A silver cup used for hand-washing
A two-handled Natla (נַטְלָה) cup photographed in a Jerusalem public lavatory.

Jewish law today prescribes several kinds of hand washing (Hebrew: נטילת ידיים‎, netilat yadayim):

  • Washing of hands when one wakes from his sleep (known in Yiddish as נעגל וואַסער, negel vasser), poured out from a vessel three times, intermittently, over each hand. This washing is said to remove an evil spirit from one's fingers.[1]
  • Washing of hands before prayer.[2]
  • Washing of hands when one touches ones's private parts, or the sweat from one's body (excluding the face), or when one crops one's fingernails[3]
  • Washing of hands when one leaves the latrine, lavatory or bathhouse[3]
  • Washing of hands when one leaves a cemetery[3]
  • Washing of hands before breaking bread served in one's supper, and only bread made from one of the five chief grains (wheat, cultivated barley, spelt, wild barley,[a] and oats)[6]
  • Washing of hands after eating a meal where the salt of Sodom was served at that table[7]
  • Washing of hands (practised by the Cohanim, or priests, of some communities) prior to going up to bless the people, as prescribed in the Sacerdotal Blessing (Heb. ברכת כהנים).[8]
  • Washing of hands when, prior to eating, one dips a morsel of food within a liquid (e.g. water, honey, oil, etc.) which then clings to that morsel, with the one exception of fruits, seeing that they do not require hand washing.[9]

In two of these hand washings, water is poured out over one's hands with the aid of a vessel, viz., 1) whenever one wakes from his sleep, and 2) before eating bread.[10] These hand washings are nearly always accompanied with a special blessing prior to concluding the actual act of washing (see infra). Although the minimal quantity of water needed to fulfill one's religious duty is 1/4 of a log (a liquid measure of capacity equal to the bulk or volume of one and half medium-sized eggs),[11] and must be sufficient to cover at least the middle joints of one's fingers,[12] water poured out in excess of this amount is considered praiseworthy in Jewish law. The hand washing made when one leaves the lavatory or latrine, or when one touches his privy parts, or sweat, may be done simply with running tap water (faucet).

The most developed and, perhaps, important of these washings is the washing of hands before eating bread. Such washing of hands is called in Hebrew, netilat yadayim, meaning "the lifting up of the hands." It is looked upon with such rigidity, that those who willfully neglect its practice are said to make themselves liable to excommunication,[13] and bring upon themselves a state of scarcity,[14] and are quickly taken out of the world.[15]


Development of Jewish ritualEdit

1890 illustration of laver in the Temple

Ten brazen lavers are said to have served the priests in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, their function being merely for cleansing the hands and feet before they commenced their service.[16] A teaching preserved in the compendium of Jewish oral law, the Mishnah, informs its reader that any priest who relieved himself by urinating required the washing of the hands and feet.[17] The use of these lavers did not pertain to the general public, nor to their eating foods with washed hands.

The Mishnah (Tractate Yadayim) is the first to describe the ritual of hand washing outside of the Temple.

The Babylonian Talmud[18] explains that King Solomon enacted hand washing as a safeguard, before one eats of any of the animal sacrifices in the Temple. This enactment was restricted only to washing of hands immediately prior to eating those meat offerings of sacrificial animals (hallowed things) offered in the Temple.

Enactment concerning the priestsEdit

In subsequent years, Hillel and Shammai followed in the footsteps of King Solomon and, in the year circa 32 BCE,[19] these two sages made a decree concerning the priests of Aaron's lineage, viz., that their hands suffer a mandatory state of uncleanness which would disqualify their eating foods separated unto them as an offering (Heb. terumah) until those very same hands were first washed. The Talmud Yerushalmi[20] says they had actually renewed what was formerly practised since the time of Moses,[21] but which had been forgotten by the people. That is to say, they made it a renewed enactment that the priests (i.e. all descendants of Aaron, the first High Priest of God) should be required henceforth, by an edict, to wash their hands before touching bread or other foods which were given unto them as a "heave-offering" (terumah). This enactment was made in order to instruct priests (Heb. Cohenim) about the necessity of washing their hands after immersing their bodies in a ritual bath or ablution, since the Law of Moses enjoins the priests to eat their consecrated foods in a state of ritual purity. Bodily purity can only be attained by, both, immersing themselves in a ritual bath (Heb. mikveh) as well as by washing their hands before consuming of such foods. According to the Talmud, the Sages of Israel have based this teaching upon a verse in Leviticus 15:11: "And anyone who is touched by a man suffering from a running issue (Heb. zav), while he (the man suffering from the running issue) has not rinsed his hands in water, […shall be unclean]." The same verse is explained by Rava:[22] "What is the meaning of that which is written, 'while he has not rinsed his hands in water?' Behold! Had he rinsed [his hands], would he be ritually clean?! Behold! He [still] requires an immersion [in a ritual bath]!! Rather, this is its meaning. After [he had immersed himself], so long as he has not yet rinsed [his hands], he is [still] unclean!"

