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The Right (and Left) Way

The Right (and Left) Way

Parshat Bo

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Mitzvot Done with the Right Hands, and Guidelines for Left-Handed People

We find in several places in the Torah that the right hand (as well as the right side in general) is considered the more prestigious one. For example, at the end of the book of Genesis,1 we find that Jacob insisted on placing his right hand on the head of Ephraim while blessing him because of his tribe's future greatness. In fact, we are instructed to use our right hand (or right side) for many religious rituals. Several examples:

(Note: Some of these examples apply only to a right-handed person. More details on this later on in this article.)

  1. We are instructed to use our right hand (or right side) for many religious ritualsWhen purifying the metzora (a person with a skin ailment described in Leviticus), the kohen puts a mixture of oil and sacrificial blood on his right thumb and big toe.2
  2. The mezuzah is affixed on the right side of the doorway.3
  3. A scribe must write Torah Scrolls and other holy writings with his right hand.4
  4. We cover our eyes with our right hand when saying the Shema (in order to enhance concentration).5
  5. When washing hands upon arising or before eating bread, we start with the right hand.6
  6. We hold the kiddush cup in the right hand.7
  7. When blowing the shofar, we hold the horn to the right side of the mouth.8
  8. Some have a custom to clasp their hands while praying the Amidah (as a sign of supplication)—the right hand over the left.9
  9. When holding a Torah Scroll, we hold it on our right side (over the right shoulder).10
  10. When the chazzan (prayer leader) goes from the front area of the synagogue to the bimah (reading table), or vice versa, he takes the path to his right.11
  11. While saying a blessing on a food or mitzvah, we hold the item in the right hand.12
  12. During the chalitzah ceremony, the shoe is removed from the right foot of the brother of the deceased husband,13 with the widow using her right hand to do so.14
  13. When the priests turn towards the community to issue the Priestly Blessing, and then when they turn back to face the Ark after the blessing, they turn towards their right.15
  14. When serving in the Holy Temple, a kohen uses his right hand while performing any service.16

In Non-Ritual Matters

The right side is also given precedence in mundane activities. Several examples:

  1. The right side represents the side of goodWe clothe our right arm, leg and foot before the left arm, leg and foot, respectively.17 When removing our clothes, we do the opposite. We remove the left arm, leg, etc., from their respective garments and only then de-clothe the right. It is considered respectful that the right side remain clothed longer.18
  2. We wash the right arm, etc. before the left.19
  3. If on the road and one has a choice which way to go and is unsure what to do, one should turn to the right.20

The Reason

We show deference to the right side because the Torah specifies to use the right side on various occasions.21 The Me'iri22 explains that the right side represents the side of good, and by giving it precedence we remind ourselves to follow the right path. Kabbalistically, the right side represents the side of chesed (kindness), which is supposed to prevail over the left side, which represents gevurah (discipline).23

Exceptions

There are various exceptions to this rule. Some of them:

  1. We put tefillin on our left arm. (See below for more information regarding this.)
  2. Since in regards to tying the tefillin, the Torah gives importance to the left side, our sages said that when tying our shoes (or any other set of garments that need to be tied), we tie the left first.24
  3. When cutting the nails, we start with the left hand.25
  4. Men hold their tzitzit in their left hands when reciting the Shema in the morning, in order that the fringes should be against the heart.26
  5. When taking three steps back after completing the Amidah, we begin with the left foot (to indicate that it is difficult for us to depart from the presence of G‑d).27 Then, after taking the steps back, we first bow to the left (the right side of the Divine Presence whom we are facing), and then to the right.28
  6. When putting down one's head for tachanun (the supplicatory prayers after the Amidah) of the afternoon service, we rest our head on the left arm. This in order to honor the Divine Presence which is on our right side. In the morning, when praying with tefillin, we rest our head on the arm that is not garbed with tefillin.29
  7. We lean to the left at the Seder table, in order to free the right hand with which we eat. In addition it is considered dangerous (for health reasons) to lean to the right side.30
  8. When kindling the Chanukah menorah we begin with the left-most candle and procede to the right.31

Tefillin

We use the right hand to tie the tefillin on the leftWe don tefillin on the left arm because of the extra letter "hei" at the end of the word "yadchah" ("your arm") in Exodus,32 when discussing the mitzvah of tying tefillin on the arm. The Talmud33 therefore reads this word as "yad keiheh"—"the weaker arm." Other opinions in the Talmud learn this law from the juxtaposition of the command to write the mezuzah near the mitzvah of tefillin,34 teaching us that the hand used for writing is the hand that should be used to tie the tefillin. This means that we use the right hand to tie the tefillin on the left.

