This Is the Way We Wash Our Hands

washing cupQuestion #1: Cup after restroom?

“Do I need to use a cup when I wash upon leaving the restroom?”

Question #2: Netilah review

“Could you please review the basic laws of netilas yadayim?”

Question #3: Lost count

“Why do we wash our hands sometimes once, sometimes twice and sometimes three times?”

Answer:

Parshas Chukas tells us that after the passing of Miriam, the Jews were without water. Many daily activities, as varied as arising in the morning, praying, eating bread, clipping nails and exiting the lavatory require that we wash our hands, either before or afterwards (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 4:18, 92:7; Yoreh Deah 116:4, 5). The details of the laws that each of these washings requires vary, which people find confusing. Sometimes we are told to wash our hands alternately, and other times just the opposite. Sometimes we are told that the water may not have been used before, and other times there is no such requirement. Sometimes we require three washings, others only one; and still others do not even require water. This article will provide an overview explaining the basic various reasons and why there are, therefore, different halachic requirements, and then conclude with a brief guide to the instructions for the most complicated type of washing, the one required before eating bread.

Our first step to sort out this confusion is to categorize the different reasons why we wash under the following headings:

  1.          For hygiene
  2.        To remove ruach ra — harmful spiritual influence

Certain activities or situations cause a ruach ra, an impure spirit, that is removed by washing in a prescribed fashion.

III.       For kedushah

Whereas the aim of both categories mentioned thus far is to remove contaminants, either physical or spiritual, the purpose of other ablutions is to create sanctity. An example is the rinsing of hands and feet by the kohanim prior to performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash.

  1. For taharah

Washing hands prior to eating bread has many special requirements, and this is because this mitzvah is for yet a fourth reason, as I will soon explain.

Reasons make differences

Each of the different reasons for washing has its own laws. This explains why the requirements vary, as we will soon see.

Not mutually exclusive

The four reasons that we have now learned are not mutually exclusive – meaning that sometimes we wash our hands for several of these rationales. When this happens, the laws applicable for each reason must be met.

Here is one example: Cleansing one’s hands after using the lavatory is required both for hygiene and because of ruach ra. I will soon demonstrate how this explains some of the halachos that apply to that particular washing.

Our next step is to understand the basic requirements of each type of washing and the differences that exist between them.

  1. Hygiene

Halachah requires that a person clean his hands when they are dirty, or when he has touched his shoes or the parts of the body that are sweaty or are usually covered. When cleaning is only because of hygiene and not for any other objective, several lenient halachic rulings apply that do not apply when washing for one of the other reasons. The most obvious difference is that washing for hygienic reasons does not require water. It is sufficient to clean the soiled area in any way that one chooses, such as by rubbing one’s hands on a rough surface, by using alcohol or a disinfectant cleaning gel. The requirement is simply to insure that the dirt has been removed (Magen Avraham 92:5; Machatzis Hashekel 4:17; Kaf Hachayim 4:61). Similarly, washing for hygiene does not require cleaning hands a specific number of times.

Another lenience is that someone who will not be davening or studying Torah is not required to wash his hands immediately, but can clean them when it is convenient to do so (Mishnah Berurah 4:41).

On the other hand, there is a stringency that applies to washing for physical hygiene. Halachah prohibits reciting a brocha, praying or studying Torah until the dirt has been removed (Magen Avraham 227:2).

  1. For ruach ra

A second category of ablutions includes those performed to remove ruach ra, spiritual contaminants that may be harmful if not removed properly. These include: Washing after clipping fingernails or toenails, after giving or receiving a haircut, after leaving the lavatory or mikveh, after visiting a cemetery or attending a funeral.

As opposed to hygienic cleaning, washing to eliminate ruach ra requires using water (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 4:18) and necessitates washing until the wrist (see Kaf Hachayim 4:61). Another stringency that applies when removing ruach ra is that one should wash one’s hands as soon as possible, in order to purge the ruach ra without delay (see Magen Avraham 4:18 and Pri Megadim; Elyah Rabbah 4:12; Kaf Hachayim 4:63).

Yet another stringency is that one should be careful not to touch food without first washing away the ruach ra. However, if one did touch food prior to washing, the food may be eaten (Shu’t Shevus Yaakov 2:105; Artzos Hachayim, Eretz Yehudah 4:4; Darchei Teshuvah 116:35).

On the other hand, there are a few lenient rulings that apply when one is washing only to remove ruach ra: One may recite brachos, pray or study Torah even though one is contaminated by ruach ra and has not yet had the opportunity to wash properly. A second leniency that applies is that, with the exception of washing negel vasser and those ablutions required from having had contact with meisim (after visiting a cemetery or attending a funeral), these washings do not require pouring on one’s hands from a vessel (see Kaf Hachayim 4:61). If one does not have a vessel handy, he may wash negel vasser without one (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 4:7 and commentaries).

