Most people view the practice of washing before Kiddush as a quirk of the “Yekkish” community. This minhag, however, was actually widespread (though not universal) among medieval Jewry – both Sefardic and Ashkenazic (Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, vol. 2 pp. 258ff). Indeed, the custom has no unique association with Germany per se. Observance of this minhag is now mostly limited to German Jews simply because of their general conservatism vis-à-vis ancient minhagim.
Customs relating to the timing of washing have changed over time partly because the relevant Talmudic discussion is ambiguous (Pesachim 106). The Gemara opens with a statement of Rav Bruna in the name of Rav prohibiting reciting Kiddush after netilat yadayim. Rav Yitzchak b. Shmuel b. Marta vociferously contests Rav Bruna’s ruling and counters that Rav would sometimes recite Kiddush over bread – which obviously means he washed before Kiddush – and sometimes over wine, depending on his mood. The difficulty lies in understanding how, precisely, Rav Yitzchak undermines Rav Bruna’s opposition to washing before Kiddush.
Seder Rav Amram Gaon – one of the earliest works of Jewish liturgy and attendant laws – interprets the sugya as follows: Washing one’s hands, an act associated with eating bread, indicates that one wishes to dine rather than drink. In Rav Bruna’s view, a person who washes his or her hands prior to Kiddush has forfeited the opportunity to recite Kiddush – the only recourse is to hear Kiddush from another. Rav Yitzchak rejects Rav Bruna’s wholesale prohibition since one can recite Kiddush over bread, which would allow – indeed, require – a preceding hand-washing. Even Rav Yitzchak, however, agrees that when it comes to reciting Kiddush over wine, one must wash after Kiddush.
Thus, according to Rav Amram’s approach – which the Rif and Rambam follow as well – a general custom to wash before Kiddush is contrary to halacha (see Rif, Pesachim 22a with Ran; Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 29:9-10).
The Rashbam, however, explains that Rav Yitzchak points to Rav’s practice of reciting Kiddush over bread as proof that Kiddush per se is not an interruption between washing and eating the meal (Pesachim 106 s.v. natal). Thus, one may recite Kiddush over wine after netilat yadayim.
Other Rishonim maintain that this sugya is completely irrelevant insofar as practical halacha is concerned. Both Rav Bruna and Rav Yitzchak are working with the opinion of Rav, who maintains that one may recite Kiddush independently of the meal. According to normative halacha, however, one must say Kiddush where the meal takes place; Kiddush is thus considered part of the se’udah process, and one may wash for the meal beforehand (Tosafot, Pesachim 106b s.v. “mekadesh a’rifta”; see also Ba‘al HaMa’or, Pesachim 26b [in the Rif]).
But even if washing before Kiddush is allowed, doing so is not necessarily preferred. The Mishnah, in fact, clearly states that one should prepare one’s cup of wine before netilat yadayim (Berachot 8:2) in order to minimize the extent of the interruption between washing and ha’motzi (Berachot 52b). This statement implies that one should ideally make Kiddush before washing (Rashbam, Pesachim 106b s.v. “da’chaviva”).
Some commentators, however, reject this assertion by claiming that the mishnah refers only to general wine drinking. Kiddush, in contrast (which is closely associated with the meal), does not constitute an inappropriate hefsek (Tosafot, Pesachim 106b s.v. “zimnin”; Shitah Mekubetzet, Berachot 52b).
There is thus ample halachic basis for the practice to wash before Kiddush. How, then, did a formerly widespread minhag become limited to German Jewry?
The expulsion from Spain seems to have precipitated the custom’s demise among Sefardim. The religious and physical upheaval during this period paved the way for a break with traditional Spanish practices and an openness to new halachic rulings. Rav Yosef Karo, the preeminent post-expulsion Sefardic authority, argues that one should follow the stringent opinion requiring washing after Kiddush since there is no downside to doing so, although he acknowledges the plethora of opinions that allow washing first (Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 271:12).
Another reason that virtually all Sefardim nowadays wash after Kiddush is that many Spanish Jews assimilated into Middle Eastern Jewish communities where such was apparently already the custom. The endorsement of the Arizal helped further entrench the practice of reciting Kiddush first (Kaf HaChayim 271:76).