Several reasons are suggested as to why the left arm is chosen for tefillin:

  1. Because the right arm is generally used for mundane tasks, the left arm is chosen for this mitzvah.35
  2. The right (more dexterous) arm is suitable to bind the tefillin on the left arm.36
  3. One of the reasons for tefillin is to recall the Exodus,37 and we bind the tefillin on the arm to recall "G‑d's strong arm" that He used to punish the Egyptians. The "strong (punishing) arm" is G‑d's left one.38
  4. The tefillin help us subjugate our hearts (and minds) to G‑d. As such, it's appropriate that they be placed on the left side—opposite the heart.39
  5. The right side represents physical strength. The left side represents intellectual achievement (as signified by the fact that the heart is on the left side). We place the tefillin on the left side to indicate that we are trying to overcome our physical desires through our intellectual understanding (of G‑d).40
  6. We put the tefillin on the weaker side to teach us that we have no power to accomplish anything on our own; whatever we achieve is only with the strength given to us by G‑d.41

Tefillin for a Left-Handed or Ambidextrous Person

The Talmud says42 that a left-handed person puts the tefillin on his weaker arm,43 i.e., his right arm.44

An ambidextrous person puts tefillin on his left arm.45 If he uses his right arm for writing and he does everything else with his left arm, or vice versa, there's disagreement between various halachic authorities regarding the correct arm for putting on tefillin.46 In practice, in the first case one wears the tefillin on the left arm; whereas in the second case, one puts them on the right arm.47

Left-Handed People with Regards to Other Mitzvot

Mitzvot that are done with the right hand, a left-handed person does with his left handIn most cases, those mitzvot that are done with the right hand (or side), a left-handed person does with his left hand. Since his left hand is stronger, it represents the same thing that the right hand represents for a right-handed person.48

The following things49 should be done by a left-handed person on/with his left side:

  1. Clothe and wash the left side of the body first.50
  2. Wash the left hand first when washing for bread or upon arising in the morning.51
  3. Hold the kiddush cup in the left hand.52
  4. Hold the lulav in the left hand and the etrog in the right hand.53
  5. Step back after the Amidah with the right foot first (if he is left-footed).54
  6. Hold food or mitzvah items in the left hand while reciting the blessing.55

The following things, however, should be done by a left-handed person in the same way that a right-handed person does them:

  1. Mezuzah on the right side of the doorway.
  2. Cover the eyes with his right hand when saying Shema, so that he can hold his tztitzit with his left hand—opposite the heart.
  3. After the Amidah, bow to the left side first (corresponding to the right side of the Divine Presence).
  4. Put his head down for tachanun on his left arm (for the same reason).
  5. Lean to the left at the Seder, for health reasons as mentioned above.56
  6. Hold the shofar to the right side of the mouth.57
  7. A left-handed kohen turns around to bless the congregants the same way a right-handed kohen does.58
  8. Hold a Torah scroll on his right side.59
  9. Walk to the right as he walks to the bimah or the Ark, if he is a chazzan carrying the Torah.60
Footnotes
1.

48:18-19.

3.

Talmud, Menachot 34a, based on Deuteronomy 6:9.

4.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 32:7.

5.

Ibid., 61:5.

6.

Ibid., 4:10; 198:19.

7.

Ibid., 183:7.

8.

Ibid., 585:4.

9.

Ibid., 95:4.

10.

Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 134:2.

11.

Mishnah Berurah 141:25.

12.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid., 206:8.

13.

