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Why Do We Wash Differently in the Morning Than Before a Meal?

Why Do We Wash Differently in the Morning Than Before a Meal?

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Question:

When ritually washing our hands in the morning, we alternate three times between the right and left hands. But when it comes to ritually washing for bread, we wash each hand three times consecutively. Why the difference?

Reply:

I should start off by acknowledging that there are various customs with regard to how one should ritually wash his hands. Chabad follows the common custom to wash each hand three times, either consecutively (before bread) or alternating (after sleep).

Let’s look at the underlying reasons for washing at these times.

Washing Away Evil

There are a number of reasons for washing the hands in the morning, but one of the primary reasons is that when we go to sleep at night, our souls ascend to the heavenly realms to get recharged with renewed energy. At that time, our bodies remain with only the lowest soul-powers—those that control our mechanical functions, such as the digestive and respiratory systems. The spiritual vacuum that ensues allows forces of impurity to cleave to the body. When we awaken in the morning, we ritually wash our hands to remove the last vestiges of these foreign influences.

The Kabbalists explain that when we wash our hands, these foreign unclean spirits “jump” from one hand to the next. We therefore alternate between hands in order to eliminate them completely.1

Reasons for Washing for Bread

Along with Chanukah, Purim, and Shabbat candles, washing before bread is a rabbinic mitzvah, decreed with the power vested in the sages by the Torah itself.

How did it come about?

The Torah commands us to separate a small percentage of the wheat, wine and olive oil we produce, and give it as a gift to the kohen (priest). Called terumah, this separated portion is holy and is not allowed to become impure.

Since people tend to fidget and touch all kinds of things unknowingly, the sages declared that, by default, hands have a minor degree of impurity, which the kohen must wash away before partaking of terumah.2

Biblically, terumah applies to grain, wine and oil.3 But since wine and oil are usually consumed in some sort of vessel and aren’t touched directly with one’s hands, it was never necessary to wash hands before consuming them. Grain, however, is usually eaten in the form of bread, so the rabbis required washing one’s hands before eating bread.4 5

The rabbis didn’t want to differentiate between different kinds of people (kohanim and Israelites), nor between breads (terumah and ordinary bread), so they instituted hand-washing before any kind of bread, thus ensuring that a kohen would never eat his terumah without washing.6

Additionally, the sages of the Talmud find support for washing before bread, unrelated to terumah, in the following verse: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the L‑rd, your G‑d.”7 They expound, “‘You shall sanctify yourselves’—this refers to washing before eating. ‘And be holy’—this refers to washing after eating.”8 Washing before bread is so important, the sages say, that neglecting it can lead to poverty (or worse).9

So why do we wash more than once? Because the first washing purifies our hands, but at the same time that water becomes impure. A second washing purifies the water that remains on our hands. The reason some wash a third time is just in case the second waters didn’t reach all the first waters.

Based on the rationale for hand-washing for bread, there is no reason to wash intermittently. On the contrary, intermittent washing can potentially lead to various problems, since the first waters left on our hands are still considered impure. Transferring the cup from hand to hand creates the possibility of transferring this impure water as well.10

Awaiting the Messianic Era

Although we still separate terumah, we no longer give it to the kohen to eat, since we are all assumed to be in a state of ritual impurity (a level of impurity that can not be purified by a simple washing of the hands, but rather requires the ashes of the red heifer).11

But we still wash our hands faithfully. This way we will be prepared for the moment Moshiach arrives and the laws of purity are reinstated—may it happen speedily in our days!12

Footnotes
1.
Arizal, Shaar ha-Kavanot, Birchot ha-Shachar; Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 4:7; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 4:1–2 (Mahadura Batra).
2.
Talmud, Shabbat 13b.
4.
Since other grain-based foods are less common than bread, the rabbis never included them in the mitzvah of hand-washing.
5.
See Talmud, Chullin 105a–106a; Rabbeinu Yonah on Talmud, Berachot 41a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 158:1; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 158:1.
6.
Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 158:1.
8.
Talmud, Berachot 53b.
9.
See Talmud, Shabbat 62b and Sotah 4b; see also Mishnah Berurah 158:1, and Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chaim 158:2.
10.
Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 158:1; Seder Netilat Yadayim li-Seudah 2.
11.
See Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 457:20.
12.
Levush 158:1; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 158:1.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Chabad.org Staff via chabadone.org August 12, 2016

To Dar Of course we use soap when washing our hands. The hand washing described here is in addition to 'regular' hand washing. Reply

Dar Hoshanna crown heights Brooklyn August 11, 2016

hand washing How come soap isn't important to some cultures? Reply

Menucha July 6, 2016

Re: Jolie We wash our hands after visiting a cemetery the same way we do when we wake up in the morning (נאגל וואסער). Reply

Juda June 23, 2016

Re: Hocus pocus The same question can be about anything spiritual in the Torah "how do you know." How do you even know spirituality exist? ....The citation says it comes from Kabbala, by definition kabbala means it was a received tradition. You can choose whether to believe in the Torah and Kabbala, but that is "where we know it from." Reply

Jolie Greiff Ramat Beit Shemesh June 23, 2016

So how does one wash when leaving a cemetary? Reply

Izzy Buffalo June 20, 2016

Awesome summary Thanks! Reply

Simcha Asher June 20, 2016

Thanks for your explanation entirely! Could we follow this pattern before reading our Torah, as well? When I stayed in Israel, naturally I follow this way before my reading, especially when I washed my hands in Motel, that seem like I have been doing this more than our Sage’s requests. Could I do more as my before way? Or I only allow to do so before sleeping and having bread?! Please feel free to let me know. I really appreciate it more. May G-d bless among you! Reply

Susan Levitsky June 20, 2016

Hocus pocus This makes no sense. The evil jumps from one hand to the other. How do you know that three washings do the job? Maybe it takes seven. Maybe it should be running water from a faucet with didn't exist when these sages made these rules. This can only soothe the sensibilities of those who believe that evil is lurking everywhere and you better wash before you get out of bed or the devil will get you. This doesn't even seem like Jewish beliefs. Either God has power or he doesn't. A few ounces of water can't make the difference. Reply

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