Cleanliness Is Next to G-dliness, Or This Is the Way We Wash Our Hands
Question #1: I know that after clipping my nails, I must wash my hands. What happens if I hear someone recite a bracha before I have a chance to wash my hands? Do I answer Amen to the bracha?
Question #2: At what age should I have my baby wash negel vasser?
Question #3: Must a caterer insist that his non-Jewish employees wash negel vasser before beginning work?
A person must perform a ritual hand-washing after the completion of certain activities, including upon arising in the morning; before eating bread; after shaving, haircutting, clipping one’s nails, and touching private parts of one’s body; exiting the lavatory; scratching one’s scalp; and touching one’s shoes (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 4:18).
However, the procedure for these different washings is not the same. Some situations require washing each hand once, while others require washing each hand three times. In certain instances one is only required to wash the fingers, whereas others require washing the entire hand. Sometimes water is unnecessary so long as I have cleaned my hands, yet others require water. Some hand-washings require a bracha, others do not. Sometimes one may wash by holding one’s hands under the faucet, and sometimes one must pour onto them with a cup.
What are all these washings about? Why are there so many differences among them?
We can categorize the different types of ablution under three general headings:
1. Those that Chazal instituted so that one’s hands should be clean.
2. Those that create kedusha.
3. Those that remove ruach ra, a spiritual contaminant that might have a negative affect on a person if not removed.
As I will explain, sometimes we wash for a combination of these reasons.
1. CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO G-DLINESS
One must wash one’s hands after scratching one’s scalp, combing out lice, or touching dirt, mud, shoes, feet, or any other parts of the body that are either sweaty or usually covered (Shulchan Aruch and commentaries: Orach Chayim 4:18, 92:7; Yoreh Deah 116:4, 5). However, scratching the exposed parts of one’s hands or face is not considered as dirtying one’s hands and does not require ablution (Shulchan Aruch 4:21). The poskim dispute whether one is required to wash one hands after touching ear wax or mucous (Rama, Orach Chayim 92:7, Gra, Mor Uketziya, Shaarei Tshuvah, and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.)
The ablution after performing any of the activities just listed does not require washing three times or pouring the water from a vessel — as a matter of fact one does not even require water – all that is required is to clean one’s hands properly (Magen Avraham 92:5; Machatzis HaShekel 4:17; Chida, quoted by Kaf HaChayim 4:61). This is because our only concern is that the hands become clean, and therefore any method that cleans them is acceptable.
Someone who touched the parts of his body that are sweaty or usually covered, or whose hands are dirty, may not recite a bracha or learn Torah until he cleans his hands (Magen Avraham 227:2). However if he will not be davening or studying Torah, he need not wash his hands as quickly as possible (Mishnah Berurah 4:41). (Concerning some of the other washings mentioned earlier, the halacha is different, as we will see.)
Another example of an ablution whose purpose is cleanliness is mayim acharonim. Because of certain safety concerns, Chazal instituted the special takanah of mayim acharonim immediately prior to benching. (It should be noted that some poskim rule that one is not required to wash mayim acharonim unless one used salt from the area of Sodom for one’s meal, and that many people follow this approach. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 181:10.)
A second category of ablutions are those performed to create more kedusha. Before performing any service in the Beis HaMikdash, the Torah requires the cohen to wash his hands and feet in a specially prescribed fashion. Similarly, the cohen washes his hands until his wrists before duchening. These two ablutions are so important that they both supersede the prohibition of washing on Yom Kippur! Thus, the levi pours water on a cohen’s hand until the wrist even on Yom Kippur (and Tisha B’Av afternoon in Eretz Yisroel), even though washing one’s hands past the knuckles is generally prohibited on these days.
Similarly, a cohen was (and will be) required to wash his hands before he ate (and will eat) terumah or the special challah portion. An extension of this concept of kedusha is that every Jew must wash his hands before eating regular bread.
