We begin now with a look into some of the various details involved in the laws of netilat yadayim. While this is a seemingly simple law, there are many details involved, to the point where the Shulchan Aruch dedicates more than ten chapters to this law alone. As a complete survey of the laws of netilat yadayim would be far beyond the scope of a few Chaburot, we have selected the more ritual aspects and tended to omit the more technical issues, such as the type of utensil which should be used and types of water which are acceptable for the washing.

We thus begin by addressing the issue of when one is required to wash his hands. Does eating a cookie create such an obligation, or do we need a more serious type of eating? Are there some foods which require washing and others which do not, regardless of how they are eaten? As we will see, there is much discussion which revolves around these questions.

The broadest category of foods which require netilat yadayim beforehand is those foods which are generally dipped into some liquid before being eaten. As stated in the gemara in Pesachim 115a, any food which falls into this class can only be eaten by one who has washed his hands first, since otherwise the liquid on the food will become impure from contact with his hands, and will thus transfer that impurity to the food itself (water always attains a high enough level of impurity that is sufficient to transfer that impurity to a food). Both Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 6) and Tur (O.C. 158) codify this, and the Shulchan Aruch sharpens the point a little by pointing out two crucial details: first, that we are only speaking about the seven liquids which serve to make something susceptible to impurity (wine, oil, dew, water, milk, blood, honey); second, that this only holds true if the food is still wet. However, if the food is dry then there is no liquid present to contract the impurity and all bets are off.

There are, however, serious limitations placed on this law. The Aruch HaShulchan notes that if a person dips something into a liquid that is not normally dipped then there is no need for him to do netilat yadayim. This would seem to indicate that while there may be a solid reason based on the laws of purity for the washing of the hands, this law ultimately becomes formalized in that even if there would be a case where there would be a worry that the food could become impure, we would not mandate netilat yadayim if the case was deemed to be out of the ordinary. On the other extreme, the Aruch HaShulchan writes that if a person eats a food that is normally dipped into a liquid, but he eats it with a utensil in a manner where he will not come into direct contact with the food, he nevertheless would have to wash his hands beforehand.

The next limitation placed on this law is in terms of fruits. It would seem that fruits would be a prime example of foods which come in contact with liquids (at least when they are washed before eating), and thus one would expect that there would be a requirement for netilat yadayim before eating fruits. However, the gemara in Chullin 106 states that Rabi Oshia claimed that washing the hands before eating fruits was only for purposes of cleanliness (and thus no bracha would be made). The gemara then tells us that Rav Nachman goes even further, designating as haughty anyone who washes his hands before eating fruit. The Aruch HaShulchan claims that this refers to someone who washes his hands for fruit under the pretense that he is obligated to do so, a view which reflects that statement of Mordechai who says that one can wash his hands for fruit if they are dirty (although not for purity reasons).

There is no doubt that this aspect of the law of netilat yadayim is a bit striking. Ritva alone seems to note this fact, claiming that based on the aforementioned gemara is Pesachim one should certainly wash his hands before eating fruit, since fruits routinely come in contact with water. Nevertheless, the trend against washing one's hands before eating fruit is codified by both Tur and the Shulchan Aruch (although omitted by Rambam), and the Beit Yoseif cites the Mordechai who cites the Maharam MiRutenberg who claims that the criterion that a food be dipped in liquid is no longer an operative criterion in deciding what foods require netilat yadayim beforehand, since, as the Aruch HaShulchan notes, we are longer careful about eating fruits in a state of purity.

It should be noted that there is a trend to be strict if one washes fruits and eats them while they are still wet. While there may be room to be lenient in cases where water had fallen on the fruit but is no longer present, both the Darchei Moshe (citing the Kol-Bo) and the Aruch HaShulchan claim that if the fruit is still wet then one would have to wash his hands before eating it.

We thus come to the category of foods most commonly associated with netilat yadayim, namely those foods on which one makes a bracha of HaMotzi, essentially meaning bread. The Beit Yoseif cites Rambam as linking netilat yadayim specifically to HaMotzi, and in the Shulchan Aruch Rav Karo opens his comments on netilat yadayim by saying that when one eats bread on which he would say HaMotzi he then has an obligation to wash his hands. The one issue that arises is in terms of pat ha-ba'a b'kisnin (see Chabura on that topic for more detail and definition). Does one need to wash on such foods? The Beit Yoseif cites Rambam as saying that if one establishes a meal centered around such foods, then they would require a HaMotzi and thus would require one to wash beforehand, whereas if one eats such foods out of the context of a meal, and thus in a more casual manner, then the bracha made would be Borei Minei Mezonot and no washing would be necessary. While the Yerushalmi seems to be opposed to this view, but Rashba supports it and the Taz and Magen Avraham claim that this is the law and that no one really argues with it (and one would make a bracha when washing in such a case; the Levush suggests the classic cop-out, namely that one should simply eat a piece of bread first and then have a meal of pat ha-ba'a b'kisnin, thus avoiding the issue and covering all bases).

