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    “Water of the legs” – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. I am embarrassed by Pitum Hak’toret and its mention of urine. Why is it in the Siddur?

    A. This is a rabbinic teaching about incense (K’ritot 6a) which includes the words mei raglayim, “urine”.

    Singer’s Siddur used to omit it; others such as Birnbaum left it untranslated. ArtScroll and the RCA Siddur bluntly say the phrase means urine. The Chabad Siddur delicately says “water of raglayim“.

    Mei raglayim, “water of the legs”, is a euphemism for urine. Even if the Hebrew means something different (there is a view that there is a grass called Raglayim), the name still puts people off.

    The Kol Bo, quoted in Baer’s Seder Avodat Yisra’el, says it is “impossible, God forbid”, that the text means mei raglayim mammash, “actual urine”, and thinks it denotes a place name, Ein Rogel (Josh. 15:7, 18:16; II Sam. 17:17; I Kings 1:9) or Ein Rog’lim (II Sam 17:27, 19:32), “the spring of the washer-man (or fuller)”, where the water contained chemicals that were good for washing laundry. This spring may be the modern Bir Eyyub (“The Well of Job”).

    The link with regel, leg or foot, is that garments were trodden by foot to clean them. Feet were also a means of irrigation, e.g. Deut. 11:10, “you watered (it) with your foot” (maybe there was a device operated by the foot). Ragal can thus be “doing the washing”, or, metaphorically, going about as a talebearer.

    Instead of mei raglayim, “urine”, the phrase might be mei rog’lim, “water used by the washer-men”, which was too dirty and impure for the incense even if it was not urine. Mishnah B’rachot 3:3 says “bad water or water used for soaking (flax)” is diluted by clean water to remove the unpleasant smell and associations.

    Maybe urine was also used for cleaning; stale urine decomposes to form ammonia. The Talmud (Niddah 61b) lists it as a cleaning agent, able to remove blood stains (Zev. 94b-95b). The Romans used it to bleach clothes. Most authorities say that the text meant mei raglayim in the usual sense.

    They say that the baraita is not advocating the use of urine but recognises its chemical content.

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