Code of Jewish Law, Even Ha'ezer 169:26; 37; 44. See Pirush Seder Chalitzah no. 40-1 as to what to do in the case of a left-footed Levirate or a left-handed widow.

14.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid., 27; 52.

15.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid., 128:26.
Some say that this means they turn to their right side; i.e., if they are facing east they turn to the south and then to the west (ibid.). Others say that they turn around to their left which means they are actually turning towards their right (Chidushei Tzemach Tzedek 69b).

16.

Talmud, Zevachim 24a. For this reason, a left-handed kohen is considered unfit to serve in the Temple (Maimonides, Laws of Entering the Holy Temple 8:11).

17.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim (Mahadurah Batra) 2:4.

18.

Ibid.

19.

Ibid.

20.

Based on Talmud, Yoma 15b.

21.

See number 1 above (regarding the metzora), as well as Leviticus 8:23.

22.

On Shabbat 61a.

23.

See Piskei Teshuvot 2:4 and in the sources quoted there.

24.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid., 2:4.

25.

In addition, there's a specific order to follow when paring nails. (Starting with the left hand, we cut the nails of the ring finger, index finger, pinkie, middle, and the thumb. Then on the right hand, it's the index, ring, thumb, middle and pinkie.) I have heard that the reason for starting with the left hand as well as doing it in this order is in order to "go" towards the right (as well as the concept of not cutting to the nails of two consecutive fingers in a row (see commentaries to Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 260)).

26.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Orach Chaim 24:4.

27.

Ibid., 123:5.

28.

Ibid., 1.

29.

Ibid., 131:1.

30.

Ibid., 472:9.

31.

Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 676:5.

32.

13:16.

33.

Menachot 37a.

35.

Chizkuni on the verse.

36.

Ibid.

38.

Ohr HaChaim on Exodus 13:16.

39.

Ibid.

40.

Kli Yakar, ibid.

41.

Ibid.

42.

Ibid.

43.

The reasons given above for laying the tefillin on the left arm also explain why a left-handed person should put tefillin on his right arm: a) A left-handed person uses his left arm for mundane matters. b) A left-handed person's left arm is stronger, so his right arm represents G‑d's punishing arm, which is "weaker" than His kindness. d) The left-handed person's right arm is weaker, so putting the tefillin there indicates G‑d's giving us strength.

44.

If a left-handed person borrows tefillin from a right handed person, he should turn them around so that the "yud" (formed by the tefillin knot) faces his heart (i.e., the back of the tefillin, through which the strap runs, should be closer to the elbow than the shoulder).
The knot on the hand tefillin according to Chabad custom can be pulled from one side to the other. This enables a left-handed person to don a right-handed pair of tefillin without the need to turn them backwards.

45.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid., 27:9.

46.

See ibid., and Responsa of Tzemach Tzedek, Orach Chaim 4:2.

47.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid. See also Biur Halachah 27 d.h. Vehachi Nahug.
One who wishes to be stringent should put the tefillin on the opposite hand after the prayers, and then recite the Shema in them (see Netivim Bisdeh HaShlichut by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Raskin pg. 44).

48.

See Ben Yehoyadah on Shabbat 61a.

49.

The following guidelines follow the ruling of the Tzemach Tzedek (Orach Chaim 4:6), as explained in Netivim Bisdeh HaShlichut ch. 2.

50.

According to the Pri Megadim 158, A.A. 1, a left-handed person clothes the right side of the body first.

51.

According to the Pri Megadim, ibid., one would wash the right hand first.

52.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid., 183:7.

53.

Ibid., 651:14. According to the Bet Yosef (Orach Chaim 651:3), he should hold them as a right-handed person would. Sephardim follow this opinion.

54.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, ibid., 123:5.

55.

Mishnah Berurah 206:18.

56.

Shulchan Aruch Harav, ibid., 472:9.

57.

See Sha'ar HaTziyon 585:18.

58.

Ibid., 128:53.

59.

Based on Mishnah Berurah 282:1.

60.