Delinquent priestsEdit

The Jewish priests of Aaron's lineage (Heb. Cohanim) during the days of Hillel and Shammai were delinquent about washing their hands after coming up from a ritual bath or ablution, and therefore, their bodies were still considered defiled. They would then go off and eat their bread-offerings (Heb. terumah) while thinking they were ritually clean, when in actuality they were not. Therefore, it became an edict that all priests, before touching any bread-offering, must first wash their hands. This was done so as to instruct them in the proper laws of ritual cleanness.[23] The Torah (Law of Moses) prescribes the penalty of death for priests who eat their bread-offering in a state of uncleanness.[24] Therefore, the enactment renewed by Hillel and Shammai was to prevent their inadvertently being made liable to death by a likely defilement which clings to their hands, and that same defilement being conveyed to foods eaten by them.

Pharisaic traditionsEdit

It is unclear what sort of regulations were already in place during the late Second Temple period. A reference to hand washing is made in the Christian New Testament,[25] when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees why his disciples do not wash their hands prior to their eating bread. Any man who proclaimed to have been Israel's Messiah would have been expected to follow the strictest laws of the Jewish nation, one of which was to eat his common food in a state of ritual purity, and to associate himself with only those who did likewise.[26] Conversely, since there were two Pharisaic schools of thought prevalent in Judaea at that time, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, while the followers of Shammai were generally seen as the more stringent in their practices, it can be assumed that they had made additional regulations related to hand washing before touching unconsecrated bread, because of a suspected uncleanness clinging to those hands and the likelihood of such bread being prepared alongside consecrated foods which require ritual purity. Moreover, it may have only been a stringent practice observed by the more zealous at the time, or else the very necessity of having to wash hands for common bread was a matter held in dispute by the Sages of Israel.[27]

Others have explained hand washing as being merely for the sake of bodily cleanliness which, in turn, leads to ritual purity. Rabbi Hiyya the Great had commanded Rav (Abba Aricha) by saying: "If you are able to eat all throughout the year non-consecrated foods in a state of ritual purity, then eat! But if not, at least eat seven days out of the year [in such a state of ritual purity]." On account of these words, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair would say: "...Bodily cleanliness leads to ritual purity."[28]

