Shiur #11: Netilat Yadayim (6)

  • Rav David Brofsky






Dedicated in memory of
Joseph Y. Nadler z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi




Shiur #11: Netilat Yadayim (6)

Rav David Brofsky




            Last week, we discussed the manner in which one performs netilat yadayim. We explained that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel instituted that one must wash one’s hands before eating teruma, as unwashed hands invalidate teruma (Shabbat 13b; see also Eiruvin 21b).  According to this decree, “stam yadayim” are a sheini le-tum’a, and therefore a kohen may not touch teruma before washing his hands (netilat yadayim).


            Furthermore, the Rabbis later decreed that even chullin (bread which is not teruma) may not be eaten without first washing one’s hands. They apparently wanted the kohanim to accustom themselves to purifying their hands, and therefore demanded that everyone wash their hands before eating bread. This enactment is observed even after the destruction of the Beit Ha-mikdash so that we will be ready for the speedy rebuilding of the Temple. Thus, netilat yadayim, from a legal-halakhic perspective, is the process of removing tum’a from one’s hands through the act of netilat yadayim before one may eat bread. The manner in which one washes ones hands, therefore, is a function of the intricacies of tum’at yadayim.


            The Mishna (Yadayim 2:3) explains that when washing netilat yadayim, although one purifies the hands, the washing leaves the impure water (mayim temei’im) on his hands. The Mishna describes how one should wash his hands a second time in order to remove the impure water from one’s hands.  The Talmud (Sota 4b) cites Rav, who rules that when washing one’s hands before eating bread (known as “mayim rishonim”), one should raise his hands. He expresses concern that the water remaining on one’s hands after being washed will somehow return and render one’s hands impure a second time. Although the Rishonim differ as to the proper interpretation of this passage, the Shulchan Arukh (162:1) rules that one who performs netilat yadayim should raise his hands in order that water should not flow above his wrists and then return and render his hands impure.


            The Rishonim (see Tosafot, Chullin 107a, s.v. de-lo; Rosh, Chullin 8:18; see also Yadayim 2:1) write that one who pours a revi’it of water over both hands or a revi’it of water over each hand separately does not need to pour water over his hands a second time, as the water from the first pouring is not tamei. Although the Ra’avad does not agree, and he requires a second washing even after washing one’s hands with a revi’it of water, the Shulchan Arukh (162:1) rules that one who washes his hands with a revi’it of water on each hand does not need to wash again, as the water left on the hands is not considered to be mayim temei’im.


            The Mishna Berura (9) reports that nowadays, it is not customary to raise one’s hands while performing netilat yadayim. He suggests that this is because one generally pours a revi’it of water over each hand. However, he warns that one should be careful to wash one’s entire hand, ensuring that the water reaches even the tips of one’s fingers, and not merely the sides of one’s hands. Interestingly, the Arukh Ha-shulchan (162:7) insists that “one who raises his hands will be blessed… Why should we not do this thing (i.e. raise one’s hands), as it entails no effort or loss? And such is our custom.”


            This week, we will continue our discussion of the manner in which hands are washed before eating bread.


How Many Times Does One Wash the Hands?


            Despite the Mishna’s description of washing each hand twice, in order to remove the mayim temei’im, the Bi’ur Halakha (162:8 s.v. metuharim be-shifshuf) cites Rishonim, including the Rash (Yadayim 2:2), who maintain that one may remove the mayim temei’im through niguv, drying one’s hands, and washing a second time is not necessary. The Bi’ur Halakha insists that the halakhically preferred method it to wash one’s hands twice, once to purify the hands and again to remove the mayim temei’im, unless one pours a revi’it of water over each hand. As we noted above, the Ra’avad maintains that even one who washes with a revi’it of water must pour water twice over each hand.


            Interestingly, some Rishonim (Tosafot, Chullin 107a s.v. de-lo, Smag Asin 27; see Tur 162) write that one should actually wash one’s hands three times. The first washing cleans one’s hands, the second purifies the hands, and the third washing removes the impure water. The Shulchan Arukh (162:2) cites this view, adding that the water for the first washing may be taken from the revi’it used for the netilat yadayim. The Levush (162) explains that although a minimum of a revi’it of water is required for netilat yadayim, since this preparatory washing is considered to be part of the mitzva of netilat yadayim one may use some of the revi’it for this washing. The Bi’ur Halakha (162:2 s.v. ketzat) disagrees and rules that one who must clean his hands before netilat yadayim and has only a revi’it of water should clean his hands in another manner before performing netilat yadayim. 


