The laws pertaining to the washing of hands done before eating a meal (netilat yadayim) provide an intriguing example of a fairly simple law which depends on several more complex areas for its explanation. Our goal this week will be to provide a basic framework of the sources which generate this law, while next week we will discuss some of the various details that are involved.

There are at least three sources in the gemara for the law of netilat yadayim before eating a meal. The gemara in Shabbat 14b speaks about netilat yadayim as being established by Shlomo HaMelech, with the approval of Hashem. The context in this case is a discussion of various types of ritual impurity which were established by the Rabbis, and thus the implication is that Shlomo's decree was to institute washing the hands due to the impurity that likely is on them. While this gemara does not give a direct explanation for this decree, we will see in subsequent sources what exactly it is that generates this law.

The gemara at the end of the eighth chapter of Berachot (53b) cites a verse in Vayikra 20 which states "V'hitkadishtem v'heyitem kedoshim ki kadosh ani Hashem elokeichem" - and you shall make yourselves holy and you shall be holy, as I am the Lord your God. The gemara interprets each clause of this verse to be referring to a different ritual (religious or simply practical) that was commonly done in the course of a meal, and explains the phrase "you shall make yourselves holy" to be a reference to the washing of the hands done before the meal. Once again, however, we have a source that provides us with little information about the nature of the law. Ritva goes so far as to say that we cannot learn much from this source, since it at best provides us with a d'rabbanan (Rabbinic) explanation for the source of the law.

The most informative source for this law comes from Chullin 105a. The gemara begins by stating that mayim rishonim (i.e. the washing done before a meal) is a mitzva, while mayim acharonim (done after the meal) is an obligation (see the Chabura on mayim acharonim for more on that topic). A second view is then brought in that claims that both of them are obligations. Further along, the gemara brings in a statement from Rav Idi bar Avin who says that there are two reasons why one must wash his hands before a meal. The first reason is what is known as "s'rach terumah." What does this mean? In the days when the Beit HaMikdash still stood, it was incumbent upon every Jewish farmer to give roughly 2% of his produce to the kohanim, a gift that was known as terumah. This food was then consumed by the kohanim, but only provided that they were in a state of ritual purity at the time. If they were to be impure, then there was the chance that they would make the food impure as well, and they would thus violate the prohibition of eating terumah that is impure. Even though we no longer have terumah, the institution of netilat yadayim was set up so that when the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt and terumah is given again, there will be no need to re-educate people; rather, everyone will be used to washing his hands for purity purposes before eating. Furthermore, even though only kohanim eat terumah, this law was extended to include everyone. We will see further along how this reason guides some of the particular details of this law.

The second reason given by Rav Idi bar Avin is pithily stated as being "because it is a mitzva." There is a debate in the gemara as to what exactly this means. Abaye claims that it is a mitzva to listen to the Sages, as per the verse in Devarim 17:11 which states that we should "not veer from that which they (the Sages) tell you, to the right or to the left." Just as we are enjoined by the Torah to follow any other law enacted by the Sages, so too are we commanded to observe this law to the fullest extent (see the Chabura on mitzvot d'rabbanan for more on this topic). Rava offers a slightly more enigmatic explanation, claiming that the mitzva involved is the mitzva to follow the words of Rabi Elazar ben Arach. What does this mean? Rava refers to a statement by the Tanna (mishnaic authority) Rabi Elazar ben Arach, who states that the verse "and anyone that a zav (man with a discharge) touches, provided that this hands were not rinsed in water...shall be impure" (Vayikra 15:11) serves as the textual catalyst for the Rabbinic enactment of netilat yadayim. Rashi explains this as meaning that the law of netilat yadayim is actually d'oraita (Torah ordained).

Tosafot note one further aspect of this law. They note that once we give the reason of s'rach terumah, there should be no need to provide a second reason for the law. This being so, why do we need to be told that it is a mitzva? They claim that it was instituted by the Sages for purposes of cleanliness. This full meaning of this reason will come out more in the details of this law. However, we should note at this time that one major potential difference among the reasons would be whether or not one has to make a bracha when washing. If this is a Rabbinic ordinance, then presumably one would make a bracha, just as one does when lighting Chanukah candles or reading the Megilla on Purim. On the other hand, if this law is merely a piece of advice for the purpose of improving the hygiene habits of the Jewish people, then it would not be so obvious that a bracha has to be made.


However, in addition to the various halachic reasons offered in these texts, there are various statements in the gemara that serve to bolster the institution of netilat yadayim and its role as an essential ritual in Judaism. The main source for such statements comes from the gemara in Sotah 4b, where there are several consequences listed that will befall a person who denigrates the practice of netilat yadayim. Based on a verse in Mishlei 6, the gemara states that anyone who eats bread without washing his hands first is considered to have slept with a prostitute. Rav Zerika is then recorded as saying that anyone who denigrates the institution of netilat yadayim will be uprooted from the world. Tosafot ask why this should be the case with netilat yadayim specifically, and not with any other Rabbinic commandment? Furthermore, the gemara in Shabbat 62b states that anyone who denigrates netilat yadayim will endure poverty! They answer that this is speaking about a person who consistently disparages this law, and not simply a one-time offender.

Nevertheless, Tosafot seem to be avoiding the issue. Why should netilat yadayim be deemed different than any of the myriads of other Rabbinic enactments? A hint may come from the comments of Rashi in Shabbat. He claims that the gemara is speaking about a person who uses the bare minimum amount of water acceptable for the performance of netilat yadayim. As we will see later on, one is required to use a revi'it of water (roughly 3.3 ounces), but is encouraged to use much more. It would seem that a person who insists on using only the smallest amount of water reveals himself as one who performs the commandments in the most mechanical way possible, doing just enough to discharge his obligation. Such a person is likely to be one who sees the commandments as burdens, and not as acts done out of love for Hashem.

However, this does not fully provide an answer to the problem raised by Tosafot. We could obviously apply this standard to any commandment that has a minimum requirement, and thus claim that a person who insisted on sticking to the minimum can expect a life of poverty. Why is netilat yadayim singled out? Perhaps we can suggest that netilat yadayim serves a special function as far as the various rituals that are performed on a daily basis. The act of eating is one of the base, animal actions that all human beings perform, and an action that is shared by the rest of the animal world. Taken by itself, there is nothing about eating that should bring a man closer to his God. When one makes a blessing on food, he acknowledges where the food is coming from, and thus injects a degree of the divine presence into his actions. Perhaps the washing of the hands done before eating a meal falls into this category as well. A person who consciously minimizes this ritual displays an indifference to that which elevates us above the beasts, and demonstrates that he does not desire to raise himself up to the spiritual level at which it becomes possible for man to encounter God in all that he does. Such a person thus acts in an unfaithful manner towards Hashem - as if he had slept with a prostitute - and thus does not merit obvious reward in this world. By skimping on his performance of this mitzva, God, as it were, skimps on him, condemning him to a life of poverty.

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