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Why Do Jews Cut Their Fingernails Out of Order?

Why Do Jews Cut Their Fingernails Out of Order?

And when are we to cut our nails?

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There is indeed an ancient custom of not cutting nails sequentially. The earliest mention seems to be in a version of Masechet Kallah quoted by the Machzor Vitry, written by Rabbi Simchah ben Shmuel of Vitry (who passed away in 1105, the same year as his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi)).1 There we are told that one should be careful not to cut his nails in order, since it can bring forgetfulness, poverty, and premature death of one’s children.2

Sounds mysterious? Well, to add to the mystery, here is a cryptic Hebrew phrase related to this custom:3

קשי״א בל״א תירו״ץ

This literally translates as “question without answer,” which some take as an indicator that the deeper reasons behind this custom are not readily apparent.4

This phrase is actually a mnemonic that tells us the proper sequence of cutting nails, and when to do so. Let’s look at the first word:

קמיצה (ring finger)
שמאל (left)
ימין (right)
אצבע (index finger)

In other words, when cutting your nails, start with your left ring finger, and then alternate every other finger. On your right hand, start with the index finger.5 Here is a diagram of the full sequence:

Even though there are some who are of the opinion that one need not be careful about cutting nails in this order, most write that ideally one should be careful about it.6

Cutting in Preparation for Shabbat

Now that you know the order of nail-cutting, you may wonder when to cut them. For this, we read the rest of the mnemonic:

באזהרה (warning)
לך (to you)
אתה (you)
תקוץ (cut)
יום (day)
רביעי (fourth)
והלאה (and on)
צפרניך (your nails)

In other words, cut your nails from Wednesday to Friday. Why? Because we trim our nails in honor of Shabbat, and the days from Wednesday to Friday have a connection7 to the upcoming Shabbat.8

Most, however, seem to be of the opinion that one should cut his nails on days that are even closer to Shabbat, i.e., Friday (or Thursday), when it is more discernable that the nails are being cut in preparation of the holy day.9

This is where things get a bit complicated. We are also warned that it is inauspicious to cut the nails of both the hands and feet on the same day.10 Therefore, one suggestion is to cut one’s toenails on Thursday and fingernails on Friday.11 Others, however, hold that one shouldn’t cut his nails on Thursday, since they start regrowing on the third day from when they were cut, and we don’t want them to start regrowing on Shabbat.12 After all, the whole point of cutting them to begin with is to honor the Shabbat.13

On a practical level, it is more important that the fingernails, rather than the toenails, be cut in honor of the Shabbat.14 Therefore, if both your fingernails and toenails are in need of being cut, you should cut your fingernails on Friday and your toenails on Thursday (or according to R. Chaim Noeh, Thursday night15).16 Additionally, if for whatever reason you know you won’t be able to cut your fingernails on Friday, you can cut them on Thursday.17

On the topic of cutting nails, here are some additional precautions (in brief):

Rosh Chodesh

Rabbi Yehudah he-Chassid (1150–1217) cautions that for mystical reasons, one should be careful not to cut his hair or nails on Rosh Chodesh (the Jewish New Moon).18

Chol Hamoed—Intermediate Days

The Ashkenazic custom is to not cut one’s nails on Chol Hamoed—the intermediate days of the Jewish holidays—because one should go into the holiday already well-groomed, and one should not push off grooming himself until he has some free time after the beginning of the holiday. 19

Burning Nails and Pregnant Women

While the above precautions about cutting one’s nails aren’t found in the Talmud, the Talmud does tell us that “the righteous bury their nails, the pious burn them, and the wicked carelessly discard them.” The explanation given for this is that nail clippings must be carefully disposed of, lest a pregnant woman step over them and miscarry20 (For more on that, see Nail Clippings and Pregnant Women.)

The Zohar explains that the forces of impurity are very much connected to the part of the fingernails that protrude above our fingers and are cut off.21 The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that, on a personal level, the “fingernails” represent the part of us that can be used to prick and scratch someone. Thus, the importance of cutting our nails teaches us that before we interact with others, and specifically before rebuking someone, we need to “pare our own nails first.” We must ensure that any rebuke is given not to satisfy our own urge to criticize or belittle, but solely with the benefit of the person in mind.22

