When it comes to washing the hands, we Jews sure are OCD.
That’s right …we Obey the Commandments of the Divine. The first thing we do when we get up in the morning is to wash our hands. When we go to pray, we wash our hands. Before eating bread at a meal, we wash our hands. Some even wash their hands after a bread meal as well (it’s a ritual called Mayim Achronim).
And the list goes on and on … as Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried ZT”L (1804-1886) writes in his Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (2:9):
“These following situations require the washing of hands with water: upon rising from bed [after sleeping], when leaving the lavatory or bathhouse, after cutting nails or hair, after removing shoes, after sexual intercourse, after touching vermin, or delousing a garment even without touching vermin, after a head shampoo, or touching parts of the body that are usually covered [out of modesty], after leaving a cemetery, or walking after a funeral procession, or leaving a room in which there was a corpse, or after blood-letting.”
All this ritual handwashing, crazy as it sounds, seems to have helped protect many Jews from contracting the “Black Death” (bubonic plague) during the Middle Ages.
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1346–53.
Because they were at a loss to explain the cause of the Black Death, many religious fanatics came to believe the outrageous notion that the Jews poisoned all the wells of Europe so as to kill out all the Christians.
As a result, there were many attacks against Jewish communities. In February 1349, the citizens of Strasbourg murdered 2,000 Jews. In August 1349, the Jewish communities in Mainz and Cologne were exterminated. By 1351, 60 major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed.
Contributing to the plausibility of this claim was the belief that Jews died at only half the rate of Christians. However, even if Jews died at a lesser rate, it can be attributed to the sanitary practices of Jewish law.
As the historian Rabbi Berel Wein writes on www.jewishhistory.org :
“Jewish law compels one to wash his or her hands many times throughout the day. In the general medieval world, a person could go half his or her life without ever washing his hands. According to Jewish law, one could not eat food without washing one’s hands, leaving the bathroom and after any sort of intimate human contact. At least once a week, a Jew bathed for the Sabbath. Furthermore, Jewish law prevents the Jew from reciting blessings and saying prayers by an open pit at latrines and at places with a foul odor. The sanitary conditions in the Jewish neighborhood, primitive as it may be by today’s standards, was always far superior to the general sanitary conditions.”
As mentioned before, one is required by Jewish law to wash his hands before or after engaging in certain activities. The procedure for washing (e.g. whether he must wash his hands once or three times) varies with the reason for the washing. Sometimes the reason for washing is simply to cleanse the hands from filth or uncleanness. Other times the reason has to do with an impure spirit resting on the hands.
So, for example, the Halachic authorities offer different reasons for the obligation of washing one’s hands upon getting up in the morning:
The Rosh explains that during sleep one’s hands move about and unavoidably touch parts of the body that are not clean. Therefore, the Sages ordained that one must wash his hands before reciting the morning prayers.
The Rashb”a suggests that the Sages enacted that every morning when we are about to serve G-d in prayer, we must sanctify ourselves and wash our hands from a vessel, just as a Kohein (Priest) is required to wash his hands from the Kiyor (Laver) in the Holy Temple before performing the Divine service. [The Kiyor is first mentioned in this week’s Torah portion – see Exodus 30:17-21. To see what the Kiyor looked like, go to: https://www.templeinstitute.org/laver.htm ]
The Zohar states that when one sleeps at night, his soul leaves him, which is akin to death. This causes the impure spirit associated with death to rest on his entire body. When he wakes up, the impure spirit leaves his body but remains on his body. By washing his hands one removes the impure spirit entirely. [Note: To remove this impure spirit, one must wash the hands up until the wrist according to the following ritual procedure: pick up the vessel of water with the right hand, pass it to the left, and pour water over the right. Then with the right hand pour over the left. Follow this procedure until water has been poured over each hand three times.]
Washing the hands before a bread meal is based on a whole different reason (google it yourself if you’re curious) and has its own set of laws. [To see those laws, go to: http://www.ok.org/v1/Content.asp?ID=126 ].
When guests come to our home for a Shabbos meal, I like to make them feel as comfortable as possible, so I don’t make any assumptions that they know how to properly wash their hands before the meal. Instead of standing next to my guests at the kitchen sink and telling them what to do (which itself can be humiliating), I have a sign posted above the sink which clearly illustrates how to perform this relatively easy ritual.
I have included a copy of the sign (below) for your ritual washing pleasure. Enjoy!
TO WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE EATING BREAD
1) Fill a large cup with water. Remove any rings from your fingers, then raise the cup with your right hand and pass it to your left hand.
2) Pour water two times over your right hand, twice in succession. Make sure to wash your entire hand up to the wrist.
3) Pass the cup to your right hand and pour water two times over your left hand, twice in succession.
4) Recite the following blessing, while drying your hands: