Washing Hands upon Waking and before Prayer

  • Rav David Brofsky




            Rav Moshe Isserlis (1530-1572), known as the Rema, begins his comments on the Shulchan Arukh by elaborating upon the verse, "I have set the Lord before me ALWAYS" (Tehillim 16:8).  This verse, the Rema asserts, demands a perpetual awareness of God's presence. 


            Seemingly, these words should arouse two distinct feelings within a religious person.  First, as the Rema notes, God's presence fills this person with awe and fear, inspiring him to pay greater attention to his speech and actions, since he is in the constant presence of the King.  Second, this continuous awareness challenges the spiritual individual to infuse his life with religious meaning, constantly acknowledging God's presence. 


            In this course, we will learn the halakhot of "orach chayim" - daily mitzvot.  Through the performance of these mitzvot, one directly engages God and further develops one's relationship with his or her Creator.  We will spend most of the year learning the laws of tefilla (prayer).


            This week, however, I'd like to begin with the laws of netilat yadayim, which begins our day not only chronologically, but, as we shall see, also religiously.  We will trace the development of this precept from the Gemara, through the Rishonim and the Zohar, down to the practical halakha.


I. The Gemara


            One of the first mitzvot we perform each day is netilat yadayim - the washing of one's hands.  Great mystery shrouds this mitzva, with its reason and halakhot being subject to debate. 


            Netilat yadayim appears in a number of contexts in the Talmud.  When listing the activities in which one engages in the morning and their corresponding berakhot (birkhot ha-shachar), the gemara (Berakhot 60b) notes that "when one washes one's hands, one recites asher kideshanual netilat yadayim."  Apparently, washing one's hands is worthy of a berakha, even a birkat ha-mitzva! Yet the gemara does not provide the reason behind this mitzva, and why it is worthy of a berakha. 


            The gemara mentions netilat yadayim in at least three additional places, although none of these sources explicitly relates to the washing performed in the morning, upon which a berakha is recited.


1. The gemara (Berakhot 14b) records:


"Rabbi Yochanan said, One who wishes to accept upon himself the complete yoke of Heaven should relieve himself, wash his hands, don tefillin, recite keriat shema and pray - this is the complete yoke of heaven.

Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, One who does so, it is as if he has built an altar and offered a sacrifice upon it, as it says "I will wash my hands in innocence; so will I encompass Your altar, O Lord" (Tehillim 26:6) … one who does not have water to wash his hands should use dirt, pebbles or twigs…"


This source clearly links netilat yadayim to kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim (accepting the yoke of heaven), to shema and to tefilla, but not necessarily or exclusively to waking up, nor to the morning.


2. Other sources seem to indicate that netilat yadayim may be linked to hygiene, or even to mystical forces, as the gemara (Shabbat 108b) relates: 


"If one touches one's eye, it should be cut off; one's nose, it should be cut off… Rabbi Natan said, This is a bat chorin, which is in force until one washes [one’s hands] three times…"


Many Rishonim write that this gemara is referring specifically to the morning netilat yadayim, although the gemara itself never specifies this.  The interpretation of "bat chorin," however, is unclear, and it is debatable whether our rabbis were referring to a spiritual danger (ruach ra'ah) or a physical one (see Meiri, Shabbat 108b). 


3. Finally, the gemara elsewhere (Yoma 77b) posits that while it is prohibited on Yom Kippur to wash even part of one's body, "a woman should wash one of her hands before giving bread to a child … because of shivta." 


The Rishonim debate whether "shivta" is a reference to the ruach ra'ah of the morning (Rashi), or a unique spiritual danger related to food, which, Tosafot maintain, is no longer applicable.  In any case, this gemara, according to some, reinforces the notion of a ruach ra'ah that one must remove every morning. 


Interestingly, these two interpretations are not necessarily contradictory, and one may maintain that just as one must remove a ruach ra'ah from one's hands in the morning, one must also wash one's hands before accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven.


II. Rishonim


The Rishonim also debate the reason behind this mitzva.


