Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
The Laws of Prayer
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #01: Washing Hands upon Waking and before Prayer
Rav Moshe Isserlis (1530-1572), known as the Rema,
begins his comments on the Shulchan Arukh by elaborating upon the verse,
"I have set the Lord before me ALWAYS" (Tehillim 16:8). This verse, the Rema asserts, demands a
perpetual awareness of God's presence.
Seemingly, these words should arouse
two distinct feelings within a religious person. First, as the Rema notes, God's presence
fills this person with awe and fear, inspiring him to pay greater attention to
his speech and actions, since he is in the constant presence of the King. Second, this continuous awareness challenges
the spiritual individual to infuse his life with religious meaning, constantly
acknowledging God's presence.
In this course, we will learn the halakhot
of "orach chayim" - daily mitzvot. Through the performance of these mitzvot,
one directly engages God and further develops one's relationship with his or
her Creator. We will spend most of the
year learning the laws of tefilla (prayer).
This week, however, I'd like to
begin with the laws of netilat yadayim, which begins our day not only
chronologically, but, as we shall see, also religiously. We will trace the development of this precept
from the Gemara, through the Rishonim and the Zohar, down to the
One of the first mitzvot we
perform each day is netilat yadayim - the washing of one's hands. Great mystery shrouds this mitzva, with its
reason and halakhot being subject to debate.
Netilat yadayim appears in a
number of contexts in the Talmud. When
listing the activities in which one engages in the morning and their
corresponding berakhot (birkhot ha-shachar), the gemara (Berakhot
60b) notes that "when one washes one's hands, one recites asher
kideshanu … al netilat yadayim." Apparently, washing one's hands is worthy of
a berakha, even a birkat ha-mitzva! Yet the gemara does not
provide the reason behind this mitzva, and why it is worthy of a berakha.
The gemara mentions netilat
yadayim in at least three additional places, although none of these sources
explicitly relates to the washing performed in the morning, upon which a berakha
The gemara (Berakhot 14b) records:
Yochanan said, One who wishes to accept upon himself the complete yoke of
Heaven should relieve himself, wash his hands, don tefillin, recite keriat
shema and pray - this is the complete yoke of heaven.
Rabbi Chiyya bar
Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, One who does so, it is as if he has
built an altar and offered a sacrifice upon it, as it says "I will wash my
hands in innocence; so will I encompass Your altar, O Lord" (Tehillim
26:6) … one who does not have water to wash his hands should use dirt, pebbles
This source clearly links netilat yadayim to kabbalat
ol malkhut shamayim (accepting the yoke of heaven), to shema and to tefilla,
but not necessarily or exclusively to waking up, nor to the morning.
Other sources seem to indicate that netilat yadayim may be linked to
hygiene, or even to mystical forces, as the gemara (Shabbat 108b)
touches one's eye, it should be cut off; one's nose, it should be cut off…
Rabbi Natan said, This is a bat chorin, which is in force until one
washes [one’s hands] three times…"
Many Rishonim write that this gemara is referring
specifically to the morning netilat yadayim, although the gemara itself
never specifies this. The interpretation
of "bat chorin," however, is unclear, and it is debatable
whether our rabbis were referring to a spiritual danger (ruach ra'ah) or
a physical one (see Meiri, Shabbat 108b).
Finally, the gemara elsewhere (Yoma 77b) posits that while it is
prohibited on Yom Kippur to wash even part of one's body, "a woman should
wash one of her hands before giving bread to a child … because of shivta."
The Rishonim debate whether "shivta"
is a reference to the ruach ra'ah of the morning (Rashi), or a unique
spiritual danger related to food, which, Tosafot maintain, is no longer
applicable. In any case, this gemara,
according to some, reinforces the notion of a ruach ra'ah that one must
remove every morning.
Interestingly, these two interpretations are not
necessarily contradictory, and one may maintain that just as one must remove a ruach
ra'ah from one's hands in the morning, one must also wash one's hands
before accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven.