According to some opinions, one is required to wash one’s hands before every prayer (shmoneh esrei) and even to recite a bracha on this washing (Maasei Rav). Although we do not require a bracha, one should still wash one’s hands immediately before davening, preferably by pouring water from a cup (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 233:2).
3. RUACH RA
Several of the washings that we perform are to remove ruach ra, spiritual contaminants that may be harmful if not removed properly. These include:
A. Washing after clipping one’s fingernails or toe nails, or after giving or receiving a haircut (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 4:18, 19 and commentaries).
B. After leaving the lavatory, bathhouse, or mikveh.
C. After contact with a corpse, such as when visiting a cemetery or attending a funeral.
D. Upon awaking in the morning (negel vasser).
In all of these instances, one should try to wash one’s hands as soon as possible (see Magen Avraham 4:18 and Pri Megadim; Eliyah Rabbah 4:12; Kaf HaChayim 4:63) in order to remove the ruach ra without delay. One should be extremely careful not to touch food without first washing away the ruach ra. However, if one did touch food prior to washing, the food is not prohibited (Shu’t Shvus Yaakov 2:105; Artzos HaChayim in Eretz Yehudah 4:30; Darchei Teshuvah 116:35).
There are different types of ruach ra, some more powerful than others, and therefore some activities require pouring water three times on each hand, while others require pouring only once on each hand (Chida, quoted by Kaf HaChayim 4:61). When the ruach ra requires more than one pouring, one should wash one’s hands alternatively to remove the ruach ra (Kaf HaChayim 4:62, Ben Ish Chai Tolados 16). that is, one washes the right hand first, then one’s left, then one’s right, and so on until each hand has been washed three times. Both right and left handed people should follow this procedure (Mishnah Berurah 4:22).
Even in the cases that require three washings, if one has only enough water to wash once he may touch food afterwards with that hand (Artzos HaChayim; Biyur Halacha 4:2 s.v. yedakdeik).
Leaving a bathhouse or mikveh, clipping nails, and giving or receiving a haircut require only one washing (Eliyah Rabbah 4:12). A person who clips someone else’s nails does not need to wash his hands (Kaf HaChayim 4:92). However, the person whose nails were clipped must wash his hands. Therefore, someone who clips a child’s nails should wash the child’s hands if the child is old enough to touch food (Kaf HaChayim 4:92). A barber needs to wash his hands after giving a haircut, since he touches people’s hair (Kaf HaChayim 4:92).
The poskim dispute whether leaving the bathroom requires washing three times or only once (Magen Avraham 7:1; Eliyahu Rabbah 4:12). There is also a dispute whether one is required to wash one’s hands after leaving our modern bathrooms. Some poskim are lenient since our bathrooms are much cleaner than old-time outhouses (Shu’t Zakan Aharon 1:1; Shu’t Eretz Zvi #110, 111; Shu’t Minchas Yitzchok 1:60). Others contend that we should treat our bathroom as a beis hakisei, the outhouse of antiquity (see Shu’t Yechaveh Daas 3:1). Both the Chazon Ish (Orach Chayim 17:4) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Even HaEzer 1:114) rule that we should treat our bathrooms as a safek (questionable) beis hakisei. The universal practice is to not recite brachos in the bathroom, but some people are lenient to wash their hands there. Rav Moshe rules that one may not wash for bread in our bathrooms, but one may wash his hands there before davening, although one should dry one’s hands outside the bathroom.
According to those who contend that our bathrooms should be treated the same as those of antiquity, one should wash one’s hands after leaving the bathroom even if one entered there only to retrieve something (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 613:2), and even if only one’s hand was inside the bathroom (Kaf HaChayim 4:65).
