Happens all the time. Guests sampling our Shabbat hospitality for the first time are welcomed in, set at ease, invited to the table to hear the kiddush and then, just as they’ve gotten comfortable, we make them stand up and troop into the kitchen to "wash."

“But my hands are clean” or “I’ve just washed” are standard responses, and I don’t blame them. People unfamiliar with traditional rituals are often bemused by our constant preoccupation with water. I’m not claiming higher standards of hygiene; rather I’m referring to the multiple occasions in which we ceremoniously lave our hands over the course of the day.

First thing in the morning we wash our hands, the "netilat yodaim." Before prayer there’s a quick trip to the tap. Eating bread demands a full production, replete with towels and prayers, and after we finish eating we rinse our fingertips for the "mayim achronim."

People unfamiliar with traditional rituals are often bemused by our constant preoccupation with water sportsUnlike people suffering from full-blown neurosis, our passion is for spirituality, not cleanliness. Not to say that some people are not fixated on the concept to an unhealthy degree; as with any mental illness the symptoms of obsessive-compulsion can present in a variety of ways, and unquestionably some poor souls are afflicted with the desire to practice religious rituals to a damaging extent. That however is a matter for psychiatrists, not Rabbis. I intend to address the ritual of washing, as mandated by Jewish Law.

Don’t come to the table till your hands are clean

We read this week how the priests assigned to serve in the Temple were enjoined to wash their hands and feet every single time they would enter the sanctuary or begin a new act of service.

True, cleanliness is next to G‑dliness, but this was an act of holiness, not hygiene. By this ritual washing the cohanim were simultaneously accomplishing two objectives; they demonstrated the importance with which they viewed the ritual they were about to perform; investing the forthcoming act with a sense of ceremony and purpose, and they were spiritually cleansing themselves as well. Just as immersing in a mikva is an act of rebirth and consecration, so too, to a lesser degree, is the ceremony of washing one’s hands.

In an effort to emulate the priests, the Kohanim, and bring holiness into our daily lives, we too wash our hands before engaging in acts of devotion, both as an act of respect and in the quest for spiritual regeneration.

But they’re not really dirty

Come on, who are we fooling? Do you really believe that pouring water over your fingers brings about any sort of spiritual benefit? What spirituality, I don’t feel any different, I don’t see any shadow of sin being washed away, and I certainly cannot quantify the effects. Isn’t this just some sort of religious hocus pocus?

Seeing is not believing

No modern day doctor would ever dream of examining a patient without disinfecting his hands or putting on gloves, but this was not always the case. Some 200 years ago, hundreds of thousands of pregnant women and new mothers would die every year from the dread infection puerperal fever. The best of contemporary medicine couldn’t save them, nor could doctors prevent the spread of disease. The finest scientific minds of the age sought a cure, while debate was rife over the cause of the illness.

These well-intentioned physicians were unwittingly killing their own patients!Eventually, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis of Hungary proposed a radical hypothesis: doctors at the large teaching hospitals were performing autopsies on dead patients, proceeding directly to the delivery suite to examine other women, and, surprise surprise, would shortly thereafter be called upon to perform forensic examinations on these ladies, starting the deadly cycle all over again. These well-intentioned physicians were unwittingly killing their own patients!

After a lifetime of ridicule and hardship, Semmelweis’ discovery was finally accepted as fact, people began to wash their hands in chloride solution to kill the germs, puerperal fever disappeared, and pregnancy was no longer considered an automatic death sentence.

It has been speculated that the reason Dr. Semmelweis’s theory was initially greeted with such scorn, aside from the natural reluctance of caregivers to accept that they themselves were responsible for the deaths of their patients, is that the whole germ theory is counterintuitive. Who could believe that something so small could do so much damage? People were looking for big-ticket theories, such as miasma, eclipses or comets, not some invisible agent of death.

Nowadays with the ‘germ theory’ confirmed by observation under microscope, only a fool would argue against the existence of ‘invisible particles.’ Just because we don’t see something does not mean it cannot exist.

The same is true when discussing spirituality. When the torah describes ritual purity, tumah, and ritual impurity, tahara, it may not be directly observable, even under a microscope, and we may never understand how immersing in water or washing one’s hands may effect its removal. Our lack of insight, however, does not preclude its existence. We know that tumah and tahara exist because the Torah informs us that they do. We follow the rules of ritual ablutions to the best of our ability, not because we necessarily understand, but because we are convinced that the G‑dly system makes sense. And we trust, hope and pray that we be found worthy; that one day G‑d will enlighten us by allowing us a glimpse behind the curtain, to see the proof and beauty of His ways.