The Rosh (Berakhot 9:23) writes,


"Since one's hands are active [at night], and it is inconceivable that they did not touch a part of one's body that is ordinarily covered, the rabbis established a berakha before one recites keriat shema and tefilla…"


The Rosh clearly believes that netilat yadayim is performed as a preparation for shema and tefilla.  This is also, most likely, the position of the Rambam, who cites netilat yadayim in the Laws of Tefilla (4:2), without any mention of a ruach ra'ah.  (See, however, the Lechem Mishneh in Hilkhot Shevitat He-asor 3:2, who questions why the Rambam permits washing one's hand on Yom Kippur before feeding a child, if he indeed rejects the notion of ruach ra'ah!)


The Rashba (Responsa 1:191), on the other hand, suggests an entirely different approach.  He begins by questioning why it is customary to use a vessel for the morning netilat yadayim, since neither ruach ra'ah nor tefilla should necessitate the use of a vessel.  He then explains,


"Since in the morning we are like a NEW CREATION (birya chadasha)… we must thank God who created us for His glory, and to serve and bless His name.  It is upon this that they instituted the berakhot we recite every morning.  Therefore, we must sanctify ourselves and wash our hands from a vessel, like the kohen in the Beit Ha-mikdash who washed from the basin before his service…"


In summary, the Rosh views netilat yadayim as part of the necessary preparations for tefilla, while the Rashba sees netilat yadayim (or at least the washing that is worthy of a berakha) as a broad declaration that one's daily activities are no less holy than the kohen's Temple service. 


            There are two important halakhic differences between these approaches.  The Rosh, who sees netilat yadayim as a preparation for tefilla, believes that one should recite the berakha "al netilat yadayim" before washing for each tefilla, including Mincha and Maariv! Furthermore, in the absence of a vessel, or even of water, one should still cleanse one's hands, and recite the berakha of "al nekiyut yadayim."  The Rashba, who also acknowledges that one should clean one's hands before tefilla, limits the BERAKHA to the washing of the morning, and to washing with water, from a vessel, similar to a kohen. 


III. The Zohar


The Beit Yosef (OC 4) cites the Zohar (Parashat Vayeshev), which, he says, brings "novel ideas regarding netilat yadayim that are not found in the halakhic authorities."  The Zohar writes:


"… There is no human who does not taste the taste of death at night and consequently an impure spirit (rucha mesa'ava) descends upon him.  Why does this happen? When the holy soul leaves the human body … an impure spirit descends upon the body. When the soul is returned to the body and the impurity is removed, it remains upon his hands, and cannot be removed until the human washes them, thereby being sanctified…"


The Zohar continues by asserting that one should not recite a berakha until this impurity is removed.  Furthermore, the Zohar asserts in a number of places that one should not walk four amot (cubits) before washing one's hands, and describes the proper means of removing this impurity: One takes the vessel containing the water in one’s right hand and passes it to the left hand.  One then washes the right and left hands in sequence, three times, based upon the kabbalistic tension between the sefirot of din and chessed, represented by the left and right hands, respectively.   


IV. The Practical Halakha


            The differences between the above approaches are significant.  Must one wash with a vessel? In a right hand / left hand sequence? Within four amot of one's bed? Should one recite the berakha of "al netilat yadayim" before Mincha and Maariv?


            Interestingly, Rav Yosef Karo (Shulchan Arukh OC 4) seems to codify, at least optimally, all of these reasons.  He writes that one should preferably use water, from a vessel, and should pour in a three-fold sequence (right-left), in order to remove the ruach ra'ah.  Furthermore, one should avoid touching any of one's bodily orifices until washing netilat yadayim. 


            However, he does distinguish between netilat yadayim for ruach ra'ah and tefilla, noting that if one merely immerses one's hand into water, even three times, or if one does not have water and must use dirt or pebbles, this may suffice for tefilla, but not for ruach ra'ah. 


            Finally, he posits that the berakha of "al netilat yadayim" should only be said in the morning, and not for later tefillot (OC 92:4).  This may indicate his preference for the Rashba's position (see Magen Avraham 4:1), or it might be due to the fact that in cases of doubt, one is lenient regarding berakhot (safek berakhot lehakel).


According to the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh, when washing in the morning, one should follow all the stringencies of the netilat yadayim before eating bread.  Therefore, one should use only water which may be used for washing before a meal.  Furthermore, one should use a revi'it measure of water, from a vessel, using "koach gavra" (human strength).  


            The Rema adds that be-diavad one may recite that berakha even upon washing without a vessel, and with water not poured by human strength.