The Rishonim also debate the reason behind this
The Rosh (Berakhot 9:23) writes,
hands are active [at night], and it is inconceivable that they did not touch a
part of one's body that is ordinarily covered, the rabbis established a berakha
before one recites keriat shema and tefilla…"
The Rosh clearly believes that netilat yadayim is
performed as a preparation for shema and tefilla. This is also, most likely, the position of
the Rambam, who cites netilat yadayim in the Laws of Tefilla
(4:2), without any mention of a ruach ra'ah. (See, however, the Lechem Mishneh in Hilkhot
Shevitat He-asor 3:2, who questions why the Rambam permits washing one's
hand on Yom Kippur before feeding a child, if he indeed rejects the notion of ruach
The Rashba (Responsa 1:191), on the other hand, suggests an
entirely different approach. He begins
by questioning why it is customary to use a vessel for the morning netilat
yadayim, since neither ruach ra'ah nor tefilla should
necessitate the use of a vessel. He then
"Since in the
morning we are like a NEW CREATION (birya chadasha)… we must thank God
who created us for His glory, and to serve and bless His name. It is upon this that they instituted the berakhot
we recite every morning. Therefore, we
must sanctify ourselves and wash our hands from a vessel, like the kohen
in the Beit Ha-mikdash who washed from the basin before his
In summary, the Rosh views netilat yadayim as part
of the necessary preparations for tefilla, while the Rashba sees netilat
yadayim (or at least the washing that is worthy of a berakha) as a
broad declaration that one's daily activities are no less holy than the kohen's
There are two important halakhic differences
between these approaches. The Rosh, who
sees netilat yadayim as a preparation for tefilla, believes that
one should recite the berakha "al netilat yadayim"
before washing for each tefilla, including Mincha and Maariv!
Furthermore, in the absence of a vessel, or even of water, one should still
cleanse one's hands, and recite the berakha of "al nekiyut
yadayim." The Rashba, who also
acknowledges that one should clean one's hands before tefilla, limits
the BERAKHA to the washing of the morning, and to washing with water,
from a vessel, similar to a kohen.
The Beit Yosef (OC 4) cites the Zohar (Parashat Vayeshev),
which, he says, brings "novel ideas regarding netilat yadayim that
are not found in the halakhic authorities." The Zohar writes:
"… There is
no human who does not taste the taste of death at night and consequently an
impure spirit (rucha mesa'ava) descends upon him. Why does this happen? When the holy soul
leaves the human body … an impure spirit descends upon the body. When the soul
is returned to the body and the impurity is removed, it remains upon his hands,
and cannot be removed until the human washes them, thereby being
The Zohar continues by asserting that one should not recite
a berakha until this impurity is removed. Furthermore, the Zohar asserts in a number of
places that one should not walk four amot (cubits) before washing one's
hands, and describes the proper means of removing this impurity: One takes the
vessel containing the water in one’s right hand and passes it to the left
hand. One then washes the right and left
hands in sequence, three times, based upon the kabbalistic tension between the sefirot
of din and chessed, represented by the left and right hands,
The Practical Halakha
The differences between the above
approaches are significant. Must one
wash with a vessel? In a right hand / left hand sequence? Within four amot
of one's bed? Should one recite the berakha of "al netilat
yadayim" before Mincha and Maariv?
Interestingly, Rav Yosef Karo
(Shulchan Arukh OC 4) seems to codify, at least optimally, all of these
reasons. He writes that one should
preferably use water, from a vessel, and should pour in a three-fold sequence (right-left),
in order to remove the ruach ra'ah.
Furthermore, one should avoid touching any of one's bodily orifices
until washing netilat yadayim.
However, he does distinguish between netilat yadayim for ruach
ra'ah and tefilla, noting that if one merely immerses one's hand
into water, even three times, or if one does not have water and must use dirt
or pebbles, this may suffice for tefilla, but not for ruach ra'ah.
Finally, he posits that the berakha
of "al netilat yadayim" should only be said in the
morning, and not for later tefillot (OC 92:4). This may indicate his preference for the
Rashba's position (see Magen Avraham 4:1), or it might be due to the fact that
in cases of doubt, one is lenient regarding berakhot (safek berakhot
According to the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh, when washing
in the morning, one should follow all the stringencies of the netilat
yadayim before eating bread.
Therefore, one should use only water which may be used for washing
before a meal. Furthermore, one should
use a revi'it measure of water, from a vessel, using "koach gavra"
The Rema adds that be-diavad
one may recite that berakha even upon washing without a vessel, and with
water not poured by human strength.
