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What’s Up with the Hand-Washing?

What’s Up with the Hand-Washing?

Explaining netilat yadayim in the morning



Dear Rabbi,

My community did a Shabbat in an observant community in Brooklyn. In the morning, I noticed the kids washing their hands the first thing when they woke up.

This seems like a crazy ritual. Could you enlighten me?


Years ago, the City of New York had a law-enforcement policy that called for the vigorous prosecution of seemingly minor crimes as a means of preventing larger, more heinous crimes.

For example, jumping the turnstile in the subway is not a very terrible crime. At issue is a whole two bucks and a quarter. Yet when the police began arresting people for this crime, the overall crime rate in the subway went down. A criminal who enters the subway system with the intent to commit a crime is probably not law-abiding enough to pay the fare. He will jump the turnstile and hunt for his prey. By cracking down on the little crime, we prevent the bigger crime.

In observant families, there are certain things about which we are extremely careful. One of those things is negel vasser (in Yiddish, or netilat yadayim in Hebrew). Negel vasser literally means “nail water,” and refers to the observance of washing our hands directly after waking up. One fills a cup with water and pours it on each hand, alternating between them so that each hand is washed three times.

The source for this custom is the process where the priest (kohen) would prepare himself to serve in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The verse states (Exodus 30:19): “And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet . . . when they come near to the altar to minister.”

The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe (1745–1812), was the author of a Code of Jewish Law. Here is a direct quote from his Code where he refers to the service of the priest and its application in a Jew’s daily morning routine:

Man entrusts his soul [to G‑d at night] tired and exhausted, and G‑d restores it to him rejuvenated and refreshed so that he may serve his Creator with all his capacity, this being the purpose of man. Therefore we should sanctify ourselves with His holiness, and wash our hands with water from a vessel before serving Him and ministering to Him, like the priest who would wash his hands from the basin each day before beginning his service [in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem].1

Rabbi Schneur Zalman later adds a Kabbalistic explanation:

Our sages teach2 that when anyone sleeps [approximately a half hour3], his soul departs from him and a spirit of impurity comes and rests upon his body. As soon as he awakes from sleep, the spirit of impurity departs from his entire body with the exception of his hands. It does not depart from the hands until he pours water over each hand.4

Why are we so careful to do this first thing in the morning? There are many important customs to observe in daily Jewish life, but our morning routine is the turnstile through which we go in order to get to the rest of the day. If we are careful to do all the right things in the morning and to pay our dues at the “turnstile,” we are less likely to get caught up in troubles during the rest of the day.

It is my hope and prayer that my children will always be scrupulous in the performance of negel vasser, and that this will protect them from succumbing to the inevitable challenges of life.

See also Morning Hand-Washing and Why do we ritually wash our hands when we wake up?


Hilchot Netilat Yadayim, sec. 1.


Zohar 1:207a.


Badei Hashulchan 2:1.


Orach Chaim 4:4 (p. 24 in the 2002 edition).

Rabbi Yossy Gordon was born in Worcester, Mass., and serves as Executive Vice President of the Chabad on Campus International. Rabbi Gordon makes his home in Miami Beach, Fla., with his wife, Rochel, and their six children.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel March 30, 2011

Duvka, why only the hands are impure whilst the rest of one's body is OK? Reply

RL Arzi March 10, 2011

Rabbi Gordon Is so wise, and a wonderful story teller. I hope that he will share many more of his answers Reply

Anonymous sp, sp March 10, 2011

Excelletn Congratulations, thank you for making it so clear for us!!! Reply

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