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Q & A: Netilat Yadayim (Conclusion)


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QUESTION: Does one wash one’s hands in the bathroom with soap and water, or by pouring [fresh] water from a vessel with handles three times on each hand alternatingly? I have heard it said that a vessel is used only in the morning.
A Reader
New York, NY
ANSWER: Last week we explained the basic principle of washing the hands in the morning with water poured three times on each hand, alternatingly (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 4:1-2), and cited several sources for this established practice. The vessel should contain a revi’it of water – just as for washing before a meal – but if there was less water, the blessing al netilat yadayim may still be recited.
We also noted that washing the hands in the morning is the only one that requires pouring water alternatingly three times on each hand according to all opinions, whereas in other situations pouring water three times is not required, and in some cases the hands may even be cleansed with anything that will clean them.
* * *
The Mechaber (Orach Chayyim 4:18) states that the following require washing with water (the Magen Avraham, the Taz and the Ba’er Heitev, based on Seder Hayom, explain that although water is required, pouring alternatingly three times on each hand is not):
Upon getting out of bed, leaving the bathroom and/or the bathhouse, cutting one’s nails, removing the shoes (when using a hand to touch them), touching one’s feet or washing one’s hair. Some add: One who has walked in a cemetery. Also included are touching a corpse, after cleaning one’s vessels (since he might have found and touched a dead insect, and the rule applies even if he did not find any), marital relations, touching a louse, touching one’s body (obviously this refers to parts of the body that are usually covered, see infra 4:21). The Mechaber concludes: ‘One who has done any of these and has not washed his hands, if he is a scholar he forgets what he has learned. If he is not a scholar, he goes out of his mind.’ The Mishna Berura explains, quoting Eliyahu Rabbah, that a spirit of folly takes hold of him, which in turn may cause him to sin, as noted in Tractate Sotah (3a): Resh Lakish said, A person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly enters into him.
The Vilna Gaon (Be’ur HaGra ad loc.) lists the various Talmudic sources on which these rulings are based.
Sha’arei Teshuva states that there are different reasons for washing the hands in the cases listed by the Mechaber, since some are due to the evil spirit resting on the hands (after sleeping), while others are mandated for the sake of cleanliness. Only upon arising from sleep is there a requirement to wash three times with water.
But both the Sha’arei Teshuva and the Mishna Berura cite sources that advocate strictness in the case of exiting from a bathroom, namely, washing the hands by pouring water on them three times. (The Mishna Berura attributes this opinion to Heichal Hakodesh.)
So, although from a strict halachic point of view, the requirement to wash the hands by pouring water from a vessel is limited (according to most opinions) to the morning, there is much confusion in this area of practice, particularly when it comes to a child’s education. A child forms lasting impressions at a very young age, and that is why girsa de’yankuta, the knowledge acquired in childhood, is so important. In his responsa Mishneh Halachot, vol. 7:1, HaGaon R. Menashe Klein answers the question: At what age are small children required to perform netilat yadayim? He quotes the Pri Megadim on Orach Chayyim 4:7, who is astonished by the fact that many parents are lax in this regard. Therefore he suggests that as soon as it is possible to do so, even when children are one year old, the parents should wash their children’s hands (by pouring water) since it is not so much a question whether they are of an age to be halachically required to do so, but rather a matter of avoiding danger.(The Pri Megadim states in his general introduction, Peticha Kollelet 2:1, in regard to the mitzva of sukka, that for the purpose of chinuch, education, the child can even be younger than age five). The Chida points out that we wash the hands of very small children so that they will not contaminate [ritually] whatever they touch.
R. Klein does not cite the Mishna Berura (op. cit. 4:2) who remarks that it is important that small children wash their hands in the morning because they touch the food (that their mothers prepare), and concludes that if a Gentile touches food (as in a restaurant etc.) without washing his hands [ritually], it is of no concern since they are not defiled by the nocturnal evil spirit.
R. Klein also quotes R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who states in his Minchat Shelomo (4:2) that the spirit of uncleanliness seeks to rest on a vessel of holiness, i.e., the body whose soul has risen to heaven while a person is asleep, and leaves once the soul returns. Since it is accepted that the divine soul establishes itself in the human being at the age of responsibility for the fulfillment of mitzvot, i.e., twelve plus one day for a girl and thirteen and a day for a boy, people have been lenient about allowing small children to touch food even without [ritually] washing their hands. Thus accustoming children to wash their hands is for educational purposes.
Finally he quotes the Lechem Mishneh’s commentary on Rambam (Hilchot Shevitat Asor 3:2), who states that according to Rambam we do not worry about evil spirits since they are not found among us today.
Therefore, concludes R. Klein, we teach young children to wash their hands as soon as they are able to comprehend the meaning of the mitzva.
It is written in Mishlei (22:6), ‘Chanoch lana’ar al pi darko, gam ki yazkin lo yasur mimmenah ‘Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ In order to endure, a structure needs a solid foundation.

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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