:7). Likewise, it is proper that a student in a class waits and does not leave in the middle out of respect for the class, as long as the need to relieve herself is not that great. If, out of respect for the class, we are lenient regarding the prohibition of “bal teshaktzu,” we certainly refrain as much as possible from going in and out of the class for other reasons, and it is certainly forbidden to disrupt the class by talking.

06. One Who Is Drunk or Tipsy

One must be clearheaded when she prays. Unlike many idol worshipers, who perform their rituals using drugs and alcohol to attain a state of ecstasy, our petitions to God are achieved through seriousness and deep thought. That is why the Torah commands the kohanim not to enter the Temple and perform the Divine service while inebriated (Vayikra 10:8-11). The Sages derive from this that one who is drunk or tipsy may not pray.

“Tipsy” (“shatui”) describes one who is slightly under the influence of alcohol, and finds it somewhat difficult to concentrate and focus her thoughts, but is still capable of talking before the King. “Drunk” (“shikor”) describes one who drank so much that she cannot properly speak before the King.

A drunken person who mistakenly starts to pray must stop immediately, for the prayer of one who is intoxicated is an abomination. Even if she concludes her prayer, she does not fulfill her obligation. If she becomes sober before deadline to pray, she must repeat the prayer properly (SA 99:1). However, be-di’avad, one who prays while tipsy fulfills her obligation, since she is able to speak before the King. Likewise, if she begins praying and then remembers that she is tipsy, she may finish her prayer (Eliya Rabba; Kaf Ha-ĥayim 99:2). 1

A tipsy person may le-khatĥila recite other berakhot, for example, Birkhot Ha-nehenin (the berakhot one recites from deriving pleasure from something) and Asher Yatzar, but a drunken person should not recite them. Nevertheless, even a drunken person should recite berakhot that she can only recite at that time. For instance, if she became drunk at a meal, she should still recite Birkat Ha-mazon (Grace After Meals). Similarly, if she relieves himself, she recites Asher Yatzar (Rema 99:1; MB 11).

One who has reached a state of intoxication such as Lot, and is unaware of what is happening to her, is considered a shota (a deranged person) and is exempt from performing all the mitzvot. Even the berakhot that she did recite are considered invalid (MB 99:11).

  1. Regarding men, the halakha is that since kavana has diminished over the years, we are not so strict on this matter, and in extenuating circumstances, even one who is slightly tipsy may pray, especially when he is praying with a siddur, for there is no concern that he might become confused in his prayer (Rema 92:3; MB 99:3 and 17; see also Kaf Ha-ĥayim 22). However, we are not lenient when it comes to women, since there are poskim who maintain that women can fulfill their obligation by praying one prayer daily, and some say even by reciting Birkhot Ha-shaĥar and Birkhot Ha-Torah. If so, why should she recite a prayer that would be considered be-di’avad? Likewise, concerning the recitation of Shema and its berakhot, the poskim disagree whether a drunk or tipsy person may recite them, as explained in Peninei Halakha: Prayer 5:11. Because women are exempt from the recitation of Shema and its berakhot, a woman may certainly not recite them when she is possibly tipsy. As a general rule, it is important to know that drunkenness is repulsive and even more so for, women as explained in Ketubot 65a. Therefore, there is reason for women to be especially stringent on this matter.

07. The Status of a Nida

A nida (a woman who has menstruated and not yet purified herself by going to the mikveh) is obligated to recite all the berakhot and prayers and may study Torah, for words of Torah cannot become impure, as it is written: “Indeed, My word is like fire” (Yirmiyahu 23:29). Just like fire cannot become impure, the words of Torah do not contract impurity (Berakhot 22a).

There are women who customarily act stringently at the time of menstruation by refraining from entering the synagogue and touching the Torah scroll. Although in principle there is no explicit prohibition against this, these women customarily separate themselves out of respect for the synagogue. Nonetheless, the widespread custom is that women enter the synagogue during the time of menstruation, but only refrain from looking directly at the letters of the Torah scroll when it is lifted (hagbaha). 1

As an aside, we shall mention that there are various customs regarding women going to a cemetery. Some say that it is not proper for women to go to a cemetery at all, some say that women who are nidot and have not yet purified themselves in the mikveh may not go to a cemetery, some say that only during menstruation women should not go, and others permit going any time. Some women refrain from going to a cemetery when they are pregnant, whereas others do not. Every woman should practice according to her family’s or her husband’s family’s custom. Even those who are customarily stringent may practice leniency in times of need. For example, permission to be lenient and go to a cemetery is granted to one who will regret not going to her parents’ graves on their yahrzeit (the anniversary of a death). Also, one who is concerned that her absence will upset others, or a woman who is afraid that people might deduce from her absence that she is menstruating, may be lenient. If possible, though, she should make an effort not to get close to the graves. 2


  1. See Beit Yosef and Rema §88; Tzitz Eliezer 10:8, Yeĥaveh Da’at 3:8; Taharat Ha-bayit vol. 2, pp. 202-206. The above-mentioned practice of entering the synagogue but refraining from looking at the Torah scroll during hagbaha is cited by MB 88:7 and Darkhei Tahara p. 57. The time of menstruation refers to the time that blood flows from a woman’s body, but does not include the seven clean days of purity, as noted by Rema there. Some poskim (AHS 88:2 and Kaf Ha-ĥayim 11) maintain that when women are menstruating, they do not recite berakhot and prayers and do not enter the synagogue. However, in practice, as long as the blood does not emit a putrid smell, there is no prohibition. Likewise, the Vilna Gaon (Ma’aseh Rav §58) rules that it is unnecessary to be as stringent regarding menstrual blood as we are concerning urine, for menstrual blood is similar to blood from a wound. See Halikhot Beitah 11:1-10 and MB 76:15.
  2. Darkhei Tahara p. 57 states, based on kabbalistic literature, that that it is improper for women to enter a cemetery. MB 88:7 rules, based on Ĥayei Adam, that women should not go to the cemetery until they are pure. However, the fact that single women and widows, who do not go to the mikveh when they are nida, regularly go to the cemetery validates the custom of married women, who only refrain from going to the cemetery while they are menstruating, but not during the seven clean days. See Taharat Ha-bayit, vol. 2, p. 76. Also see Berakhot 51a regarding women who return from visiting the deceased.

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