Defilement decreed over handsEdit

In subsequent years, according to the Babylonian Talmud,[29] additional measures were necessary in order to ensure that all priests would comply by the old enactment made by Hillel and Shammai (i.e. to wash their hands prior to touching bread-offerings, and to burn all bread-offerings touched by unwashed hands) – for many of the priests simply did not adhere to the enactment made by Hillel and Shammai. During the latter part of the 1st century CE, when disputes grew between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, the disciples of both schools gathered themselves together in the upper storeyed room of Hananiah's house (i.e. Hananiah, the son of Hizkiah, the son of Guron, and party – a man contemporary with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah who survived the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE), and voted upon measures to ensure that the priests throughout Israel would adhere to that old enactment, seeing that many priests would continue to eat their bread-offering (Heb. terumah) without washing their hands. Wherefore, in order to ensure that all priests (Heb. Cohanim) will comply and wash their hands, the Rabbis and scholars who were gathered together in that upper-storeyed room (on the day when they made eighteen new enactments) cleverly devised a method, whereby, they would adhere to the practice. They enacted a law and ordinance for all times, that all Jews — regardless of whether or not they were of the sacerdotal family (priests of Aaron's lineage), or Levites, or Israelites, or proselytes — be required to wash their hands before eating bread, even if that bread to be eaten was only ordinary and common bread. According to the Babylonian Talmud,[30] the underlying motive for this new enactment was because hands were considered "fidgety," and apt to touch things. "Hence, unless their owner has taken care that they should not touch a ritually unclean object after he washed them, they are treated as unclean."[31] The same Rabbis and scholars also ascribed a mandatory grade of uncleanness to all men's hands,[32] capableof rendering the "heave-offering" (terumah) invalid for consumption. Whence it is, today, Jews have this rule of practice amongst them. By virtue of the fact that all Jewish men and women are required to wash their hands directly before eating bread, so too, the delinquent priests will now follow suit and wash their hands before eating bread-offerings, and be guarded thereby from culpability resulting from his or their defilement. The Talmud Yerushalmi,[33] speaking more candidly about this subject, says explicitly: "Did they not decree [defilement] over the hands in order that he (i.e. the priest) might separate himself from the terumah? By saying to a man that his hands suffer a second-grade uncleanness, even so does he (the priest) separate himself from the terumah." Unwashed hands which suffer a second-grade uncleanness were capable of rendering invalid the bread-offering given to the priests.[34] The Sages of Israel have coined a name for this hand washing which is customarily made by all religious Jews today before eating bread at a table. It is called in the Hebrew language, serakh terumah (Hebrew: סרך תרומה), meaning, "washing introduced for the sake of uniformity with terumah."[35]

The one exception to this rule is when a man or a party of men are encamped while on a journey, and there is no water to be found in the vicinity of their camp, in which case the Sages of Israel have exempted them from washing their hands prior to breaking bread.[36]

Grades of uncleannessEdit

The Pentateuch[37] alludes to different grades of uncleanness, or defilement, to persons who come in contact with certain impurities (e.g. one of the eight dead creeping things mentioned in Leviticus 11:29-30; seminal discharge; blood of menstruate women; carrion &c.). The Sages of Israel have described the aforementioned sources of uncleanness as “fathers of uncleanness,”[38] capable of conveying a first-grade uncleanness to people, or to vessels, or to foods and liquids that touch them or that carry them.[39] They, in turn, convey uncleanness at a further remove to foods or to clothing touched by them. In the case of foods and clothing, they become second-grade uncleanness. By a rabbinic decree, all hands automatically suffer a second-grade uncleanness until washed.[40] Likewise, hands that were not kept in readiness after washing and which touched a first-grade uncleanness, those hands alone become defiled unto the "pereq" (wrist), while the rest of his body remains ritually clean.[41] All that is needed, therefore, is for him to wash his hands in water, and he removes thereby all uncleanness.

Boy in camp rubs his hands after washing them

Benediction said before washingEdit

A blessing is prescribed over hand washing before eating bread and when one wakes up from his sleep in the morning.[42] Although Maimonides prescribes saying the blessing before one actually pours water over his hands,[43] the custom has developed to recite the blessing only after he has poured water over his hands and has rubbed them together, while they are raised in the air to the height of his chin, prior to his drying them with a towel.[44] The blessing is cited in the following manner: "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" (Hebrew: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה הָ׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדַיִם ). Immediately following the recital of the blessing, it is incumbent to dry those hands with a towel &c.[45]

Other methods have developed concerning over which hand one is to begin when pouring water over them. 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.[46] Then he 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 altogether three times 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.[47]

In the hand washing made for eating bread, the custom differs insofar that one takes-up the vessel in his right hand and begins by pouring out water in abundance over his left hand. He then takes-up the vessel in his left hand and pours out 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.