There are a number of questions
posed by the later authorities that we should discuss before concluding this
When should one recite the berakha of netilat yadayim?
The Acharonim highlight the following halakhic
quandary. According to the Rosh (and
Rambam), the berakha of netilat yadayim was instituted upon the
washing before tefilla. Therefore, if one were to recite the berakha
upon waking in the morning but BEFORE using the bathroom, he would need to wash
his hands again before tefilla, and therefore the first netilat
yadayim did not prepare him for tefilla at all! Alternatively, if
the berakha was established upon the first washing of the day in order
to remove the ruach ra'ah or to commemorate becoming a "new
being" (according to the Rashba), the berakha should be recited as
early as possible! We should note that the above-cited gemara lists the berakha
of "al netilat yadayim" as the LAST of the birkot
The Mishna Berura rules (4:4 and in
Bi'ur Halakha s.v. ve-afilu, in accordance with the Chayye Adam and the
Gra) that one should wash a second time before tefilla and only then
recite the berakha of "al netilat yadayim." The Arukh Ha-shulchan (4:5) disagrees, and
rules that the berakha should be recited upon rising, and even insists
that the Rosh and Rambam would agree.
Some have the custom of reciting the berakha of "al netilat
yadayim" as part of the morning blessings, long after actually washing
one's hands. The Rambam (Teshuvot Pe'er
Ha-dor 104) records that this was indeed the custom in a number of communities,
but that it should be abolished, and the berakha is in vain (a berakha
Others disagree: the Maharam Chalava
(Pesachim 7b) writes that "al netilat yadayim"
is similar to the other morning blessings we recite over natural occurrences,
regardless of whether we actually experienced the specific wonder.
The Shulchan Arukh (6:2) cites both opinions. The Acharonim write that one should
preferably recite the berakha of "al netilat yadayim"
upon washing one's hands and not later (see Mishna Berura 6:8).
What if one sleeps during the day or remains awake all night?
The Shulchan Arukh writes that there is a doubt regarding
one who slept during the day, and therefore one should wash without a berakha
(4:15). Apparently, it is unclear
whether it is the sleep, or the night, or both, which obligates one in netilat
What about one who remains awake all night? This is a very
common question on Shavuot, or after overseas airplane travel. Once again, Rav
Yosef Karo (OC 4:13) writes that there is a doubt, and the Rema rules that one
should wash without a berakha.
The Mishna Berura (4:30 and in Bi'ur Halakha s.v. ve-yitlem)
maintains that the Acharonim agree that if one uses the bathroom before Shacharit,
one should then wash one's hands and recite the berakha of "al
Other cases of netilat yadayim
The Shulchan Arukh (4:18-19) mentions other instances in
which one should wash one's hands:
rises in the morning, one who emerges from a bathroom or bathhouse, one who cuts
his nails, removes his shoes, touches his feet and washes his hair… some say
one who walks among the dead, touches a dead body, removes lice from his
clothing, or has sexual relations… one who does any of these and does not wash
his hands, if he is a scholar, his learning will be forgotten, and if he is not
a scholar, he will be smitten by insanity!"
Furthermore, the Shulchan Arukh also mentions blood-letting
as a reason for washing one's hands.
Regarding each of these, we must question Rav Yosef Karo's
intention. Is he referring to a proper netila,
performed with a vessel and water three times?
The Mishna Berura (4:39) writes that while the reason for
some of these washings may be merely cleanliness, and for others, ruach
ra'ah, only one who rises in the morning needs to wash three times (in
sequence). He then cites the Eliyah
Rabba, who is strict also regarding one who "walks among the dead"
and one who has relations. The Gra,
incidentally, claims that one who had relations merely needs to clean one's
hands. Finally, he cites the Sefer
Heikhal Ha-kodesh, who requires one to wash three times after using the
bathroom, and the Magen Avraham, who disagrees.
Regarding blood-letting, while there are those who are
accustomed to washing their hands after giving blood (either to be tested, or
for donation), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited by the Nishmat Avraham 4)
believed that "blood-letting" referred to a specific medical
procedure in which the bleeding was beneficial to the patient. Since giving blood, even for a blood test, is
not for direct healing purposes, one is not required to wash one's hands.
Next week, we will discuss the halakhot of birkot