In these days of the pandemic, it seems like we are washing our hands all the time! “At least 20 seconds with soap and hot water: palms, back of the hand, between the fingers, thumbs, then nails according to the ritual prescribed by the Center for Disease Control. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Pharisees accused Jesus and his followers of not washing their hands: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat” (Matthew 15:20.)

The handwashing the Pharisees are talking about wasn’t primarily about hygiene. It was a cultic ritual they prescribed to cleanse religious impurity. Even today, ritualistic handwashing is practiced among the Orthodox Jews. Wikipedia explains, “The Talmud used the requirement of washing the hands in Leviticus 15:11 as a hint for general handwashing law, using asmachta (a Biblical hint, rather than an explicit requirement).” [1]  Some of the occasions for netilat yadayim (literally “lifting the hands”) included before eating any meal that included bread (specifically, bread made with one of the five chief grains: wheat, cultivated barley, spelt, wild barley, and oats), after eating bread (although not universally practiced any longer), before worship, after sleeping, and

  • After touching part of the body which is dirty or customarily covered such as the private parts, back, armpits, inside of nose or ear, the scalp (but not if one just touched the hair), or the sweat from one’s body (excluding the face), or one’s shoes
  • Upon leaving a latrine, lavatory or bathhouse, as a symbol of both bodily cleanliness and of removing human impurity. Handwashing after excretion is sometimes referred to as “washing asher yatzar,” referring to the Asher yatzar blessing recited once the hands have been washed after excretion.
  • Upon leaving a cemetery
  • After cutting one’s hair or nails
  • The Shulchan Aruch specifies that one must wash hands after sexual intercourse, but among many Orthodox Jews, this is not accepted practice.
  • To remove tumat met (“impurity from death”) after participating in a funeral procession or coming within four cubits of a corpse
  • Some have the custom of washing their hands prior to scribal work

Wikipedia, “Handwashing in Judaism”

That’s a lot of handwashing, but there is still more. There are special rituals as to how the washing is to take place, depending on whether it is before or after a meal or upon waking.

The general custom in the morning (based on a kabbalistic teaching) is to take-up the vessel in one’s right hand, pass the vessel into his left hand, and only then begin to pour out water from that vessel over his right hand. Then one reverses the order by taking-up the vessel in his right hand and pouring out water from that vessel over his left hand. This process is repeated three times altogether for each hand, with intermittent changing of hands after each pouring. When this is accomplished, he then takes the vessel and pours out water over both hands, simultaneously, after which he rubs his hands together and then lifts them to make the blessing over his hands, before he wipes them dry.

In the hand washing made for eating bread, the custom differs: one takes the vessel in his right hand and pours water in abundance over his left hand. He then takes the vessel in his left hand and pours water in abundance over his right hand. In this case (for eating bread), it is not necessary to wash the hands three times, intermittently, as is customarily done in the morning. Rather, one or two pours for each hand are sufficient.

Then a prayer is said when the hands are washed: “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

Sigh. In the Old Testament, ritual handwashing was obligatory for the priests before fulfilling their office (Ex 30:19–21; 40:30–32), but the religious practice wasn’t prescribed for anyone else. When the Pharisees tried to impose their traditions on the disciples, Jesus opposed them. The Lord said: “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11).

Notice the controversy with the Pharisees wasn’t over hygiene. It was about keeping religious traditions. I like the bumper sticker that says, “Sacred cows make good hamburger.” I wonder if we have any traditions that are interfering with our relationship with God?

 [1] See Wikipedia, “Ritual Washing in Judaism” and “Handwashing in Judaism.”

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