Footnotes
1.
Masechet/Hilchot Kallah, as quoted in Machzor Vitry.
2.
See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 260:1; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 260:3; Mishnah Berurah 260:8.
3.
See Abudraham, Seder Netilat ha-Tzipornayim.
4.
Ibid.
5.
Note: While there are some who give a slightly different order, this is the most common one, and the one found in Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 260:3.
6.
See Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav ibid. See also Maharam of Rothenburg, quoted in Tashbetz 557; Shaar ha-Kavanot, quoting the Arizal. Others, however (see Likkutei Maharich, Seder Hanhagot Erev Shabbat), say that the Arizal was careful about not cutting in order, and yet others explain that if you burn them later—which the Arizal did—you may not have to cut them out of order (see responsa Siftei Daat 31).
7.
See Talmud, Gittin 77a.
8.
See Avudraham, Seder Netilat ha-Tzipornayim.
9.
See Maggid Meisharim (by Rabbi Yosef Caro), Mishlei 23:6; Magen Avraham, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 260:1; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 260:2.
10.
Maggid Meisharim ibid.
11.
See Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 260:2.
12.
Ibid.
13.
Pri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zehav, Orach Chaim 260; Eliyah Rabbah 260:5.
14.
See Ketzot ha-Shulchan 73:2, Badei ha-Shulchan 4.
15.
See Ketzot ha-Shulchan ibid., where he explains that it may very well be that the issue of not cutting on the same day does not apply to the night and day. See, however, Eishel Avraham, Milei de-Chassidusa 57, that the night and the day are considered the same day in regard to cutting one’s nails.
16.
This is the suggestion given in Maggid Meisharim, and seems to be the most widely given suggestion.
17.
See Shaarei Teshuvah on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 251.
18.
Testament of Rabbi Yehudah he-Chassid 48 (Margolies ed.). Some, however, seem to be of the opinion that this only applies to haircuts. Others explain that on an ordinary Rosh Chodesh, one should be careful about cutting both his hair and nails; however, if Rosh Chodesh is on a Friday, while one should still be careful about haircuts, one may cut his fingernails. See Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 260:1; Haorot u-Beurim 340; addenda to Kitzur Halachot mi-Shulchan Aruch Admor ha-Zaken, Shabbat 260. See also Shemirat ha-Guf veha-Nefesh 68:6, fn. 6.
19.
See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 532:1, and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.
20.
Talmud, Moed Katan 18a and Niddah 17a.
21.
See Zohar 3:70a. See also Kaf ha-Chaim 260:9, quoting Etz Chaim 31:2.
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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yaakov August 17, 2017

the pnemonic says index finger is 4th but your numbering in the diagram makes it 2nd. Reply

adele mandagie jakarta February 15, 2017

Wow. This is amazing. Will follow this nail cutting.

Adele Reply

Dwight in DC Fairfax, VA, USA January 10, 2017

Crazy This sounds crazy but I will start cutting my nails like this from now on. Reply

Anonymous Massachusetts December 15, 2016

to Motty Motty, I also asked this earlier in the thread - would love to hear a response too.
"another reason?
I had learned that we don't cut our nails in order because nails are cut in order when one prepares a meis (dead body) before burial. Therefore we distinguish life from death by not cutting any two adjacent nails in a row." Reply

Motty December 15, 2016

Clipping Dead Persons Nails I have heard that this concept has to do with not clipping ones nails the way we clip a dead person's nails. Can you please elaborate? Reply

Anonymous November 10, 2016

It's only natural that a custom would develop after many years, just like other cultures isn't it? I don't think it is superstitious. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin (Author) September 15, 2016

Re:Not a bad thing, but a Chabad thing It is true that there are many things that there are differing customs and we usually try to point them out. In fact, we have whole articles explaining the reasons behind certain non-chabad customs. However, in this instance, as others have noted, this isn't a chabad custom per-se as it is mentioned in the codes of Jewish law. Furthermore, the article itself notes that there are differing opinions and customs regarding various aspects of nail cutting. Reply

Binyamin Texas September 15, 2016

Re: Abe in London Abe, to be honest, I only follow 613 commandments, not 10,613 after the sages decided G-d might have been lax somewhere and added theirs later on left and right. Seriously! Reply

Anonymous September 15, 2016

but this is not applicable to Bnei Noach, right? Reply

James Tulsa, Ok. September 14, 2016

Jay, you should expect to hear the Chabad way of doing things when you visit chabad.org, should you not?
That said, thank you for this great article, I have taught myself the correct order by use of the text and picture. Reply

rd September 12, 2016

over the top? OK. Sorry... along with which shoe you put on first and when to tie the laces.. this is so over the top. i can see how one may view it as great devotion--but this is from a rabbi 1000 years ago, right? it is not a mitzvah from the torah.. it is not a rabbinical mitzvah from the Great Assembly/Talmud... so what is the fuss please? Reply

Akiba La September 11, 2016

Jay, 99 of everything in this article is accepted by all of Orthodox Judaism. Other than the last paragraph, there is no Chabad spin here. Reply

J J Long Island, NY September 9, 2016

Nail cutting I see a lot of questions here? Is there anyone who will answer them? Reply

Jay September 9, 2016

Not a bad thing, but a Chabad thing There are various groups of Jews and each has their own customs and ideologies. I respect Chabad, but your ways differ from my own. The problem with many of these things is that they are presented by you as the only way, when others (whom I'd be happy to hear from) have their own customs. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona September 9, 2016

Nail Cutting You forgot to mention when the best time is to polish one's nails. Reply

Arik November 9, 2016

Nice article but it was never explained, "why" the cutting of the nails out of order causes the negative things listed. Reply

Esther NY September 9, 2016

what a comprehensive article! thank you.
Just printed the photo with the numbers to hang up in our house so my kids can know the correct order when clipping their nails.

Thank you! Reply

Chani London September 8, 2016

What about not cutting your nails at night? I was taught that you shouldn't cut your nails at night; something to do with klipos. Any source for this? Reply

Alice Torrance September 8, 2016

Agree with you Binyamin, Texas.

However I understand Sundays and Fridays are better days for cutting one's nails. Reply

h.cohen USA September 8, 2016

Nails- Don't you have something better to do with your time? Reply

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