            The Kaf Ha-chayim (162) writes that in addition to the reason cited above, according to the mystical tradition, one should pour water three times over each hand. Despite these views, it is customary to pour water only twice over each hand. Furthermore, although the Shulchan Arukh rules that when pouring a revi’it of water over each hand one need not pour more than once, some Acharonim (Cha’yei Adam 40; see Mishna Berura 162:21) write that one should still preferably pour twice over each hand, fulfilling the Ra’avad’s view as well.


Shifshuf Yadayim – Rubbing One’s Hands Together


            The Tosefta (Yadayim 1:2) teaches that “upon washing one’s hands he should rub them together (le-shafshef et yadav).” The Tosefta does not provide a reason for rubbing one’s hands together. Indeed, some (see Rash, Yadayim 2:2) explain that the phrase “le-shafshef yadav” refers to drying one’s hands. However, most commentators understand the Tosefta as referring to rubbing one’s hands together.


            The Magen Avraham (162:24) explains that one rubs one’s hands together simply in order to remove dirt from the hands. Furthermore, although preferably one should rub one’s hands together, one who does not do so has certainly fulfilled the mitzva.


            The Pri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav 162:7) offers a different approach. He explains that one rubs his hands together in order to ensure that the water has reached the entire hand. Of course, this understanding is somewhat novel, in that it assumes that when one rubs water over a part of the hand onto which the water wasn’t poured, the water doesn’t become tamei; rather, the rubbing is viewed as a continuation of the pouring of the water.


            The Rema (162:2) cite this Tosefta. The Bach writes that although it is not necessary to rubs one’s hands together, it is customary to do so. Others (Kaf Ha-chayim 162) attribute mystical significance to the shifshuf yadayim. The Siddur Ha-Rav (R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi) records that “the mitzvat chakhamim – commandment of the Rabbis – is to rub one’s hands together well, for extra purity (tahara yeteira), and since this rubbing is considered to be part of the mitzva of netilat yadayim, the blessing “al netilat yadayim” is recited before this rubbing in order that the berakha may be recited upon the performance of the mitzva.” Others disagree (Shulchan Arukh 158:11, Cha’yei Adam 40:4). Although we will discuss the blessing of al netilat yadayim in a future shiur, the Siddur Ha-Rav’s formulation, and halakhic conclusion, is striking.


            Many are not accustomed to rub their hands together after netilat yadayim, most likely because our hands are generally already clean before performing netilat yadayim. Since shifshuf yadayim is itself subject to debate and is not me-akev  (a necessary component), and according to many Rishonim it serves to cleanse one’s hands, those who do not rub their hands together may certainly continue their practice.


When an Unwashed Hand Touches the Washed Hand


            Although the Shulchan Arukh records that one should rub one’s hands together, this may present a different halakhic challenge. The Mishna (Yadayim 2:3; see also Rosh, Chullin 8:18) teaches that “if he poured water over one of his hands and rubbed it on the other hand it remains impure.” In other words, even though he has already poured water over, and thereby purified, his first hand, tum’a is transferred from his second hand to the first hand through the medium of water (mukhshar le-tum’a). He must therefore dry his hands and then wash them again. The second pouring of the water only purifies water which became tamei due to the process of purification of one’s hand, and not water which became impure through contact with a different hand. If so, how can one prevent one hand from touching the other during the process of washing? Moreover, how can any opinion even advise rubbing the hands together in light of the sources cited above?


            The Rosh (Chullin 8:18; see also Shulchan Arukh 162:4) cites this problem, and offers a number of solutions. He suggests that another person pour a revi’it of water over both of his hands, or that he himself pour a revi’it over each hand and then rub them together. In both cases, the hands have been completely purified before he rubs them together. Alternatively, he also suggests that one somehow balance the vessel on the tips of his fingers, and pour the revi’it of water over both of his hands.


            The Acharonim (see Mishna Berura 162:48) disagree as to whether in this case, in which one’s tamei hand touches the other washed, but still wet, hand, one must dry the hands before washing them again. R. Shlomo  Luria, in his Yam Shel Shlomo (Chullin 8:33; see also Magen Avraham 162:10) writes that once a hand has been properly purified, even if it has been touched by the other hand, one may simply pour water over the hand in order to remove the mayim temei’im. The Arukh Ha-shulchan (162:22) writes that although this view is not found in the Rishonim, it may be relied upon. The Chazon Ish (Hilkhot Netilat Yadayim 24:23; see also Mishna Berura 162:45) disagrees, and questions why one should not have to dry one’s hands and then wash them again.


