Image: A person washing hands with soap in a white sink. (Shutterstock 2604171440)
A reader asked: “I was recently at the home of friends for Shabbat dinner, and they all trooped into the kitchen to wash their hands before the blessing for bread. They washed with a funny two-handled cup in the sink, and mumbled a blessing as they did it. What was going on?”
Reader, what you saw was netilat yadayim, the washing of hands. There are specific moments in Jewish life when we wash our hands. In Reform households that observe this mitzvah, you’ll most often see it as handwashing before the blessing for bread (motzi) with a meal.
The blessing you heard was as follows:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadayim.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-Is, who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.
The procedure is to remove rings, then pour the water over each hand with the cup. A natlah, or two-handled cup may be used for this purpose. Then the person dries their hands and they may refill the cup for the next person coming. Some individuals simply use the tap for washing.
Jews practice ritual handwashing at the following times:
- Before breaking and blessing bread made with the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye) (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
- Upon rising from sleep (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
- When leaving a cemetery
- When leaving the bathroom
- After touching the private parts
- Before prayer
- Before the the Kohanim (priests) bless the people in synagogue
Why the ritual handwashing? The Torah verse usually cited as the source is in Leviticus:
Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:11
It is part of a passage about the treatment of persons who have discharges from their bodies, and the verse is taken as an asmachta, a hint, that rinsing one’s hands is a mitzvah. Centuries later, with the advent of germ theory, we learned that regular handwashing is indeed a very good idea.
Taking time to wash my hands thoroughly and mindfully was required when I was a chaplain, so that I would not spread disease from one patient to another. I soon learned that it gave me an opportunity to pause and clear my mind between encounters with people.
It is another Jewish practice that can enrich my life by slowing me down a bit. Now I wash with soap and water and scrubbing (more effective than a ritual pour) but it is a spiritual discipline with measurable effects in the real world, a mitzvah because it prevents the spread of dirt and disease.
This video, from the Jewish Living Series of the Perelman Jewish Day School, demonstrates the traditional ritual of handwashing before the blessing over bread.