Mishnah Berurah 141:25.
The reason for this (as well as for 5, 6, and 7) is because in public matters, one follows the right side of the majority of people (Pri Megadim 128, M.Z. 11).

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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Dr Billy Levin benoni April 26, 2015

handedness A child at a remedial school because he had ADHD was forced by an ignorant teacher to write with the right hand . ADHD is right brained dominant so the tendency is to be left handed. When he had plaster of paris on his broken right hand he tried to write with his left hand until the cast was taken off. To his amazement it was so much easier to use the left hand that he later refused to write with his right hand ever again. If it is essential for serious medical reasons to use the wrong hand one can get used to it Reply

Anonymous Orange tx April 24, 2015

I will admit I started becoming left handed for health reasons but it was a very painful transition, it is a different physical orientation. Writing middle eastern or far eastern style can be painful too... Reply

Anonymous MA April 23, 2015

Some people are right-hand dominant, some left-hand dominant. Research indicates that forcing one to use the nondominant side can be detrimental in some ways. What is done to take care of that ? Reply

Anonymous Orange txt usa April 23, 2015

Interesting, I am fully ambidextrous and see the significance in this, but is it different if you write western...middle eastern...or far eastern style...? Reply

Dr Billy Levin Benoni April 23, 2015

left and right hand confusion As we mature from infancy to maturity the original right temperamental infants brain will no longer be dominant as the language listening learning logical left brain takes over by the time the child is ready for school at age 6. As the brains feed the opposite side of our body , as we become left brain dominant we become right handed. Torah chiseled in stone was easier to the left, but the rest is easier with right hand to the right certainly in writing for right handers. For left handers it is the opposite. . Reply

DD October 20, 2014

Does this mean only the right-handed can be Torah scribes? Reply

Anonymous Hartford, CT January 23, 2013

Cover the eyes with his right hand when saying Shema, so that he can hold his tztitzit with his left hand What is the source that a lefty makes an exception for Shema and holds tzitzis in left so that it should be by his heart? Is there somewhere that it clearly references lefties in regards to Shema? In general it is difficult to understand how holding tzitzis specifically in left hand brings them closer to the heart. Reply

Aryeh Citron Surfside, Fl January 29, 2010

Cutting Please see the Alter Rebbe more carefully as he spells out the same order as the Rama Reply

Avraham C london January 28, 2010

nail cutting The alter Rebbe, unlike the Rama, gives the order as 2,4,1,3 and 5 for the right and... for the left! Yet, as you say, right before that he says "we begin with the fourth finger of the left hand". Reply

Aryeh Citron Surfside, Fl January 25, 2010

Nail cutting The source for cutting the left before the right nails is the simple understanding of the Kolbo siman 87, and see Rama O.C. 260:1. This is how the Levush, Shulchan Aruch HaRav and most of the latter halachich authorities quote it as well.

(Although the Aishel Avraham (on O.C. ibid) disagrees and understands the wording to be impercise, see Elyah Raba there who supports the simple reading.) Reply

Avraham C london January 23, 2010

nail cutting VERY INFORMATIVE.
What is the source for cutting the nails of the left hand before the right hand? Reply

Aryeh Citron January 22, 2010

Left Arm Missing & Left Handed Torah Scribes Regarding a person with an artificial limb: It would seem that the Tefillin may not be layed on that limb because it is not actually their natural arm. If the person is therefore unable to lay Tefillin on their arm, they should still lay the Head Tefillin on the head.
Generally it is best to discuss the specifics of such an unusual (& tragic) case with a Halachic expert.

Regarding a left-handed Torah Scribe, this is permissible. As long as they write with their left hands. Reply

Laura St. Louis, MO January 21, 2010

Torah scribe Does this mean only the right-handed can be Torah scribes? Reply

Joel Kleehammer Mannheim, Germany January 21, 2010

Left arm missing? If someone loses an arm, for example a soldier in the war, and an artificial limb replaces it, is it still correct to use the right (natural) arm to lay tefillin on the left (artificial) arm. Does this cause any change the other way - if there is an artificial right arm? Does the artificial arm automatically become the "weaker" arm? Reply

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