Washing one's hands before eating bread is one of the seven rabbinic mitzvahs instituted by the sages (the other six are Hallel, Purim, Chanuka, eruv for Shabbat, lighting Shabbat candles, and saying blessings [e.g. before eating]).

After washing our hands, we don’t talk until we eat the bread. To understand why, we first need to examine why we wash our hands in the first place.

Why We Wash for Bread

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 may not 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. The kohen must therefore wash his hands before partaking of terumah.1

Biblically, terumah is to be taken from grain, wine and oil. Now, wine and oil are usually handled in a vessel and not touched directly with one’s hands, so 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.2

The sages 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.3

Sanctity Before G‑d

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

No Interruptions

Since the purpose of washing our hands is to purify them before eating bread, we must be careful not to get involved in any distracting activity or discussion between washing and the meal, lest we inadvertently touch something impure (or filthy).

Based on this, some rabbis explain that if we sit idly and do not perform any activity that involves a diversion of attention, even if we wait a substantial amount of time, and even if we chat, it should not be of concern, provided that the table is set before us and we clearly have the intention to eat the bread.4

No Harm

In practice, however, we are careful to make the Hamotzi blessing as quickly after washing as possible, and also not to speak or engage in any activities between washing and the Hamotzi.

The Jerusalem Talmud states, “Whoever recites the blessing directly after washing his hands will not suffer harm during that entire meal.”5 Based on this, many rabbis explain that one should be careful not to make a verbal interruption between washing and the Hamotzi.6 And although some opine that two or three words are not considered an interruption,7 others say to be careful of any speech whatsoever unless it pertains to the actual meal (e.g. “please pass the salt,” which is need for the Hamotzi).8

Do I Need to Wash Again?

Although we try not to speak at all, if one did in fact speak between washing and the Hamotzi, as long as he did not touch anything dirty or a part of the body that is normally covered,9 he doesn’t wash again. If one goes to the bathroom during the meal, he must wash his hands again for bread, but he doesn’t recite the blessing.10

It is interesting to note that washing our hands for bread is closely related to the arrival of Moshiach. After all, there is no terumah nowadays, yet we still wash our hands so that “the Children of Israel will be habituated to eat in a state of ritual purity when the Holy Temple will be rebuilt; may this take place speedily, in our days.”11