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Meal Hand-Washing

Meal Hand-Washing

Beyond Pasteur!


Your table is an altar. You are the high priest. That plate of delicious morsels before you, that’s the sacrifice. You do the ritual washing of hands, say a blessing on the food, and then dig in, to elevate all those carbs and proteins into a divine experience.

So here’s ritual hand washing 101 (a.k.a. netilat yadayim):

  • Do this only before eating a meal with bread or matzah (halachah also requires washing before cake, if it is eaten as a full meal). Bread is considered the staple food of all foods. Potatoes just missed the boat.
  • This may sound strange, but before washing your hands, be sure that they are clean and free of anything that will obstruct the waters from reaching the entire surface of your hands. This is a spiritual experience, you recall. Beyond Pasteur.
  • This is a spiritual experience, you recall. Beyond Pasteur . . .Remove your rings—unless you never remove them, in which case they are considered “part of your hand.”
  • Fill a cup with water and pour twice on your right hand. Repeat on the left. (Lefties: reverse the order.) Chabad custom is to pour three times on each hand. Make sure the water covers your entire hand until the wrist bone with each pour. Separate your fingers slightly to allow the water in between them. Rabbi Chisda says, “Don’t skimp. Fill your hands with water and G‑d will fill them with His goodness.”
  • After washing, lift your hands chest-high and say the following blessing:
    Blessed are you, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.
    בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְווֹתָיו, וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם
    (Baruch atah A-donay, Elo-heinu Melech Ha'Olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al netilat yadayim.)
    [Say this blessing only if you intend to eat more than two ounces of bread.]
  • Rub your hands together and then dry them. Be careful not to speak or get involved in anything else until you’ve recited the blessing on your bread and swallowed some too.
  • If you take a washroom break during your meal, or otherwise soil your hands, you need to wash again—this time, without a blessing.
Illustrations by Yehuda Lang. To view more artwork by this artist, click here.
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Anonymous March 27, 2017

What do you do/say before eating a tortilla? Is it any different than from bread? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for March 29, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Corn tortillas get a shehakol before eating them, but wheat ones are treated like bread (either hamotzi, or mezonot if it's a snack). Reply

Staci New Jersey March 5, 2017

Prayers I'm so happy I my kids told me about this. I also agree,if you could add the Hebrew to this also. I would love all 3 versions: English,phonetic and English. Reply

Muncie Mandel January 29, 2015

What is the beracha before netillat yadaim "se'u yedaichem" and what is the source? Reply Staff via January 31, 2014

To Helene Sure, you can find the Hebrew text at this link Reply

Anonymous January 30, 2014

Hand washing question Is there a particular meaning/symbolism in making a fist during the Jewish ritual hand washing?
I have in the past seen followers of a different faith performing ritual ablutions, but they did not make a fist when washing their hands. Reply

Helene USA January 30, 2014

Borcha Adding the Hebrew version, as well as the English version of borchas would be appreciated. Thanks. Reply

Marsha Myerowitz Monroeville, PA/USA February 5, 2011

Thank you! I am a leftie, and I do wonder sometimes if I am supposed to do things differently. Now I know, yes, in this case! Thank you again, because your explanation make washing the hands seem like so much more than I ever thought of before! I love reading these Mitzvah Minutes, because even though they are 'short and sweet', they always seem almost poetic! Reply

danielle la February 3, 2011

1- by live water,do you mean sink water from the faucet?
2- is it best to wash outside right?
3- which of the blessings first ?
4- do i need to say birkat as well ?

Thank you for all the precious info. Reply

Hava Nagilah Monsey, NY February 1, 2011

Dan 1. If you only have water but no cup, you can dunk your hands into "live" water.

2. In a pinch, you can wash in the bathroom. Just make sure to say the blessing outside of it.

3. If you did not recite netilat yadayim at any time before your bathroom visit, you would indeed say both blessings together (as is the custom of Chabad).

4. If you will be eating less than 2 oz of bread, you do not say a blessing for washing. You do, however, say hamotzee for your bread. Reply

Anonymous January 31, 2011

Pasteur Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) was a French chemist and microbiologist who is credited with discovering germs. The discovery led to more conscientious sanitary regulation. Reply

Anonymous January 31, 2011

whats pasteur ? What's Pasteur? Reply

Dan La, Us January 31, 2011

Great article, very helpful,

1-What if water is accessible but not a washing cup ?

2-can morning washing or after restroom washing be done in the restroom?

3-If using restroom upon waking up and washing after do we say only the prayer after restroom use or netilat only or both?

4-What if less than 2 oz of bread is eaten do we need to say any blessing?

Thanks. Reply

Leah Seattle, WA August 17, 2010

How often should I do this? I just started adding this to my daily routine. I am doing it upon awaking. After that I come downstairs and have coffee and a muffin. Should I do it again? Should I also do it at lunch and dinner? What about dessert? Also, do I need to do it at the end of the day before I go to sleep?
I bought a ritual wash cup. Can I just use an ordinary bowl with it at my bedside? Also, can I use an ordinary towel? Reply

Menachem Posner for August 3, 2010

To David Chester: Yes, you should make sure that your hands are clean and dry before doing netilat yadayim. Reply

Menachem Posner for July 30, 2010

To Anonymous in Melbourne If one is traveling on the road without water, and the next time he will come across water will be in over four "mil" (approximately four km.) -- or if he would have to turn back toward his point of departure and go more than one "mil" (approximately one km.) to find water -- there are those who are lenient and rule that he should grasp the bread with a cloth, thus ensuring that he does not touch the bread, and he may eat it that way. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel July 29, 2010

Washing or Rinsing of Hands? The prayer is for rinsing of hands not washing them (Netilot not Rachatzah). This implies two things:

1. The hands have already been made clean and 2. the purpose of the rinsing of hands is to comply with a commandment (Mitzvah) and not for removing dirt etc.

I find this confusing. Am I to wash my dirty hands first and dry them without a prayer? and then rinse them again with the prayer? Or does washing automatically cover the rinsing part? Reply

Anonymous Melbourne, VIC July 28, 2010

What happens if there is literally no possibilty to wash your hands? Is it possible to eat the bread? Reply

Menachem Posner for May 3, 2010

RE: Meal Hand-Washing source question Woops, that was Shabbat 62b. Reply

Claude Nadaf brooklyn, ny April 30, 2010

Meal Hand-Washing source question Talmud 62b.
What tractate? Reply

Helen ashland, Ohio via April 29, 2010

this is so good for I did not know this of washing the hands three times. Reply

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