"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"Why do we wash our hands before the meal on Friday nights if our hands are already clean? And why so much water?"


The blessing that we recite before washing, "...al nitilat yadayim," usually translated "...(and commanded us) on the washing of hands." Well, the word nitilat does not really mean "washing" at all. On Sukkot, the blessing over the Four Species, al nitilat lulav, certainly doesn't mean "to wash the lulav"! Rather, the primary meaning of nitilat is "taking" or "lifting," thus implying an elevation.1 This nuance is an indicator that we are talking about spiritual purity, not physical cleanliness. In fact, hands must be cleaned well of all physical dirt before we are entitled to do this "spiritual washing.2

The ritual manner in which we wash our hands and recite the blessing parallels how the kohanim started their sacred service each morning in the Holy Temple. Before pursuing the significance of this relationship, let me deal with the question I'm sure you would now ask if we were speaking face to face: "Why do we do this at home, and before meals no less; why not in synagogue, before prayer?"

This question stems from the popular misconception that the synagogue is the center of Judaism. The "house of worship" may be the main element for certain other religions, but it is not, and never was, for Judaism. Many of every Jew's prayers are offered outside of a synagogue. There were periods when synagogue attendance was made impossible by our oppressors; our religion came through all of them unscathed. Only the perpetuation of Jewish homes and family life in accordance with Torah guidelines has enabled the survival of Judaism down through the centuries.

The Midrashic statement, "The Jewish home should be a miniature of the Holy Temple," is not a vague generality. Many Jewish practices are aimed at fulfilling this dictum. There are a number of detailed parallels for this living metaphor, including several specific to our discussion. Thus, the dining table corresponds to the altar, the bread is a sacrifice,3 and the person cutting it is the officiating priest. The others partaking of the meal are like those that merited to share in the eating of the sacred offering.

The "holy" food from the sacrifices had to be eaten in a state of purity. Similarly, the special "gifts" of food to the kohanim (which only they were allowed to take) also were to be eaten in such a state. And for the offering called trumah in particular, the kohanim were required to wash their hands beforehand. The one "mundane" food for which purity was required before partaking was bread, because most trumah gifts of grain were in the form of bread. Appropriately, bread is the one indispensable ingredient for a meal, according to Jewish Law. Now, while there are no sacrifices and the kohanim do not eat trumah, our service of washing for bread vitalizes our connection to these particular mitzvot of the Temple.

This act of washing our hands is not merely in memory of that Temple activity, it is its substitute. And by the way, this is not just a Shabbat requirement; we wash hands before eating bread no matter which day of the week it is.

The requirement that the whole hand up to the wrist be splashed with a specific amount of water also dates back to Temple practices. At least this much water is needed to bring about a state of purity.4 So don't be stingy; use lots of water. It is for a good purpose, and it gains good results: "I wash with handfuls of water and I am given handfuls of goodness."5

A main point to draw out from all these associations is that when a Jew sits down to a meal, it is not just to fill his stomach. Or simply to enable his survival.6 The washing procedure and blessings help us to focus on just what is our main mission as Jews: to spiritualize the world through using its physical elements for G-dly purpose.


Yrachmiel Tilles


1. For this reason many are careful to raise their hands opposite their eyes while saying the blessing.

2. See also, Ps. 26:6

3. Orach Chaim 167:6 (Rama); Kitzur 41:6.

4. A revi'it--at least 86 grams (3 ounces).

5. Shabbat 62b in the name of Rav Chisda (the opposite is also mentioned: "making light of washing for bread leads to poverty"). See also, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 40:4.

6. Tanya ch. 7.

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