Mayim Achronim and Coronavirus (Eruvin 17)

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi were walking on the road together. Rabbi Meir would analyze names and discern one’s nature from his name, while Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi were not apt to analyze names. When they came to a certain place, they looked for lodging and were given it.

They said to the innkeeper, “What is your name?”
He said to them, “My name is Kidor.”
Rabbi Meir said to himself, “Perhaps one can learn from this that he is a wicked person, as it is stated: “For they are a generation [ki dor] of upheavals”.”

Since it was Friday afternoon, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi entrusted their purses to him. Rabbi Meir did not entrust his purse to him but went and placed it at the grave of the innkeeper’s father. The innkeeper’s father appeared to the innkeeper in a dream and said to him, “Go take the purse placed at my head.”

The following day, he said to the Sages, “This is what appeared to me in my dream.”
They said to him, “Dreams during twilight on Shabbat evening have no substance and should not be trusted.” Even so, Rabbi Meir went and guarded his money all that day and then took it.
The next day, the rabbis said to the innkeeper, “Please return our purses.”
He replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You never gave me any purses.”

Rabbi Meir said to them, “Why didn’t you analyze his name to learn that he is a wicked man?”
They said to him, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
He said to them, “I said one should be suspicious, but have I said a person should be established as wicked? Could I say to you with certainty that he is wicked based on his name alone?”

What did they do? They went off to have a drink with the man to discuss the matter.  But then they noticed lentils on his moustache, and concluded that he had eaten lentils that day. Off they went to his wife and told her that the innkeeper had ordered that their money be returned to them upon the sign that he ate lentils at his last meal.  She returned the purses, they took their money and left.

A while later he returned home and realized what had happened.  In a fit of rage, he murdered his innocent wife. Thus, our Sages learn from this story that a person should be scrupulous in mayim achronim, the custom of rinsing one’s hands and mouth at the end of the meal (Yoma 83b).

מַתְנִי׳ אַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים פָּטְרוּ בַּמַּחֲנֶה: מְבִיאִין עֵצִים מִכׇּל מָקוֹם, וּפְטוּרִין מֵרְחִיצַת יָדַיִם, וּמִדְּמַאי, וּמִלְּעָרֵב.
אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: לֹא שָׁנוּ אֶלָּא מַיִם רִאשׁוֹנִים, אֲבָל מַיִם אַחֲרוֹנִים חוֹבָה. אָמַר רַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָשֵׁי: מִפְּנֵי מָה אָמְרוּ מַיִם אַחֲרוֹנִים חוֹבָה? מִפְּנֵי שֶׁמֶּלַח סְדוֹמִית יֵשׁ, שֶׁמְּסַמֵּא אֶת הָעֵינַיִם.
מים אחרונים חובה – עכשיו לא נהגו במים אחרונים דאין מלח סדומית מצוי בינינו
אבל מים האחרונים חובה. פי׳ חובה מפני מלח סדומית מלבד מה שיש בדב׳ מצו׳ מדרבנן כמו במי׳ ראשונים וכדאמרי׳ והתקדשתם אלו מים ראשונים והייתם קדושים אלו מים אחרונים ואומר בתוס׳ כי נהגו העולם להקל בזה מפני שאין לנו עכשיו מלח סדומית ובודאי שאין זה מספיק לצאת מידי מצות והייתם קדושים אלא דההיא ליתא אלא על המברך

MISHNA: The Sages exempted soldiers in a military camp in four matters: One may bring wood for kindling from any place with no concern of theft; and one is exempt from ritual washing of the hands before eating; and one is exempt from the separation of tithes from doubtfully tithed produce, and one is exempt from establishing an eiruv.  GEMARA: Abaye said: They taught this exemption only with regard to first waters (i.e., the hand-washing before eating). However, mayim achronim (the hand-washing before bentching), is an obligation.  Rav Chiya bar Ashi said: For what reason did the Sages say that the final waters are an obligation? It is due to the fact that there is the presence of sodomite salt (upon the food), which blinds the eyes.