            There are a number of questions posed by the later authorities that we should discuss before concluding this topic.


1. When should one recite the berakha of netilat yadayim?


The Acharonim highlight the following halakhic quandary.  According to the Rosh (and Rambam), the berakha of netilat yadayim was instituted upon the washing before tefilla. Therefore, if one were to recite the berakha upon waking in the morning but BEFORE using the bathroom, he would need to wash his hands again before tefilla, and therefore the first netilat yadayim did not prepare him for tefilla at all! Alternatively, if the berakha was established upon the first washing of the day in order to remove the ruach ra'ah or to commemorate becoming a "new being" (according to the Rashba), the berakha should be recited as early as possible! We should note that the above-cited gemara lists the berakha of "al netilat yadayim" as the LAST of the birkot ha-shachar.


            The Mishna Berura rules (4:4 and in Bi'ur Halakha s.v. ve-afilu, in accordance with the Chayye Adam and the Gra) that one should wash a second time before tefilla and only then recite the berakha of "al netilat yadayim."  The Arukh Ha-shulchan (4:5) disagrees, and rules that the berakha should be recited upon rising, and even insists that the Rosh and Rambam would agree.


2. Some have the custom of reciting the berakha of "al netilat yadayim" as part of the morning blessings, long after actually washing one's hands.  The Rambam (Teshuvot Pe'er Ha-dor 104) records that this was indeed the custom in a number of communities, but that it should be abolished, and the berakha is in vain (a berakha le-vatala). 


            Others disagree: the Maharam Chalava (Pesachim 7b) writes that "al netilat yadayim" is similar to the other morning blessings we recite over natural occurrences, regardless of whether we actually experienced the specific wonder. 


The Shulchan Arukh (6:2) cites both opinions.  The Acharonim write that one should preferably recite the berakha of "al netilat yadayim" upon washing one's hands and not later (see Mishna Berura 6:8).


3. What if one sleeps during the day or remains awake all night?


The Shulchan Arukh writes that there is a doubt regarding one who slept during the day, and therefore one should wash without a berakha (4:15).  Apparently, it is unclear whether it is the sleep, or the night, or both, which obligates one in netilat yadayim. 


What about one who remains awake all night? This is a very common question on Shavuot, or after overseas airplane travel. Once again, Rav Yosef Karo (OC 4:13) writes that there is a doubt, and the Rema rules that one should wash without a berakha.  The Mishna Berura (4:30 and in Bi'ur Halakha s.v. ve-yitlem) maintains that the Acharonim agree that if one uses the bathroom before Shacharit, one should then wash one's hands and recite the berakha of "al netilat yadayim." 


4. Other cases of netilat yadayim


The Shulchan Arukh (4:18-19) mentions other instances in which one should wash one's hands:


"One who rises in the morning, one who emerges from a bathroom or bathhouse, one who cuts his nails, removes his shoes, touches his feet and washes his hair… some say one who walks among the dead, touches a dead body, removes lice from his clothing, or has sexual relations… one who does any of these and does not wash his hands, if he is a scholar, his learning will be forgotten, and if he is not a scholar, he will be smitten by insanity!"


Furthermore, the Shulchan Arukh also mentions blood-letting as a reason for washing one's hands.


Regarding each of these, we must question Rav Yosef Karo's intention.  Is he referring to a proper netila, performed with a vessel and water three times?


The Mishna Berura (4:39) writes that while the reason for some of these washings may be merely cleanliness, and for others, ruach ra'ah, only one who rises in the morning needs to wash three times (in sequence).  He then cites the Eliyah Rabba, who is strict also regarding one who "walks among the dead" and one who has relations.  The Gra, incidentally, claims that one who had relations merely needs to clean one's hands.  Finally, he cites the Sefer Heikhal Ha-kodesh, who requires one to wash three times after using the bathroom, and the Magen Avraham, who disagrees. 


Regarding blood-letting, while there are those who are accustomed to washing their hands after giving blood (either to be tested, or for donation), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited by the Nishmat Avraham 4) believed that "blood-letting" referred to a specific medical procedure in which the bleeding was beneficial to the patient.  Since giving blood, even for a blood test, is not for direct healing purposes, one is not required to wash one's hands.


Next week, we will discuss the halakhot of birkot ha-shachar.