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Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: Washing Hands (and Feet) for Avoda (Divine Service)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Shiur #22: Washing Hands (and Feet) for Avoda

(Divine Service)


By Rav Binyamin Tabory



            After describing the actual building of the Mishkan (Sanctuary), the Torah relates that the laver (kiyor) was placed between the ohel moed (tent of meeting) and the altar.  Water was put in the laver which was used to wash the hands and feet of Moshe and Aharon and his sons whenever they came to the ohel or approached the altar (Shemot 40:30-32).  We find several differences between this discussion and the actual commandment regarding the laver, which appears several chapters earlier.  In the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa (Shemot 30:17-21), the Torah says that the purpose of the laver was for Aharon and his sons to wash whenever they enter the ohel moed or approach the altar to perform avoda.  No mention is made at all of Moshe.  The Torah there adds that they must wash their hands and feet "and (therefore) not die," implying, of course, that entering the ohel or doing avoda without washing is punishable by death (by the "Heavenly court," as opposed to a Bet-Din).


            Why is Moshe mentioned in conjunction with the laver here, in Parashat Pekudei, but not in Parashat Ki-Tisa?


            The earlier parasha makes no reference to Moshe for the simple reason that he was not a kohen and therefore had no obligation to wash from the laver.  During the days of the Mishkan's inauguration (miluim), however, Moshe in fact served as kohen gadol, and so the latter parasha mentions that Moshe did indeed wash from the laver.


            Although the Torah told the kohanim to "wash" their hands and feet, the gemara constantly refers to this mitzva as "sanctification (kiddush) of hands and feet."  In fact, Targum Onkelos translated the word "le-rochatza" ("to wash") as "le-kiddush."


            The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot – Mitzvat Aseh 24), Sefer Ha-Chinukh (Mitzva 130) and Rabbeinu Sa'adya Gaon (Mitzvat Aseh 127) all counted this kiddush as one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot.  The Bahag did not count it as a Mitzvat Aseh but included it in the list of sins for which the death penalty (by Divine Judgement) is imposed.  The Ramban interpreted this to mean that the Bahag also viewed this as an independent mitzva but merely had a different system of enumerating the mitzvot.  (See Rav Perla's brief comment in his edition of the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot of Rabbeinu Sa'adya, ad loc.)


            Rav Aryeh Leib Malin raised the question of whether this kiddush is itself an avoda or only a means of preparation (hekhsher) for the performance of the avoda.  He pointed out that although considerable controversy exists as to whether wearing bigdei kehuna (priestly vestments) constitutes a separate mitzva (see Shiur #20 – Parashat Tetzaveh), everyone seems to agree that this kiddush is an independent mitzva.  This implies that it is more than hekhsher avoda, and is to be considered an avoda per se.  In fact, the Rambam (Hilkhot Bi'at Mikdash 5:16) codified that this kiddush must be performed standing because kiddush is like an avoda, and all avoda must be performed standing.  The gemara (Zevachim 19b) derived the obligation to stand during washing from the Torah's reference to this kiddush as "sherut" (service), and all "sherut" must be done standing.  The Rambam, however, attributes this obligation to the "avoda" status of kiddush.  (Interestingly, it seems that donning bigdei kehuna can be done while seated [Simchat Olam, ad loc.], even according to the Rambam, who considers wearing bigdei kehuna an independent mitzva.)


            The Sefat Emet (Zevachim 23b) added that it would therefore appear that the kohen must wear bigdei kehuna during this kiddush. The Rambam indeed mentions that the kohen gadol should do kiddush on Yom Kippur while wearing bigdei kehuna, but he never mentions this point regarding the daily service.  Nevertheless, the Sefat Emet maintained that this point is self-evident; if kiddush must be done while standing and is like an avoda, it obviously requires bigdei kehuna, as well.


            Rav Malin added that besides being an independent mitzva, kiddush must also be viewed as hekhsher avoda.  This would explain why a new kiddush is required daily.  Even if the kohen did kiddush for an evening avoda and did not leave the Beit Mikdash, in the morning he requires a new kiddush (Rambam, ibid. 5:8).  There may be instances where kiddush functions only as hekhsher avoda (perhaps after briefly leaving the Mikdash) and thus perhaps would not require all the technical laws of kiddush (Chiddushei R. Aryeh Leib, vol. 2:11).


            The gemara (Sota 39a) says that a kohen should wash his hands before birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing).  Rashi and Tosafot explain that this has nothing to do with ritual cleanliness.  Rather, it is a special requirement to wash immediately prior to birkat kohanim, and apparently a berakha should be recited over this washing.  However, the Rambam ruled (Hilkhot Tefilla 15:8) that the kohen should wash just as one would wash for avoda.  The Kesef Mishneh (ad loc.) explains that according to the Rambam, if a kohen washed in the morning, he need not wash again immediately before birkat kohanim.  The common practice today is that kohanim do wash immediately before birkat kohanim, but do not recite the berakha.  We accept the more stringent view of Rashi and Tosafot and therefore require kohanim to wash, but we omit the berakha out of concern for the Rambam's view that no berakha is required.  The Mishna Berura (128:6) writes that if for whatever reason a kohen finds it difficult to wash, he may rely on the Rambam's position and need not wash again for birkat kohanim, since he had already washed his hands in the morning.


            The Rashba (Responsum 191) writes that the obligation instituted by the Rabbis to wash one's hands before tefilla parallels the requirement for a kohen to wash before beginning the avoda.  The Rambam codified that everyone must wash his hands before tefilla, adding that before shacharit, one should wash both his hands and feet (Hilkhot Tefilla 4:2).  The Ra'avad (ad loc.) comments that he sees no reason to require washing of the feet.  The Torah Temima (Shemot 30:19) suggested that the Rambam (like the Rashba) thought that we should prepare ourselves for tefilla just as kohanim prepare themselves for avoda.  This would logically require washing hands and feet for all three daily prayers.  However, since the Rambam maintains that daily prayer is Biblically mandated only once daily, the Rabbis obligated us to wash our feet only for shacharit (the first daily prayer).  Since the other prayers are only of Rabbinic origin, our Rabbis were not as stringent with regard to them and merely required hand washing for those prayers. The Shulchan Arukh, however, does not mention any requirement of washing feet at all.