Tosfos: Nowadays, many people don’t wash mayim achronim, since sodomite salt is no longer prevalent amongst us.
Ritva: The matter of sodomite salt is in addition to the rabbinic mitzvah of washing mayim achronim just like washing before eating.  As they taught, based on the Torah verse, “And you shall sanctify yourselves,” refers to washing for bread. “And you shall be holy” refers to mayim achronim.  The teaching of the Tosfos that people are lax in the practice due to the absence of sodomite salt wouldn’t apply to the aspect of “and you shall be holy.” Rather, one might suggest that the obligation only remains on the one leading bentching (on behalf of the listeners).

Amongst non-Chasidic Ashkenazim, the practice of mayim achronim has become less common.  Many people struggle with the idea of sodomite salt that remains on food after eating.  Already in the Middle Ages, the Tosfos reported that sodomite salt was no longer a concern.  One almost wonders what it meant in ancient times.  Was it a real danger?  Or was it just a superstition?

Imagine someone told you last year that we have the minhag to sanitize our hands before and after davening because of the Black Death.  You would probably scoff at the practice saying that the bubonic plague has long since disappeared, and refuse to engage in the so-called minhag.  It makes sense to purify your hands prior to davening, but why cleanse on the way out?

Prior to coronavirus, a number of shuls had already installed hand sanitizers throughout the building.  It was clear that all that handshaking provided breeding ground for germs and bacteria.  But right now, despite the fact that nobody is shaking hands, self-cleansing is non-negotiable.  Along with most other public buildings, hand sanitizers must be used as one enters shul and as one departs.  Why?  Because we know that coronavirus may be picked up from surfaces and even prayer-books.

Presumably, most shuls will continue to maintain these vital disease-preventing measures after the pandemic.  You can picture some point down the road when people don’t really remember why we do the hand-sanitizing ritual as we enter and leave shul.  And some people will make light of the practice and ridicule those who are pious about purifying their hands before and after davening.

Think about it like this.  Try telling people in a different age, past or present, that anytime you use a communal Chumash you must wash your hands before and after.  Until recently, most of us would have thought that sounded strange.  But the truth is, already in Temple times, all holy books were considered sources of impurity.  One avoided handling them directly, and if you did touch them, you had to wash your hands (Yadayim 3:5).

The Talmud offers the following reason for the practice.  Holy books were considered an ideal place for terumah (holy produce) storage.  But that led to rat infestation and deterioration of the scrolls.  By deeming the holy books impure, people stopped storing their holy food items in the same cupboard, thereby keeping the scrolls protected from rodents.  Scholars surmise that the injunction may stem from the sanctity of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  Just as it was forbidden to touch the Holy Ark, our Sages designated an ‘untouchable’ status to holy writings, giving them an aura of distinction.

What’s striking about the minhag to wash one’s hands at the end of the meal or after touching holy books is that, with the passage of time, it’s become a little hazy as to why we do it.  Do we wash mayim achronim because the food residue could cause domestic abuse issues?  Is it because of sodomite salt?  Is it in order to sanctify ourselves prior to bentching?  Do we wash our hands after handling a Chumash because of the rodent issue?  Is it meant to remind us that holy items are, in a certain sense, untouchable?

Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure.  Coronavirus is not the first time we’ve been instructed to cleanse our hands after handling a Chumash.  Nor is it the first time in history we’ve been encouraged to sanitize at the start and finish of rituals, whether it be prayer or breaking bread.  The main thing to bear in mind is that all our minhagim are holy and pure and should not be dismissed lightly.  We might not always remember the origins of the practices, but rest assured they’re rooted in the highest ideals.

The halachic authorities wonder why many people only pour a little water over the ends of their fingers for mayim achronim.  If it’s meant to be like the first waters, one should be washing the majority of the hand.  Perhaps the common practice of just rinsing stems from some ancient institution to maintain the highest levels of physical and spiritual cleanliness at all times, dubbed ‘sodomite salt.’  A simple demonstration of a commitment to this legacy sufficed.

May you always maintain the highest levels of physical and spiritual cleanliness, and may Hashem bless you with good physical and spiritual health all the days of your life!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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