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?


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