Tetzaveh/Ki Tisa

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Washing Hands - Cleanliness and Holiness

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The Code of Jewish Law instructs us to wash our hands each morning and recite the following blessing: “Blessed are you… upon washing of hands.”  There are a number of reasons given for this law. The Code of Jewish Law explains that when we sleep at night, an impure spirit rests on our hands and, to remove it, we wash each hand three times from a vessel alternating hands (first the right, then the left). Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yechiel, 1250-1327) suggests that since it is only appropriate to recite one’s morning prayers with clean hands, one should wash one’s hands which may have touched unclean body parts during the night.

Rashba (Shlomo ben Aderet, 1235–1310) offers a different interpretation based on a Mitzvah in Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30,19). There is a positive commandment for a Kohen to wash his hands and feet from a large copper vessel in the morning before performing the temple service. The Kohen washing his hands and feet had nothing to do with physical cleanliness—it had to do with sanctifying and dedicating his physical activity for that day (symbolized by the hands and feet) to serving in the temple.

The Rashba says that each morning we arise like new creatures, obligating us to thank God for creating us and obligating us to serve Him and bless His name. Therefore, we begin each day sanctifying ourselves by washing our hands with a vessel (like a Kohen would from the copper washstand in the temple courtyard). Washing our hands in this way each morning is the Jewish way of thanking God for giving us another day of life in His service.

The Chofetz Chaim (in his Mishna Berura) explains that the Halacha follows both the interpretation of the Rashba and the Rosh (there are practical differences between them beyond the scope of this D’var Torah). Philosophically speaking, this implies that both physical cleanliness and spiritual sanctification are essential preparations for the service of God. Let us start each day with these preparations in gratitude to God for yet another day in His service.