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Question: Does one wash one’s hands in the bathroom with soap and water, or is it required to pour [fresh] water from a vessel with handles three times on each hand alternately? I have heard it said that a vessel is used only in the morning.

A Reader
New York, NY



Answer: This is an important question, especially when there are young children in the house.

The Mechaber (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 4:1, Hilchot Netilat Yadayim) rules that upon arising in the morning a person has to wash the hands and recite the blessing “Al netilat yadayim.” (Rema notes that it is our custom to then also recite “asher yatzar,” even if one has not used the facilities.) The Mechaber adds that one should take care to pour water [over the hands] three times in order to remove the evil spirit that rests upon them [at night].

In his longer commentary on the Tur (Beit Yosef, ibid.), the Mechaber refers to Tractate Shabbos (108b-109a), which lists a number of places on one’s body that should not be touched before washing the hands. The Gemara notes that R. Natan taught that the evil spirit bat chorin (lit. free spirit) is a free agent and insists on remaining on the hands until one washes them three times.

He then quotes (in Beit Yosef) the Orchot Chayyim, who states that one need not use the full measure of a revi’it for washing the hands in the morning, for the Gemara (Berachot 14a-15b) cites a verse in Psalms (26:6), “Erchatz be’nikayon kappai – I wash in cleanliness my hands.” The Gemara notes that the point is to wash [the hands] for cleanliness and not just to “wash the hands” – inferring the possibility of wiping the hands with anything that cleanses.

He further quotes Rashba (Responsum 191), who was asked why our Sages required the blessing “al netilat yadayim” in the morning (if any means can be used for cleansing). He answered that it is our custom to recite that blessing in the morning upon arising, and we are so scrupulous about it that we require that all the rules applying to washing the hands before meals – where a minimum of a revi’it of water is required – should be adhered to in the morning as well. And he adds: Yet I have not found any clear reference to the requirement to wash the hands in the morning in the same manner (with a vessel containing a revi’it), for if it concerns [the evil spirit] shivta (see Chullin 107b) or bat chorin, washing (without a vessel to pour from) should suffice, and if for prayer or the recital of the Shema, any manner of cleansing, such as with powder or dry sand, is sufficient, as the Gemara in Berachot (supra) states.

Rashba explains that we are created anew in the morning (when our soul returns), as it is written (Eichah 3:23), “Chadashim la’bekarim rabbah emunatecha – They are renewed in the morning [without fail]; great is Your trust.” [This is the source for our daily Modeh Ani prayer.] We therefore have to give thanks to Him who created us for His honor, to serve Him and to bless Him. That is why our Sages instituted all the blessings we recite in the morning, and we have to sanctify ourselves for that purpose just as the Kohen Gadol sanctified himself before the service by washing his hands in the special basin (kiyyor) in the Beit HaMikdash.

The Beit Yosef also quotes Rabbi David Abudarham, who requires that the act of washing involve human effort (i.e., pouring the water). He also notes that the Zohar (on Parashat VaYeshev) provides arcane reasons that are not mentioned by the poskim. Commenting on the verse in Psalms quoted above, “Erchatz be’nikayon kappai,” the Zohar remarks that there is no person in the world who has not experienced a taste of death at night, and thus an evil spirit rests upon the body. How is that? When the soul leaves the body to go up to heaven (when the person is asleep), an evil spirit descends on the body. When the soul returns in the morning, the evil spirit leaves but lingers on the hands. That is why one should not touch one’s eyes until one has washed the hands…The Beit Yosef notes that it is clear from the Zohar that the water has to be poured on the hands from a vessel.

Thus the Zohar and Abudarham are our sources for washing the hands in the morning by pouring water from a vessel, for the Gemara (Shabbos 109a), citing R. Natan, only states that the evil spirit insists on lingering on the hands until one washes the hands three times.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.