Rigid applicationEdit

The rabbinic ordinance of washing hands prior to eating bread requires of people travelling the roads to go as far as four biblical miles if there is a known water source that can be used for washing. This applies only to when the water source lies in one's general direction of travel. However, had he already passed the water source, he is not obligated to backtrack unless the distance is within 1 biblical mile.[48]


  1. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 4:2; 4:18), based on the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 108b (end) — 109a. Others say that this hand washing is required before reciting the Shema in the morning, or praying, or even studying the words of Israel's Sages, such as is alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 11b. "R. Hiyya, the son of Ashi has said: 'Many times I would rise up [in the morning] to go before Rab in order to recite our readings in the Sifra of Rab's Beit Midrash. Rab would first proceed by washing his hands and blessing [over them], and only then would he recite for us the readings'." Compare Maimonides, Code of Jewish Law (Mishne Torah, Hil. Berakhot 6:2). Others prescribe the washing of hands, not only for the Morning Prayer (Shacharit), but for every prayer. (See: the Yemenite Jewish Prayer Book, Tiklāl Etz Ḥayim, with a commentary by Rabbi Yihya Saleh, and Tiklāl Qadmonim of Rabbi Yiḥya al-Bashiri).
  2. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 92:4–5; 233:2), based on the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 15a. This hand washing is unique, insofar that it does not require the use of a vessel.
  3. ^ a b c Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 4:18)
  4. ^ Amar, Zohar (2015). Flora and Fauna in Maimonides' Teachings (in Hebrew). Israel: Kfar Darom. pp. 157–159.
  5. ^ Amar, Zohar (2011). Five Types of Grain: Historical, Halachic, and Conceptual Aspects (in Hebrew). Machon Har Beracha. p. 62; 113–116.
  6. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 158:1)
  7. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 181:1), based on the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 53b and Hullin 105a—b. The salt of Sodom was said to be so potent that if hands were not washed after touching it, those hands with the salt residue could blind one's eyes (Hullin 105b). Some communities no longer practice this washing at the conclusion of their meals, claiming that, today, the salt of Sodom is no longer served at the dinner table. Their practice in this regard seems to be based on a teaching in the Tosafot, on Eruvin 17b, s.v. מים אחרונים חובה. Other communities persist in the old practice, since there is a teaching that states that although the underlying reason behind a certain ruling has been cancelled, their enactment has not been cancelled. Another reason given is that in every kor (Homer (unit)) of salt there is to be found a qurtov of salt of Sodom, which amounts to approximately 5.4 milliliters – 9.3 milliliters, a quantity still capable of blinding an individual (see HaRif on Tractate Hullin (ed. Yosef Qafih), Jerusalem 1960, p. 83).
  8. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 128:6). Cf. Rabbi Yaakov Castro's commentary, Arakh Leḥem (ibid.). The reason for the disparity in Jewish custom in this case is owing to the ambiguity of the teaching, which simply states that a Cohen (priest of Aaron's lineage) is not permitted to stand and bless the people with unwashed hands. Some hold this to mean the washing of hands in the morning, while others hold this to mean the washing of hands immediately prior to blessing the people.
  9. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 115a. While the Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 158:4) requires the washing of hands prior to eating fruits that are merely damp with one of the seven liquids, Maimonides does not mention this stringency in his Mishne Torah (Hil. Berakhot 6:1). Rabbi Hayim Kessar, in his commentary "Baal Shem Tov" (ibid.), says that the enactment only applied to dipping fruits or vegetables in a liquid, but not when wetness merely clung to those fruits or vegetables.
  10. ^ Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Miqwaot 11:1)
  11. ^ Tosefta Yadayim 1:1
  12. ^ Rabbi Avraham b. Nathan Hayarḥi, Sefer Hamanhig (the Guide), chapter "Halachot Se'udah", Jerusalem 1970, p. 57
  13. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 19a
  14. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 62b
  15. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 4b
  16. ^ Exodus 30:17-19; I Kings 7:38
