Simanim 4 Hand-Washing

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #3: Siman 4

Pages 13-21


Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon



Siman 4:  Hand-Washing



            Why do we wash our hands with a berakha in the morning?


A.  Rambam, Hilkhot Tefilla 4:1-2


"Five things prevent one from praying despite the fact that the time for prayer has arrived, and they are: purification of the hands in what manner?  One must wash his hands with water until the joint, and then pray ..."


            What, according to the Rambam, is the purpose of this hand-washing?  (See Berakhot 15a.)  This implies that there are additional times during the day when this would be true.


            The Rosh (Berakhot 9:23) writes as follows:


"Because one's hands are 'askaniot' (in motion even while one is asleep), and it is inconceivable that they did not come into contact with unclean parts of the body during the night, [the Sages] instituted a berakha before he recites the Shema and prays."


            This explains why we only make this berakha in the morning, before shacharit.  Still, it does appear that one who relieves himself before mincha or ma'ariv should make this berakha, and in fact the Rosh goes on to make this point explicitly.  (We do not follow this ruling; see below.)


B.  There is another possible reason for the fact that we say this berakha before shacharit alone.  The Rashba (responsa, vol. I, 191) writes:


"We have said in the chapter called 'Haya Korei' (Berakhot 15a): 'One who washes his hands and puts on tefillin and recites the Shema - this is complete acceptance of the yoke of Heaven' ... The choice of the verb 'notel' for hand-washing instead of 'rochetz' implies that one must wash his hands in the morning with a vessel.

"And if you ask, why is there a difference in this regard between the morning prayer and that of the afternoon and the evening?  One would answer, it is because in the morning we are as if created anew, as it is written, 'They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness' (Eikha 3:23) - we must thank the Blessed One for having created us for His honor, to serve Him and to bless in His name.  And it is for this purpose that [the Sages] instituted all those berakhot which we make each and every morning, and thus we must partake of His holiness and wash our hands with a vessel, like a kohen who washes his hands at the [Temple] laver before his service."


            In a number of places (4:3; Bi'ur Halakha s.v. Ve-yitlem on S.A. 4:13; Bi'ur Halakha s.v. Ve-afilu on S.A. 4:1; and more) the M.B. makes it clear that he views the opinions of the Rosh and the Rashba to be fundamentally opposed, with the Rosh championing the idea of tefilla as the reason behind the berakha, while the Rashba espouses the idea of rebirth.  Are these two explanations necessarily mutually exclusive?  Reread the Rashba, then see the Arukh Ha-shulchan 4:6 for a different perspective in which the Rashba agrees that tefilla is the focus of the berakha and the notion of "beria chadasha" (a new creature) serves only to explain why it is required for shacharit alone and not mincha or ma'ariv.


C.  Yet a third reason for this berakha is something that was discussed in siman 1: the ruach ra'a, or harmful spirit.  A glance at the Tur will reveal that this is the sole reason he mentions!  However, the Arukh Ha-shulchan (4:3) infers from the fact that the Tur permitted wiping one's hands on a stone as an alternative to hand-washing in the absence of water (something relevant only to tefilla and cleanliness and not to ruach ra'a) that the Tur did indeed consider preparation for tefilla to be one of the purposes of the berakha.


            The M.B. (4:8) asserts that "for the sake of a ruach ra'a they would not have instituted a berakha."  The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 6:2), in discussing mayim acharonim (the customary hand-washing after a meal), indicates that for hand-washing that is done to guard against a danger, as opposed to one performed in obedience to rabbinic command, one does not recite a berakha.  This reasoning applies equally well to ruach ra'a and thus serves to explain the M.B.'s statement.


When must one wash hands?


            Intuitively, one would say that according to the Rashba, one should wash as soon as possible after rising, while according to the Rosh it must be done adjacent to tefilla (at least according to the way the M.B. understood the Rashba).


            Read the Shulkhan Arukh, siman 6, and the Mishna Berura there.  Then return to our siman and read the Bi'ur Halakha, se'if 1, s.v. Ve-afilu.  Try to distinguish clearly between the case of one who tarries for some time before praying, relieving himself again in the meantime - a soldier who must go on patrol early in the morning is a good example - and the normal situation of one who goes straight to tefilla.


            See the Arukh Ha-shulchan (4:5) who rules clearly in favor of saying the berakha upon arising.  (And see the book Hilkhot Tzava, in the comments of R. Mordekhai Eliahu, that Sephardim always do so.)



Must the berakha immediately follow the washing?


            For one who does choose to recite the berakha upon arrival at the synagogue, is it sufficient that he washed his hands earlier in the morning, or must he wash them again?  A related question may be asked regarding one who makes this berakha at home - must the berakha precede the drying of his hands, or can there be a small interval between the washing and the berakha?


            The Rambam wrote in his responsa (siman 104 in the Pe'er Ha-dor edition; siman 25 in Freiman's edition):


"That custom held in Damascus and other eastern cities that the cantor begins the service with the blessing of "al netilat yadayim" ... is without question a blessing in vain...  And even though it is their custom, they must abandon it..."