In addition to which foods require netilat yadayim, there is also the issue of how much food requires netilat yadayim. The general law is that one has to make a bracha before eating any amount of food, even an amount too small to require an afterblessing. Does this criteria apply to the need for netilat yadayim as well? The Beit Yoseif cites the Rokeiach as saying that the two issues are not connected. The reason that one always makes a blessing before eating any amount is based on the statement in Berachot 35a that it is forbidden for a person to get benefit from this world without first making a blessing. On the other hand, the laws of netilat yadayim derive from laws pertaining to purity as they relate to laws of eating terumah. Thus, the Rokeiach says that since food only becomes impure if there is a k'beitzah (3-4 ounces) present, thus there is only a need to wash if one is going to eat that amount. If one eats less than that amount then he should still wash, but should not make a blessing. Bach claims that if one eats less than a k'zayit (half of a k'beitzah) then there is no need to wash his hands at all. The Shulchan Aruch records these distinctions and codifies them into law. While the GR"A, the Birchei Yoseif, and the Tashbetz side with this view, the Lechem Chamudot, the Magen Avraham, and the Eliyahu Rabba all take a position that follows the laws of impurity all the way, claiming that anything less than a k'beitzah requires netilat yadayim without a bracha.


The gemara in Sotah 4b notes that a person who forgets to dry his hands after netilat yadayim is considered to have eaten impure bread, based on a verse in Yechezkel 4. While the gemara does not state any explicit reason for this, Ritva in Chullin notes that it is better for one not to wash at all then to eat bread with hands that have not been dried. Why is this so? Water attains a status of first-level impurity (rishon l'tum'a) after coming in contact with something impure at any level, and thus the impure water on one's hands will make the bread impure. By contrast, if one's hands are impure but the bread remains dry then there will be no contraction of impurity. Rambam, the Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch all codify the need to dry one's hands.

There are four laws that come about as a consequence of the reason for drying hands after netilat yadayim. We generally rule that a bracha recited over the act of performing a mitzva must be said before the act is done (over la'asiyatan). If the bracha is not said completely beforehand, then one can recite the blessing as long as the performance of the mitzva is still going (although the Or Zarua claims that one can still make the bracha after the fact). Since the drying is considered to be an integral part of netilat yadayim, the Tur rules that one can make the bracha after he has washed his hands but before he dries them, and the Aruch HaShulchan rules that this is the procedure that should be used.

The second law in this group is the number of times that water must be poured over one's hands. Rosh writes that water must be poured twice over each hand, since the first water becomes impure, and thus the second pouring is needed to get rid of the impure water. The Shiltei HaGibborim cites Tosafot and the Semag, who claim that three pourings are needed, while he cites the Sefer HaTerumah as agreeing with the view of Rosh. Ritva claims that Rambam follows Rosh, and this is in fact the generally accepted approach. It should be noted that one should pour twice onto each hand, and not go from one hand to the other (which is the method for netilat yadayim when one wakes up in the morning).

The third law in this set comes from the gemara in Sotah 4b. There the gemara claims that one has to lift up his hands when washing. Why is this so? The worry of the gemara is that a person will pour water on his hands the first time, and then some water will run down the rest of his arm. He will then pour water a second time and dry his hands, and after that point some of the impure water which is on his arm will come back onto his hands and make them impure again (see Mishna Yadayim 2:3). To prevent this from happening, the gemara requires one to hold his hands into a manner in which the water will stay on the hands the entire time. Rif, Rashi, Rosh, Sefer HaTerumah, and Rambam all follow this ruling, as do the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch (we will see later on where exactly the hand ends and the arm begins for the purposes of this law). However, we should note that Mordechai, Tosafot, and Semag (an Ashkenazic grouping) claim that one need do so only until the second washing, at which time there is no longer any impure water on his hands and thus the worry disappears.

Finally, what happens if a person chooses to dip his hands into a mikveh (ritual bath)? Since a mikveh is used to purify an entire person, surely it should suffice for one's hands! In fact, this is the case. However, there is one important difference between one who washes his hands in the classical manner and one who does so by using a mikveh. As we have noted, one has to wash his hands a second time in order to remove the impure water from the first pouring. However, with a mikveh there is no such issue, since the hands become pure as soon as they enter the water. Thus, as the Shiltei HaGibborim notes and others codify, one only needs to dip his hands once if he is using a mikveh instead of water poured into a cup.

Go to Part III

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