The laws for washing the hands are detailed in the exoteric portion of the Torah. These laws each have their counterpart in man’s spiritual service as taught in the esoteric portion the “soul” of the law.

The law is clear when it states that “man is always responsible [for his actions], be they done wittingly or unwittingly; be he awake or asleep.”1 It is also stated that “hands are always active.”2

[In a spiritual sense, the phrase] “man is always responsible…” means that the level within each individual that is known as man, adam,3 is always responsible for his actions, “be they done wittingly or unwittingly; be he awake or asleep.” “Hands are always active,” means to say that the hands are always busy.

The hands have fingernails, and dirt may accumulate under them. The Holy Zohar4 states that kelipos, unholy forces, latch onto the nails. The purpose of netilas yodayim, washing the hands, is to force the kelipos to relinquish their hold. The life-force received by the nails is extremely limited, and they are therefore a place in which kelipos find it easy to receive their life-force.5 This is especially true when dirt accumulates under the fingernails.6

When dirt accumulates, even netilas yodayim does not help to get rid of the kelipos, [and the hands must be thoroughly cleansed] before the person washes them in the morning or before a meal. Only when the nails are clean may one ritually wash the hands.

The meaning of this is as follows: “Hands” refer to the emotional attributes [since emotions lead to actions], and these possess “nails.” Herein lies one of the differences between how intellect and emotions manifest themselves. Intellect is rational and dispassionate, while emotions rip and claw. Whatever a person’s emotional state, be it love or hate, the emotions manifest themselves in an intensely burning manner.

[In a spiritual context,] netilas yodayim, pouring water on the hands [i.e. the emotions,] means we should use the intellect (which is represented by water7) to calm and blunt the emotions, bringing them under our rational control.

The emotions are “cleansed” in two ways. In the morning netilas yodayim, there is a removal of the unholy spirit that emanates from bondage to worldly suppositions. In this instance the hands are washed alternately, i.e. a little at a time; first one emotion is cleansed a bit, then another, until all the emotive attributes are cleansed.

The washing of hands before a meal is performed in a progressive fashion. Here, the purpose is not to cleanse oneself of evil, but rather to sanctify the emotional attributes. Rubbing the hands together implies a harmonious merging of these attributes.

In the realm of holiness, all emotional attributes are to meld into one. For example, love and fear are both to come under the dominion of intellect. When this happens, all the emotional attributes merge and affect one another in a positive way. Man thus attains completeness.

Our Patriarch Avraham loved8 G‑d. After the test of the akeidah, the binding [of his son Yitzchok], G‑d says to Avraham:9 “Now I know that you are G‑d-fearing.” The harmonious union of love and fear enables a person to attain the full measure and totality of man.10

It is for this reason that the blessing for washing the hands is netilas yodayim, referring to the two ways whereby the emotive attributes are rectified. Washing in the morning involves a banishing of the unholy spirit whose source is the darkness of worldly suppositions. In this instance, netilas yodayim means “taking” [or wresting away] the natural emotional attributes from their worldly suppositions. In washing the hands before a meal, netilas yodayim entails “lifting” the emotions into holiness, as it is written:11 “Lift up your hands to holiness….”

[In both instances] the water used must come from a whole vessel, the vessel must be able to hold water, and the water must be poured manually by a person who possesses intelligence. [In a spiritual context, this means] that the intellect which purifies and elevates the emotional attributes must be G‑dly intellect of the highest order, for the vessel of G‑dly intellect has a profound effect upon man’s spiritual service.

Though both cleansing and purifying are to be done by “the power of a man,” i.e. with the might and strength of G‑dly intellect, the firmness with which it is done must stem from the intellectual aspect of daas, for this level represents the completeness of intellect.

This is what is meant by saying that during the time the Holy Temple existed the altar would offer atonement, while nowadays man’s table does so: That completeness of intellect which affects the emotions brings about atonement.

In summary: The detailed laws of netilas yodayim are reflected in man’s spiritual service, and as such are the source of the law as revealed in the exoteric portion of the Torah. The phrases “man is always responsible…” and “hands are always busy” are explained. Hands represent the emotional attributes; the nails are the place which kelipos latch onto, and the dirt underneath the nails is their sustenance. Washing the hands in the morning removes the unholy spirit of worldly suppositions. This service is done alternately; bit by bit. Washing the hands before a meal involving as it does the aspect of sanctification, must be performed in consecutive fashion. The water representing G‑dly intellect descending from the intellectual aspect of daas is man’s table [which brings about atonement.]