            However, the Maharam Chalawa (Pesachim 7b) thought differently:


"The daily morning berakhot are in fact blessings of praise for the natural order, [e.g.] whether one heard the cry of the rooster or not ... And even "al netilat yadayim" should be said in the synagogue for it is one of the blessings of praise..."


            The Rambam appears to be consistent in his opinion (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:9) that each of these morning berakhot is not recited unless one is personally obligated to do so (only one who actually heard a rooster may say "she-natan la-sekhvi bina," etc.).  Accordingly, one may say "al netilat yadayim" only in the context of hand-washing.  Rabbeinu David (Pesachim 7b), while disagreeing with the Rambam about the berakhot in general (which is how we rule), sees "al netilat yadayim" as unique in that it is a birkat ha-mitzva, as opposed to a blessing of praise, and therefore it indeed must be adjacent to the hand-washing.


            In practice, one should ideally recite the berakha immediately after washing his hands.  See the M.B. 4:2 for a discussion of whether it should be before the drying of the hands or after.


Must one who remained awake all night wash his hands?


            The Shulchan Arukh 4:13 leaves the issue unresolved, while the Rema rules that he should wash but refrain from reciting the berakha.  For the preferred solution, see M.B. 4:30.


What about the other berakhot?


            The morning berakhot: There is a difference of opinion regarding this matter between the Shulchan Arukh and the Rama (46:8).  In practice, even Sephardim follow the Rama (cf. Kaf Ha-chayim and others).  Though this might seem to resolve the issue in favor of saying the berakhot, the M.B. still has some uncertainty about two of them.  The Arukh Ha-shulchan resolves this uncertainty; yet, it is still preferable to follow the advice of the M.B.


            The blessings over the Torah: See M.B. 47:28 which describes the debate surrounding these berakhot, which revolves around the question: why do we recite birkot ha-Torah every morning?  Is it the night that constitutes a break in our learning, or the sleep?  The M.B. cites a ruling of R. Akiva Eiger that there is a certain circumstance in which one who stayed awake all night must nevertheless, according to all opinions, say the berakha.  Can you explain this according to the two possibilities mentioned above ("night" and "sleep")? 


            In practice, nearly all the berakhot can be said by an individual who did not sleep, including "al netilat yadayim" and "asher yatzar" - if he relieved himself.  On the other hand, he should preferably find someone to say "ha-ma'avir sheina" and "Elokai netzor" for him; if this is impossible, he has on whom to rely (the Arukh Ha-shulchan) if he says it for himself.  Regarding birkot ha-Torah, if he slept at all, even on the preceding day, he should recite them; otherwise, he should either find someone to say it for him or intend to fulfill his obligation with "Ahavat Raba" and learn immediately afterwards.


            Tzitzit will be discussed when, be-ezrat Hashem, we reach siman 8:16.  (We rule that he should not recite the berakha, but one who wears a tallit gadol should have his tallit katan in mind during that berakha - M.B.8:42.)



Must one wash hands three times when coming out of the bathroom?


            The M.B. (4:39) is lenient on this point, though he does cite the stringent opinion.  In practice, many do consider it sufficient to simply wash hands under the tap.  It is important to note, however, that one who exits the bathroom before tefilla should at that point wash with a vessel (unless he does so in any case before each tefilla).


            R. Ovadia Yosef requires a threefold washing after relieving oneself (though he waives this for one who went into the bathroom but did not relieve himself).


            One who relieves himself outdoors should rub his hands on earth or any other abrasive substance before saying "asher yatzar."  He can even say it without cleaning his hands if, while urinating, he did not touch covered parts of his body, unless he was in a bathroom (Beit Yosef in the name of R. Yaakov; Shulchan Arukh 7:2).



Where may one wash hands?


            The gemara in Berakhot 26a tells us:


"Said Rava, 'These Persian toilets, even when they contain excrement, are considered as if they are sealed.'"


            Rashi explains,


"They were dug into the ground, with the mouth of the hole at a distance from the hole itself which was on a slant so that the excrement would roll down into the hole."


            This law regarding "Persian toilets" was accepted as halakha by the Shulchan Arukh (83:4) who ruled that one may even recite the Shema in such a bathroom.  What would you say this implies about our bathrooms today?


            Many Poskim including the Eretz Tzvi (responsa 110;111) and the Minchat Yitzchak (vol. I, 60) draw the obvious conclusion.  However, there are those who draw a distinction due to the fact that in our toilets the excrement does not descend immediately but rather remains in place until it is flushed (Yaskil Avdi vol. VI, OC 13).


            There are those who see room for leniency in a different direction.  They point out that in our bathrooms the majority usage revolves around the "bath" aspect and thus the room is not to be halakhically considered a "beit kiseh," toilet room.  This opinion is found in the responsa of Va-ya'an David and in volume XIV of Az Nidberu.


            It follows that in a bathroom with no toilet one may certainly wash his hands.  This is the preferred practice, but one who washes them in a bathroom with a toilet has on whom to rely.  This ruling is found in Yechaveh Da'at vol. III, 1.  And it appears that one should ideally put down the toilet cover when so doing.


Next week: Simanim 5 - 7 (pages 21-25).


(This shiur was translated by Pnina Baumgarten.)