  17. ^ Mishnah, Yoma 3:2; the word "urinating" is written with a euphemism, lit. "anyone who pours water." See: Mishnah Yoma, chapter 3
  18. ^ Eruvin 21b and Shabbat 14b – 15a
  19. ^ Based on the date given in the Talmud when Hillel emigrated from Babylon and came to Israel, being one-hundred years before the destruction of the Temple in 68 CE.
  20. ^ Shabbat 11a and Ketubbot 45a
  21. ^ Cf. Palestinian Talmud (Ketubbot 45a). Meaning to say, it was an oral tradition to do so, since the time of Moses.
  22. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Hullin 106a)
  23. ^ Jewish philosopher and scholar, Maimonides, brings down a different explanation in Mishnah Zavim 5:12, namely, because of some unsuspected, defiled liquid on the priest's hand, which would render the priest's bread-offering defiled when the priest comes to eat his bread and touches it.
  24. ^ Numbers 18:32; cf. Mishnah Bikkurim, ch. 2
  25. ^ Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:2
  26. ^ Tosefta Demai 2:2
  27. ^ Cf. Tosefta (Berakhot 6:3), where the School of Hillel disagrees with the School of Shammai and says that if there was a doubtful case of defiled liquids on the hands, the hands are still clean.
  28. ^ Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:3 (8b)
  29. ^ Shabbat 14b – 15a
  30. ^ Shabbath 14a
  31. ^ Hebrew-English Edition of Babylonian Talmud - Shabbath, (ed. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman), The Soncino Press London 1987, s.v. Shabbath 14a, note 7
  32. ^ Maimonides, Code of Jewish Law (Mishne Torah), Hil. Avot Ha-Tuma'ot 8:2
  33. ^ Hagigah 13a (2:5)
  34. ^ Jacob Neusner, Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus: The Tradition and the Man, vol. 1, E.J. Brill/Leiden 1973, p. 316 (s.v. Comment)
  35. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Hullin 106a)
  36. ^ Mishnah, Tractate Eruvin (end of chapter 1); cf. Maimonides' commentary there.
  37. ^ Leviticus 11:29-40
  38. ^ Mishnah Kelim 1:1-4
  39. ^ Maimonides, Code of Jewish Law (Mishne Torah), Hil. Avot Ha-Tuma’ot 6:12
  40. ^ Maimonides, Code of Jewish Law (Mishne Torah), Hil. Avot Ha-Tuma’ot 8:2. Compare Mishnah Shabbat 1:4, Commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah da Bertinoro, ibid., s.v. the Seventh Decree.
  41. ^ Maimonides, Code of Jewish Law (Mishne Torah), Hil. Avot Ha-Tuma’ot 8:1. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 106a-b: "Our Rabbis have taught: 'The sanctification of the hands in the Temple precincts is unto the wrist, [but] for non-consecrated foods unto the joints [of the fingers]; for heave-offering, unto the wrist.'"
  42. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 4:1 and 158:1); Questions & Responsa of RASHBA (Rabbi Shelomo ben Avraham Aderet), vol. 1, responsum # 191
  43. ^ Maimonides, Code of Jewish Law (Mishne Torah, Hil. Berakhot 6:2), in accordance with a teaching that says: "All of the commandments, entirely, one is to [first] make the blessing [over them prior to performing the act], and then he proceeds into their actual performance" (Sukkah 49a; Pesaḥim 7b). The author of Sefer Ha-Eshkol also made it a prerequisite, that prior to pouring water over one's hands one is first to bless over the hand washing, saying that any uncleanness which would not hinder one's prayer does not hinder the blessing said over hand washing (q.v. Sefer Ha-Eshkol, Berlin 1910, page 50 [Hebrew]).
  44. ^ Compare responsum of Rabbi Hai Gaon in Sefer Shaarei Teshuvah – 353 Geonic Responsa, Leipzig 1858; External link: Sefer Shaarei Teshuvah, responsum 196 ( קצו), p. 54 in PDF (Hebrew).
  45. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 4b
  46. ^ Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 4:10), based on the Zohar (P. Miqetz). See also Bayt Yosef commentary on the Tur (section 4). Had one not followed the set order, it does not render his hand washing invalid.
  47. ^ Rabbi Yahya Ṣāliḥ, Tiklal ‘Eṣ Ḥayyim Hashalem (ed. Shimon Tzalach), vol. 1, Jerusalem 1971, p. 39a (Hebrew)
  48. ^ Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Bikkurim 8:11); Jerusalem Talmud, Hallah 2:2; Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 34a; ibid. 46a
  1. ^ wild barley and oats: The Hebrew words used here are shippon and shibboleth shu'al, which RASHI translates in this order, "rye (Secale cereale) and oats (Avena sterilis)". The same Hebrew words are interpreted differently by Maimonides, who calls shippon "a kind of wild barley," later called by him in Arabic al-dawsar (Aegilops), and calls shibboleth shu'al in Mishnah Pesahim 2:5 "wild barley" (Hordeum spontaneum)[4][5]

External linksEdit