AFTER CONTACT WITH A MEIS (A CORPSE)
After attending a funeral, one should wash both hands three times in the above-described manner (Machatzis HaShekel 4:17). The custom recorded by early poskim is that one may not enter a building after touching or escorting a meis without first washing netilas yadayim (Rama, Yoreh Deah 376:5). After this ablution, the custom is to turn the cup upside down and put it down rather than hand it to another person (Eliyahu Rabbah 224:7; Chochmas Odom 158:30; Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Comments to Yoreh Deah 376. None of these sources cite a reason for this practice.)
In many places, the custom is to not dry one’s hands after washing after a funeral, although the poskim are uncertain as to the origin or reason for this practice (Kaf HaChayim 4:78). Many poskim rule that someone who was never within four amos (about seven feet) of the meis does not need to wash his hands (Pri Megadim, Aishel Avrohom 4:21; Kaf HaChayim 4:77) The custom is to wash anyway since the earlier poskim do not make this distinction. It also seems that all poskim would agree that being in the same room as the meis requires one to wash his hands three times.
WASHING UPON ARISING
After waking in the morning, one washes for all three reasons:
To be clean: Because a person touches private and sweaty parts of his body while sleeping.
For kedusha: Every morning a person is like a cohen who must wash from the Holy Laver before he begins doing his daily service (Shu’t Rashba #191).
To remove ruach ra: According to the Zohar, (Parshas VaYeisheiv) a ruach tumah descends upon a person while he sleeps that remains on his hands until he washes it off with three rinses.
Before presenting the unique features of this morning washing, usually called negel vasser, I need to explain the halachic differences that result from the different types of washing.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WASHING TO REMOVE RUACH RA AND WASHING TO REMOVE DIRT?
There are several halachic differences between ruach ra washings and cleanliness washings:
(a) Although one may not recite a bracha, learn Torah, or daven when one is dirty, one may recite a bracha or daven after coming in contact with ruach ra. Therefore the Magen Avraham (227:2) rules that someone who entered a bathroom without using the facilities and without touching usually covered body parts may recite a bracha, even though he should wash his hands as soon as possible because he has been contaminated by the ruach ra of the bathroom. (We mentioned before that some contemporary poskim contend that the modern bathroom does not contain ruach ra.) Similarly, someone who clipped his nails, took a haircut, exited a mikveh, or was in contact with a meis, may recite a bracha even though he or she has not yet washed his or her hands.
(b) Removing ruach ra requires washing specifically with water. It is uncertain whether one can remove ruach ra by dipping one’s hands into water, or whether it is removed only by pouring the water onto one’s hands. Someone who cannot pour water on his hands may immerse his hands into water and then daven, learn Torah or recite brachos (Shulchan Aruch 4:12). Furthermore, someone who has no water to wash after ruach ra should wipe his hands clean in the meantime. However, he should wash his hands at the first available opportunity (Pri Megadim, Aishel Avraham 4:17).
ARE THERE HALACHIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WASHING TO INCREASE KEDUSHA AND WASHING TO REMOVE EITHER DIRT OR RUACH RA?
We do not recite a bracha al netilas yadayim when washing one’s hands to remove ruach ra or to remove dirt. This is because washing away ruach ra is a protection, and just as one does not recite a bracha when fastening one’s seatbelt or washing mayim acharonim, so one does not recite a bracha upon removing a dangerous contaminant from one’s hands.
Out of all the numerous times we wash our hands, we recite the bracha of al netilas yadayim in only two cases:
1. Prior to eating bread.
2. When washing our hands in the morning upon arising
WHY DO WE RECITE A BRACHA WHEN WASHING OUR HANDS IN THE MORNING?
As I explained before, washing one’s hand to remove either dirt or ruach ra does not require a bracha. If so, why do we recite a bracha when washing our hands in the morning?
The Rashba (Shu’t #191) explains that a person is considered a new creation every morning and therefore washes his hands like a cohen who washes his hands before performing the daily service in the Beis HaMikdash. According to this reason, someone who stayed awake all night or slept with gloves recites a bracha when he washes his hands in the morning. Furthermore, someone who woke up before halachic daybreak (alos hashachar) should wash again after halachic daybreak since the primary reason to wash is because a new day has begun. However, someone who slept in the daytime should not recite a bracha upon washing his hands when he awakes.
