Upon waking in the morning, we recite the Modeh Ani and then wash our hands (AKA netilat yadayim, or negel vasser in Yiddish). The procedure for washing the hands is as follows: pour water on the entire right hand until the wrist, and then pour on the left hand; repeat; and then repeat again (for more on this, see Morning Hand-Washing).

According to the Zohar, although strictly speaking this not prohibited, one should not walk more than four cubits (approximately six feet)1—and many are careful not to even step on the ground2—before washing in the morning. For this reason, it is customary to place a basin and cup of water in a spot that can be reached from bed.

Don’t Touch

The sages teach us not to touch any orifice—the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or private parts—before washing our hands. Neither do we touch any food or drink, lest it absorb some of the negative spiritual energy that exists on unwashed hands.3

Spirit of Impurity

There are a number of reasons given for morning handwashing, including that it emulates the kohanim, who would wash before engaging in the Temple service, or that our hands may have touched an unclean part of our body during the night. However, the Talmud4 and Zohar5 explain that we do so because a spirit of impurity rests upon our bodies while we sleep.

When a person sleeps (for at least 30 minutes6), his soul ascends heavenward to recharge, leaving only the most basic soul-powers required for bodily functions. When the spirit energy departs, it leaves a void that is then filled by a ruach rah (“bad spirit”), a spirit of impurity. When one wakes up, his soul returns fully to his body and the spirit of impurity flees, leaving behind a trace in the hands, which is then removed through washing.7

What If Food Was Touched?

The mystics explain that consuming food or drink that was touched by one who did not wash negel vasser has a negative effect on the person and causes timtum halev, the “dulling of the heart.”8

If you touched food or drink with unwashed hands, there are those who are of the opinion that, after the fact, the food may be used. However many halachic authorities rule that a scrupulous individual should thoroughly rinse the food, preferably, three times, similar to how we wash in the morning, and only then eat it.9 Drinks and any food items that will get ruined or cannot be rinsed should be discarded.10

It is said that this negative energy does not generally rest upon the body of a non-Jew. We therefore need not be concerned regarding food prepared by a non-Jew.11

Similarly, although young children should be taught to wash their hands in the morning, there is somewhat of a lesser concern with their touching food, and if they did, one can be lenient.12

The issue pertains primarily to touching the actual food or drink, not the container or packaging. Thus, if unwashed hands merely touched the packaging, it would be OK to use it.

Of course, on the flip side, when we start our day with purity, we are able to take this energy and infuse the rest of our day with positivity and spirituality.