More than one reason

I mentioned above that after using the bathroom one washes both because of hygiene and because of ruach ra. Since each of these reasons has its own requirements, washing after using the lavatory carries both of them. For the reasons of hygiene, it is sufficient to wipe one’s hands or use a gel sanitizer. However, this cleansing does not remove ruach ra. Therefore, if there is no water available, one may wipe or rub one’s hands or use alcohol or gel sanitizer to clean them. This cleaning will allow someone to recite asher yatzar, daven, and learn Torah. Notwithstanding the fact that his body is still contaminated by a ruach ra that he should try to remove as soon as possible, this does not prevent him from reciting brachos, praying or studying Torah. Someone in this situation should wash his hands properly with water at his first opportunity.

Different levels of ruach ra

There are different varieties of ruach ra, some more potent than others. Therefore, some activities require pouring water three times on each hand, whereas others require only one pouring on each hand (Seder Hayom, quoted by Kaf Hachayim 4:61). Clipping nails, and giving or receiving a haircut involve a lighter ruach ra that requires only one washing (Elyah Rabbah 4:12). On the other hand, after leaving the lavatory or mikveh, visiting a cemetery or attending a funeral one should wash each hand three times.

When washing one’s hands more than one time to remove ruach ra, one should wash them alternately – first the right hand, then the left, then the right, and so on until each hand has been washed three times (Ben Ish Chai, Tolados 16; Kaf Hachayim 4:62). Both right-handed and left-handed people should follow this procedure (Mishnah Berurah 4:22).

Even when the type of ruach ra requires that we wash hands three times, one who is able to wash his hands only once may touch food afterwards (Biur Halachah 4:2 s.v. yedakdeik).

By the way, 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 the nails of a child who is old enough to touch food

should wash the child’s hands afterwards (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).

III. For reasons of kedushah

Yet another reason for washing is to create more kedushah, similar to the kohanim washing their hands and feet before performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash (see Ramban, Shemos 30:17). For example, the kohein washes his hands until his wrists before duchening. Another activity that requires washing because of kedushah is davening shemoneh esrei (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 233:2). The laws germane both to washing before eating and washing prior to bensching are also because of kedushah, although in both instances there are other reasons to require these ablutions.

Brocha for washing

Whereas washing for hygiene or to remove ruach ra never requires a brocha, some washing performed because of kedushah does require a brocha.

I mentioned before that some activities require washing for more than one reason. Washing negel vasser in the morning is one such activity, which is required for three different reasons:

Hygiene: When a person is sleeping, he touches private and sweaty parts of his body.

To remove ruach ra: According to the Zohar (Parshas Vayeisheiv), a ruach ra descends upon a person while he sleeps and remains on his hands when he wakes up. Washing his hands three times removes it.

For kedushah: Every morning a person is like a kohein in the Beis Hamikdash who must wash from the Holy Laver (the kiyor) before beginning the daily service (Shu’t Rashba #191).

Because we wash negel vasser for all three reasons, the rules of negel vasser include stringencies from each of the categories.

Since the washing is for hygiene, one may not study Torah or recite prayers or blessings before washing.

Since it is to remove ruach ra, one should wash as soon as he can.

Since it is for kedushah, one recites a brocha upon this washing!

  1. Washing for bread

I am categorizing netilas yadayim, washing prior to eating bread, as a fourth category, because its laws are so different from the rest of the washings. For example, this washing has special instructions as to what type of water may be used, and requires that one use a vessel and dry one’s hands afterwards.

In the days of Shlomoh Hamelech, our Sages created a special mitzvah that we wash our hands in a very specific way prior to eating bread. There are two reasons for this takkanah:

  1. Chazal required that we wash hands in a very specific way prior to eating or handling terumah. To make certain that this takkanah was observed correctly, they extended the requirement to anytime a person eats bread.
  2. To create increased sanctity prior to eating our daily bread.

The reason Chazal required washing hands before handling terumah is because of a concept called tumas yadayim. Handling different items contaminates the hands to the extent that should they touch terumah, eating the terumah would be prohibited. This tumah is removed by washing one’s hands in a prescribed way. A minimum of a revi’is of water must be used, and must be poured by a person from an intact vessel meant for holding liquid. The entire hand that must be washed should be rinsed the first time one pours water onto the hand. If the water poured the first time did not wash the entire hand, one must dry the hand thoroughly and begin the procedure again.

With this overview, let us now study the proper procedure for netilas yadayim.

Chatzitzah, intervening substances

Prior to washing one’s hands, one should check that there are no intervening substances adhering to his hands. Any item that one prefers to remove, such as dough under one’s nails, will invalidate the netilas yadayim if it is not removed beforehand (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 161:1 and Mishnah Berurah 161:1).

