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    Washing hands – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Why is washing the hands such a common ritual in Judaism?

    A. It is part of the principle of cleanliness that is basic to Jewish thinking. As against the old saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness”, Judaism says, “Cleanliness is part of godliness”. The importance of cleanliness is illustrated by the rule that no-one should live in a town that has no bath house. Cleanliness of the body goes with purity of the heart. Psalm 24 tells us that the way to the mountain of the Lord is by means of clean hands and a pure heart.

    Q. Why do we wash our hands before eating bread?

    A. In Biblical times hand-washing was essential for the kohanim but it was later extended to apply to every Jew. Only an Am HaAretz, a bumpkin who lacked Torah knowledge, would eat without washing his hands; the Talmud says that someone who does not wash before eating deserves to be excommunicated.

    For centuries, antisemites accused Jews of poisoning the wells – how else could they explain why major epidemics seemed to bypass the Jewish communities? The truth was that Jews washed their hands when rising from bed, before eating and after using the toilet, took regular baths, and observed other principles of health and hygiene. Women immersed in the mikvah each month; pious men also used the mikvah on a regular basis. This is not to say that these practices necessarily aimed at preventing disease, though this was a crucial by-product.

    Q. Why is the b’rachah for washing the hands al n’tillat yadayim, “lifting up the hands”?

    A. It derives from the way we carry out the practice, lifting up each hand in turn and pouring water on it from a vessel. The source is a verse in the Psalms, S’u y’dechem kodesh uvar’chu et HaShem – “Raise your hands to the Sanctuary, and bless the Lord” (Psalm 134:2).

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