Hand washing

Are Your Hands Clean?

Rabbi Aron Moss will now be contributing regular Q&A commentaries to Gather the Jews.  Rabbi Moss is the proprietor of Nefesh and can be reached at rabbimoss@nefesh.com.au.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Moss.

Hand washing

Question:

What is the meaning behind the ritual washing of hands before meals? Was this some ancient Jewish version of hygiene?

Answer:

One of the laws of the hand washing ritual is that the hands must already be completely clean before you wash them.  You first clean the hands of any dirt, and only then do you pour water from a cup over each hand three times.

This is ridiculous: the prerequisite to washing hands is that they be clean?! The ritual washing of hands has no visible effect. It seemingly does nothing. So why do we do it?

The hand washing before meals has nothing to do with hygiene. It is not about cleanliness. It is about holiness.

Cleanliness is a physical state. By removing dirt you become clean. But holiness is an entirely spiritual concept. Holiness means a sense of something beyond, something higher, something with a higher purpose. You can be completely clean, but that doesn’t mean you’re holy.

You can have two business people who work side by side. They are both honest and good people. They are both clean. There is no visible difference between them. And yet one uses his wealth to help the poor and needy, while the other accumulates wealth purely for himself and his family. He is clean. He is not a bad man. But he is not holy.

You can have two plates of food. Both are made of healthy ingredients and prepared to the highest standards of hygiene. There is no visible difference between them. And yet one plate is kosher food, the other not. Kosher food is not healthier or cleaner. It is holy. It is prepared according to divine standards with a higher purpose in mind.

You can have two pairs of hands. Both have been cleaned and are spotless. And yet one hand has been ritually washed, the other not. There is no detectable difference between them. But these hands are holy, those are not.

Holiness means connecting to something higher. It means living with an awareness that not all dirt is visible, and we don’t always see the effect of our actions. So before engaging in physical activity, before consuming the fruit of our handiwork, we wash our hands. They may be clean already, but we must ensure that they are pure and holy too.

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9 replies
  1. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    This distinguishes between the concepts of physically clean and spiritually holy, but how does washing making something holy? Why does sprinkling a bit of water on my hands make them spiritually holy?

    We essentially have a phenomenon, call it P. The question asks if P is done because of reason C (cleaning our hands) or reason H (for holiness). All we’ve done here is distinguish between C and H; we haven’t said how P leads to H.

    Reply
    • Malka
      Malka says:

      I agree with your point – the Rabbi isn’t directly addressing* how purification occurs. I think that’s because it isn’t the question being asked – the question appears to be about the origins of the custom (“some ancient Jewish version of hygiene?”).

      *Although he touches on it when he writes “…It is holy. It is prepared according to divine standards with a higher purpose in mind.”

      Reply
      • Stephen Richer
        Stephen Richer says:

        Ok. Maybe I rushed ahead. The rabbi does a great job of stating the difference between physically clean and holy, but I want to know why a light bathing of our hands makes them holy. Thanks!

        Reply
  2. Andrew Penn-Giannettino
    Andrew Penn-Giannettino says:

    The concept of “the washing of the hands” before (and after) consuming bread is discussed in the Gemara and Zohar. The basic idea can be understood through the bracha which is made upon washing the hands. The bracha goes as follows “Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha-olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al Netilat Yadayim,” which is usually translated as “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us regarding the WASHING of the hands.” However, the word NETILAT, which is often translated as washing, does not actually mean washing. The common word in Hebrew for washing is “rochetz.” Netilat comes from the Hebrew root “nun”, “tet”, “lamed”, which means “to lift.” Given this, a more literal translation of the bracha is “Blessed are you Lord our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us regarding the LIFTING of the hands.” But that leaves a rather significant question. Why would the rabbis structure a bracha involving the washing of the hands with the language of netilat (lifting) and not rochetz (washing). The idea is that our hands–the greatest symbol of mans physical involvement in the world –naturally rest down by our sides, adjacent to our loins–the source of our most base and physical desires. When we prepare to eat bread, and thereby engage in an entirely physical act, we wash (and raise, according to jewish law) our hands and elevate them to show that this physical act has a spiritual purpose. Washing our hands reminds us that we are more than just physical beings and that there is a higher purpose behind every action in the world. This is one of the main jobs of a Jew in the world job; connect to Hashem by elevating the physical word.

    There is more to discuss regarding why water, and its origins, but hopefully this has provided a basic understanding of the ritual.

    Hope this helps,

    Good Shabbos!

    Reply
  3. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    Andrew!!!! Thank you for the added insight — very valuable. Although I must confess, I, ironically, feel like I’m talking to a post-modernist English literature graduate student whenever I talk with you because everything seems connected to our reproductive organs. I still keep thinking about your lecture of why we’re supposed to sleep on our side — not on our back or stomach. 🙂

    Reply

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