The Rosh (Berachos 9:23) explains a bit differently, contending that before morning davening one washes one’s hands with a bracha since while asleep his hands may have touched the private parts of his body. According to this approach, someone who remained awake all night or slept with gloves does not need to wash his hands in the morning and certainly should not recite a bracha, unless he relieves himself. On the other hand, someone who slept in the daytime should wash his hands with a bracha upon awaking before he davens since he may have touched his body while he slept.
HOW DO WE PASKIN?
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 4:13, 14, 15) concludes that in all of these disputed cases one should wash one’s hands, but not recite a bracha (see also Artzos HaChayim and Biyur Halacha 4:13 s.v. im). Therefore, someone who was awake all night, slept with gloves, slept during the daytime, or woke up early and washed negel vasser, should wash his hands after halachic daybreak (alos hashachar) without a bracha.
According to most poskim, someone who relieved himself before davening recites a bracha al netilas yadayim when he washes, according to both the Rosh and the Rashba, even if he did not sleep all night (Mishnah Berurah 4:30; Biyur Halacha 4:13 s.v. kol). Others contend that one should preferably have someone be motzi him with the bracha al netilas yadayim, since the Ari z”l contends that one recites a bracha on netilas yadayim only if one slept (Rav Moshe Sternbuch, Hilchos Gra Uminhagav, pg. 7).
If no cup is available, one may wash negel vasser without a cup. When one later locates a cup, one should wash again three times using a cup (Shulchan Aruch 4:7). Negel vasser must be poured into a vessel of some type or in some other place where people will not walk (Shulchan Aruch 4:8), because the ruach ra remains on the water (Be’er Heiteiv 4:8). For this reason, one may not receive any benefit from this water (Shulchan Aruch 4:9). Some have the practice not to recite a bracha or learn Torah while facing the negel vasser (Shaarei Teshuvah 4:8).
According to the Zohar, one should be careful to dispose of the water used for negel vasser carefully because it could damage people. This is different from the water used for cleaning, for netilas yadayim before eating a meal, or for mayim acharonim, which may be poured onto the floor. Therefore, when camping one should pour the negel vasser onto a slope or onto earth that will absorb it (Mishnah Berurah 4:21).
Most poskim rule that one does not need to dry one’s hands after washing negel vasser. Therefore, one may recite the bracha before one dries one’s hands. This is different from washing before eating, in which case one is required to dry one’s hands afterward.
A child who might touch food should have his hands washed with negel vasser three times (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 4:7; Mishnah Berurah 4:10). Many wash a child’s hands at a younger age. (Siddur Rav Yaakov Emden and Graz record washing a boy’s hands from when he is eight days old; Ben Ish Chai [Tolados, 1:3] does not mention an exact age.
One does not need to be concerned about a gentile who touches food, since there is no ruach ra on a gentile’s hands (Mishnah Berurah 4:10).
We can now address our original questions:
Question #1: I know that after clipping my nails, I must wash my hands. What happens if I hear someone recite a bracha before I have a chance to wash my hands? Do I answer amen to the bracha?
Answer: The answer is that ruach ra on my hands does not prevent me from reciting a bracha or answering amen.
Question #2: At what age should I have my baby wash negel vasser?
Answer: One should begin washing a child’s hands when he/she is old enough to begin touching food.
Question #3: Must a caterer insist that his non-Jewish employees wash negel vasser before beginning work?
Answer: One need not insist that the non-Jewish employees wash negel vasser since their touching food does not create any ruach ra.
Just as the cohanim washed their hands in the Beis Hamikdash in order to prepare themselves to perform the Divine service, so washing our hands whenever they are dirty, to remove ruach ra, or for kedusha, reminds us that we too are also constantly involved in serving Hashem.