The minhag to wash before Kiddush persisted longer among Ashkenazim – in fact, the Rema is emphatic in his glosses to Shulchan Aruch that the custom should not be changed (Orach Chayim 271:12). Despite the Rema’s admonition, however, most later Acharonim, including the Vilna Gaon, argued that reciting Kiddush before washing – and thereby satisfying all opinions – was preferable (Taz 271:14, Bei’ur HaGra ad loc.). It was apparently under their influence that the minhag began to change, especially in Eastern Europe. The rise of the chassidic movement, which exchanged many ancient Ashkenazic customs for those of the Arizal, also contributed to the increase in popularity of washing after Kiddush.
Some Ashkenazic authorities during this time period found themselves conflicted. On the one hand, they were sympathetic to the stringent opinion that requires washing after Kiddush, at least l’chatchila. On the other hand, they were uncomfortable with the idea of completely abandoning a venerable minhag. One such posek was the Bach, who proposed an original solution to the problem (Orach Chayim 271 s.v. “ve’chen haya”).
The Bach notes that the entire disagreement about whether to wash before or after Kiddush pertains only to the person reciting Kiddush aloud. Only speaking potentially constitutes an improper hefsek between netilat yadayim and the meal. Those listening to Kiddush, however, face no such problem.
Indeed, even Rav Bruna – whose opinion Rav Yitzchak rejects due to its excessive stringency – allows listening to Kiddush between washing and ha’motzi. Therefore, argues the Bach, one who recites Kiddush aloud should follow the stringent opinion to wash after Kiddush, but those who listen to Kiddush should continue adhering to the ancient practice of washing beforehand.
The Bach’s logic seems unassailable and is explicitly endorsed by later authorities such as the Chayei Adam (2:6:12) and Mishnah Berurah (271:58). It is therefore unclear why few today follow it. Perhaps people prefer for there to be as little break as possible between washing and eating bread for all assembled (heard from R. M.M. Karp). Yet, having at least some of the party remain in place between Kiddush and ha’motzi may be a better fulfillment of the requirement of Kiddush bimkom se‘udah (reciting Kiddush in the place of the meal; cf. Korban Netanel, Pesachim 10:16:9).
The Bach’s approach also presents a practical advantage: It is more efficient for the assembled to wash before Kiddush and then transition seamlessly to the meal than to assemble at the table for Kiddush, then get up to wash, then return to the table to eat. The latter procedure is even more cumbersome on Sukkot and at large gatherings. People should therefore be aware that the option of following the Bach is freely available in such situations, even if one usually washes after Kiddush. Of course, there is also no impediment to adopting the approach of the Bach in general if one so chooses.
Most poskim mention no difference between the nighttime and daytime Kiddush in relation to the question of when to wash. The Tur writes, however, that one may certainly wash before Kiddush for the day meal (Orach Chayim 289). The daytime Kiddush’s brevity – it consists solely of the blessing of borei pri ha’gafen – precludes it from being considered an interruption between netilat yadayim and ha’motzi.
In light of the Tur’s comments, it is odd that many nowadays who wash before Kiddush do so at night but not during the day. It is possible that the daytime Kiddush came to be viewed as less connected with the meal since people often recite it before an earlier snack of cake rather than at the se’udah proper. Furthermore, some authorities believe that the Biblical verses recited nowadays before the daytime Kiddush should not intervene between washing and ha’motzi since their recitation is a later development. In any event, the Bach’s compromise is certainly appropriate for the daytime Kiddush as well.
In conclusion: Although mostly limited to the German-Jewish community today, the custom to wash before Kiddush was historically widespread among both Sefardim and Ashkenazim. Starting circa the 16th century, the minhag to wash after Kiddush gained popularity out of deference to the authorities who believe the Talmud requires it.
The disagreement about the order of netilat yadayim and Kiddush relates exclusively to one who recites the words of Kiddush. Those listening may certainly wash beforehand. Thus, the Bach (and others) suggest that one adopt the best of both worlds – the assembled should wash before Kiddush but the one who recites Kiddush should wash after. There is no halachic impediment whatsoever to following this compromise view if one is so inclined.
- This Talmudic passage is the only one in which Chazal mention the possibility of reciting Kiddush on bread. Rabbeinu Tam, however, argues that even this passage refers to Kiddush said over wine, and that Kiddush said over bread is not a valid halachic practice (Tosafot, Pesachim 106b s.v. “mekadesh a’rifta”).
- Furthermore, washing before Kiddush on Sukkot reduces the interruption between saying the blessing of leishev ba’sukkah and eating the meal.
- It is not immediately clear why saying Zachor or V’Shamru should be different from saying Vaychulu at the nighttime Kiddush. Although saying Vaychulu is a much older practice, it, too, is not a halachically indispensable part of Kiddush. See Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, vol. 2, pp. 300ff.