Hand Washing

Jewish custom now normally associated with meals started with Temple purity.

Print this page Print this page

Many observant Jews follow this line of thinking and do not wash the hands after the meal, not as a ritual in any event. But many authorities introduce the holiness motif here as well, although no benediction is recited over mayyim aharonim, "afterwards water." For those who observe it, the procedure is simply to pour a little water out of a cup or glass over the fingers of the two hands.

There is a further ritual washing of the hands on rising from sleep. This is a later innovation for which two reasons are given. One is that during sleep an unclean spirit rests on the body. This departs on waking, except for a residue left on the fingernails and to remove this, the hands have to be washed.

The second reason (perhaps introduced as a rationalization) is that a Jew, a member of the "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:5), must, when he rises from his bed to serve his Maker, follow the practice of the priests in the Temple who would wash their hands from the hand-basin (Exodus 30:17-21).

The procedure for this washing of the hands is to pour the water first on the right hand and then the left and to repeat this three times. Some of the more scrupulous have a cup of water and a basin at the bedside so as to wash the hands immediately on waking. Following the first reason, they will pour out the "nail water" (neggel wasser in Yiddish) and not allow it to come into contact with food or drink.

Many pious Jews also carry out the ritual of washing the hands before performing any religious act, especially before prayer. It is also the custom to perform the ritual of washing the hands on returning from the graveside after a burial.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.