Unused water

The water used for netilas yadayim must not have been previously used. For example, water that was used to rinse clothes or dishes or to cool off a baby bottle may not be used afterwards for netilas yadayim (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 160:2). Similarly, water kept in a basin that a workman used to cool off his tools may not be used for netilas yadayim (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 160:3).

Potable

Although water used for netilas yadayim does not have to be drinkable, one may not use water that is so salty, bitter or malodorous that a dog would not drink it (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 160:9).

Vessel

Netilas yadayim must be poured from a vessel large enough to hold at least a revi’is, approximately three ounces of liquid (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 159:1). A cup that is cracked or leaky may not be used (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 159:1). One may also not use a cap or other item that is not meant to hold water, even if, physically, it can (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 159:4).

Optimally, one should pour a revi’is of water on one’s hand each time he washes. As a rule, the Gemara advises using water generously when pouring for netilas yadayim, noting that this is a segulah to avoid poverty (Shabbos 62b).

Koach gavra

Washing for netilas yadayim requires that the water be poured over one’s hands by a person. This is called koach gavra, literally, the direct force of a person. Turning on a faucet and placing one’s hands under the water does not accomplish netilas yadayim for two reasons. First of all, the water did not fall from a vessel, and, second of all, the water was not poured directly by a person.

Wrist or knuckles?

The early authorities dispute whether netilas yadayim requires washing until the wrist or only until the knuckles. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one should preferably wash until the wrist (Orach Chayim 161:3). This means that when pouring water for the first time onto one’s hand, one must be careful to pour in such a way that every part of the hand gets wet.

Positioning the hands

The Gemara (Sotah 4b) requires that one hold one’s hands upright, fingers aloft, while washing netilas yadayim. There are numerous reasons mentioned in halachic authorities for these requirements. Explaining them all and the differences in halachah that result would take us beyond the scope of our article, so I will suffice by saying the following:

According to almost all opinions, holding the fingers upright while washing is not required when someone uses at least a revi’is of water and is careful that the water touches every part of his hand. Since most halachically concerned people wash their hands this way, I will leave the details of this discussion for another time.

It is preferred that even someone who washed his hands the way we just described should pour water onto his hands a second time. One should pour twice on one’s right hand, and then twice on one’s left hand (Chayei Odom 40:1; Mishnah Berurah 162:21). (This contrasts with washing because of ruach ra, where we wash our hands alternatively, as we learned above.) If a hand was washed with less than a revi’is of water, then halachah requires that one wash the hand a second time (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 162:2).

Rubbing hands together

After washing the hands, one should rub one’s hands together (Tosefta, Yadayim 1:2). This is done in case there is some dirt on them that has not already been removed (Rema, Orach Chayim 162:2, as explained by the Bach). This last step is not essential (Mishnah Berurah 162:24). One should be careful not to rub one’s hands together until both hands have been properly washed.

Drying

The Gemara teaches that one’s hands must be wiped dry after washing (Sotah 4b).

Washing wet hands

Must one’s hands be completely dry before you begin washing netilas yadayim? The authorities dispute what the halachah is in this case.

As we learned above, someone who, when pouring water for the first time, rinsed only part of his hand, must dry his hand thoroughly and begin the procedure over. The authorities dispute whether one must always have dry hands when beginning netilas yadayim or whether one may perform netilas yadayim even though his hands are wet or the handle of the cup is wet. According to the Magen Avraham (162:10) and the Mishnah Berurah (162:27), one may begin washing netilas yadayim, even though one’s hands are wet. The Chazon Ish (Orach Chayim 24:20) disagrees, contending that one’s hands must be dry when one begins washing netilas yadayim. Therefore, the handle of the cup must also be dry or, alternatively, one may grip the handle of the cup with a towel or some other item that keeps his hands dry until he washes netilas yadayim.

Optimal washing

Based on what we have learned, we can now present the optimal way to wash one’s hands prior to eating bread.

First one should check that one’s hands are clean. If they are not, he should clean them, and, according to the Chazon Ish, dry them. According to the Chazon Ish, the handle of the cup and the faucet handle must be dry, or one should be careful to touch the handles using something that will keep the hands dry.

One should pour twice over all parts of one’s right hand, and then pour twice over all parts of one’s left hand. The first pouring on each hand should be with at least a revi’is of water. One should use water generously and rub the hands together after washing. One then recites the brocha of al netilas yadayim prior to drying one’s hands.

Conclusion

The Gemara teaches that the rabbinic laws are dearer to Hashem than the Torah laws. This helps explain why there is such a vast halachic literature concerning this particular mitzvah.

 




Cleanliness Is Next to G-dliness, Or This Is the Way We Wash Our Hands

netilas_yadaim_er

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.)

MAYIM ACHARONIM

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.)

2. KEDUSHA

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.