Does Judaism believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness?
In the context of the discussion on whether a vow to refrain from bathing is considered innuy nefesh – suffering of the soul – the Gemara quotes a statement made by the Sages of Israel: be careful with regard to irbuvita be careful to learn Torah with habura and be sensitive to the children of the poor, because they will be the ones from whom Torah will come.
The term irbuvita appears to mean grime, although some interpret it to mean a mixture, that is to say, filth mixed in a person’s hair or clothing. Different manuscripts offer variant readings of this word (e.g. harfifuta or arpufita) whose meanings are not clear. Nevertheless they seem to indicate that this is a unique word for filthy conditions, perhaps a situation where things begin to get stuck together because of the dirt.
Filthy conditions oftentimes contain ideal environments for diseases of different kinds. The Gemara refers to irbuvita d’reisha – grime on one’s head – which may describe a situation where a person will scratch his head because it itches, and then will unknowingly transfer bacteria to his eyes, causing eye disease and possibly blindness. Dirt on the skin can enter the body through superficial cuts, contaminating the blood by transferring fungi or bacteria into the body.
The term habura is understood by most of the rishonim as referring to the importance of a study partner, since joint study will help a person from persisting in errors. Another suggestion is that it refers to the group in which a person places himself. A person who spends significant time with any group of people will be influenced by them – for positive or for negative.
Finally, the call for sensitivity to children of the poor is a statement that they too must be educated. The Ran suggests that their humble beginnings make them particularly deserving students, and given their circumstances they will not be distracted by other pursuits as are the children of the wealthy.