            Therefore, one should preferably pour a revi’it over one’s right hand, or pour less than a revi’it twice over the hand, thereby removing the mayim temei’im, and then pass the vessel to his left hand, without touching the hand, and repeat the washing. If one washes the right hand only once, with less than a revi’it, then when he touches the vessel he will leave mayim temei’im on the handle, which one might then touch with one’s left hand, in which case the left hand must then be dried, and the entire process must be repeated (Mishna Berura 162:49).


            Although the mishna cited above related to a case in which one’s unwashed hand touched the hand which has already been washed, the Hagahot Maimoni'ot (Hilkhot Berakhot chapter 6, note 8) adds that even if another person touches his hands after they are washed, but still wet (be-odam mukhsharot be-mayim), they must be washed again. The Shulchan Arukh (162:4) cites this case as well. Therefore, one must be careful after washing one’s hands to dry them before touching another person’s hands. Hands are considered to be dry when they are no longer “tofei’ach al menat le-hatpi’ach” – wet enough that someone who touches the hand can then transfer the wetness to another surface.


            The Acharonim question whether this stringency applies even if one had already poured a revi’it of water over his hands, which completely purifies the hands and does not leave behind any mayim teme’im, and recited the blessing al netilat yadayim,. The Chayei Adam concludes that in this case one should wash netilat again, but not recited the blessing (see Mishna Berura 262:49 and Sha’ar Ha-tziyun 39).



            After one has properly washed and dried one’s hands, even if his hands touch the wet hands of a person performing netilat yadayim, his hands remain tahor and there is no need to re-wash them. (See Piskei Teshuvot 162:1 and 11, where he records that “God-fearing people who are meticulous in mitzvot” are stringent in this matter.)


The Custom of not Touching a Wet Handle of a Vessel during Netilat Yadayim


            Some meticulous people dry the handles of the netilat yadayim vessel before washing their hands. Others ensure that their hands are dry before beginning the netilat yadayim ritual washing. What is the basis for these customs?


            The Sha’ar Ha-tziyun (162:41) cites the Pitchei Teshuva, who writes that one should preferably dry the handle of the washing vessel. If it is wet, then when he touches the handle with his left hand, in order to pour the water over his right hand, he renders the water on the handle impure. Consequently, when he then places his right hand on the handle, the mayim temei’im which was left by the left hand renders the right hand impure. Some therefore dry the handles of the vessel so as not to risk the presence of mayim temei’im on the handles of the vessel which may then render the hands of those who touch the handles impure. The Sha’ar Ha-tziyun himself notes that this stringency may be incorrect, as before the hand is washed it cannot render the water on the handle impure.


            Some are only careful to dry the handles of the vessel when washing in a public place. As we saw above, one who washes his right hand with less than a revi’it, and then takes the handle of the vessel with his right hand, leaves mayim temei’im on the handle of the vessel. If he then touches the handle with his left hand, he must dry off his hands before washing them. Although an individual can easily avoid this problem by washing each hand with a revi’it of water, R. Aryeh Tzvi Frumer (1884 – 1943), in his Responsa Eretz Tzvi (35) suggests that one should dry the handles of a vessel in a public place before picking it up to wash, in case a person washed one of his hands with less than a revi’it, and then picked up the vessel, thereby leaving impure water on the handle of the vessel. Some Acharonim insist that one need not be concerned, as there is a doubt whether or not people actually washed their hands in this improper manner. Furthermore, they challenge whether the water rendered impure by one person that is left on the vessel, can subsequently render another person’s hands impure. 


            Finally, at times, especially in public areas, the towels designated for drying one’s wands are already soaked with water, tofei’ach al menat le-hatpi’ach, before one can dry his hands. Should one be concerned that the towels absorbed water from people who improperly washed their hands?


            The Shulchan Arukh (162:8) rules that after washing one hand, if one touches a wall, and then later touches the wall again with his second hand, the second hand is rendered impure and it must be dried before repeating the netilat yadayim. The Taz (162:7) maintains that since the water is absorbed into a towel, it can no longer render something else impure. The Magen Avraham (162:16), however, writes that one should be concerned with water absorbed in the towels. Therefore, one should be careful regarding this question and preferably not use very wet towels for drying one’s hands after netilat yadayim.


            Should one dry his hands before washing netilat yadayim? The Bi’ur Halakha (162:2 s.v. ha-notel) writes that one may wash netilat yadayim even if one’s hands are already wet, as one’s hands do not render water tamei before the process of netilat yadayim. The Chazon Ish (OC 24:30; see also Siddur Shulkhan Arukh Ha-rav) disagrees, and insists that when one touches the water on the vessel is become tamei.


            Although the common custom adopts the lenient view, some meticulous people dry their hands, and the vessel before netilat yadayim.



            Next week we will continue our discussion of the manner in which one washes his hands before a meal.