In order to illustrate the great care this group took in their religious observance, I will try to describe the manner in which they washed their hands for netillas yadayim, as preparation for eating bread. For them, this simple task became an undertaking that was fully permeated by their fear of Heaven; it was one that made an enormous and unforgettable impression on me.

Hand washing in Jewish law is much more than the astute hygienic measure ordained by the Sages thousands of years ago that it has been recognized as by the world. The many conditions associated with the ritual suggest as much: Only a whole, unblemished, evenly-pouring cup is to be used; the hands must be physically clean beforehand; the water from the cup must cover the entire hand in the first pour for the procedure to be effective; and so on. Its main objective is the spiritual cleanliness of the hands, which goes to explain the awesome care the bochurim of Samarkand took with their netillas yadayim:

First, they would wash their hands of any dirt or residue and then dry them well, blowing on them to make sure that there wasn’t a trace of moisture left. Then they would examine their hands, especially beneath their fingernails, to ensure that left any dirt behind. Now their hands would be properly exposed to the purifying water. Next, they would inspect the cup by running a finger over the edge to make sure there weren’t any flaws that might invalidate it. After that, they would dry the handle of the cup as well as the inside of the cup and even the outside. Their reasoning was that if someone had touched the cup with impure hands, the water in the cup would become impure, thus disqualifying any water added to the cup.

After all these preparations, they would take a towel, inspect it to make sure that it was completely dry, fill the cup with water and pour it on the first hand. If it appeared to them that the water had not covered the entire hand at once, they would dry their hands and start again. This was how Arke Zubrovsky, Dovid and Eliyahu Mishulovin, and Moshe Nissilevitch would wash their hands for bread.

Actually, for Moshe, the procedure didn't quite end there. He was an intensely pious person, which, along with his zealous nature, was reflected in his rigorous religious observance. Even after all these precautions, he refused to trust himself, and would instead eat with rubber gloves on his hands, as he continued to do his entire life.

Despite the many years that have passed since, whenever I see someone washing for breadwithout care; without checking to see if his hands or the cup handle are dry, and then quickly splashing water over the hands three times; I cringe, and I recall longingly the netillas yadayim of those young Chassidim.

I remember that when they would sit down to study a Chassidic discourse, be it during the week or on Shabbos, they preferred to take the time to thoroughly understand what they were learning ratherthan finishing the piece. They would say: “Why rush to finish? The topic on hand is just as fine; why hurry on to the next? And who says one must complete an entire discourse? The main thing is to understand what is being learnt so that one will have some inspiration to pray with!”

When they were deep into a discourse, and came across a discussion of an especially sublime aspect of G‑dliness, or a particularly heartfelt, powerful passage, R. Moshe's delight was palpable. He would intone the passage deliberately, savoring each word as if he was tasting some delicious delicacy, and every so often, he would declare, "Ah....geshmak!" "What a pleasure!"

Learning Chassidus, praying at length, the extra care in all aspects of the law and Chabad custom—all these were things they did out of an inner conviction and without a hint of pretense. Their conversations always centered around Halacha, Chassidus, and sayings of the Rebbeim they had heard from the great Chassidim who were in Samarkand during the war. Us boys found this behavior admirable and tried to copy them, but truth to be told, I cannot say that we were able to emulate them completely. After all our efforts, we were left with just a drop in the bucket.