The spirituality of washing for Seder

Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century, Catalonia, Urhatz

Traditionally, we wash our hands three times during the seder. The first, right after the first kiddush, without a blessing, called urchatz.

The second time, right before the meal, with the traditional hand blessing, “… who has commanded us regarding pouring water over hands.” Called Rahtzah.

The third time, before the “Grace after meals,” called “Mayim aharonim — the last water,” is the least observed. It’s like a finger bowl to remove grease and fat after the meal.

All three traditionally have both theological and practical explanations. Today, the first washing has no blessing, and no practical utility. The second washing, immediately preceding the meal, has obvious utility and the blessing is obvious: washing our hands. The third also has practical application: before saying Grace After Meals (Birkhat haMazon) clean yourself up!

Until approximately the thirteenth century, Jews recited different blessings for all three washings:
1. “… ahl netilat yadayim … commanded us regarding pouring water over the hands” said immediately before the meal today.
2. ” … ahl rehitzat yadayim … commanded us regarding washing the hands,” and
3. “… ahl shetifat yadayim … regarding laving the hands.”

The joke posted here is making the rounds on the internet, in times of the current plague. It inserts a hand washing, urhatz, between all 15 parts of the seder! Hah!

But what is the spirituality of washing today?

First: during this plague, it’s life saving. There’s no greater commandment in Judaism than pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Almost everything is deferred for pikuach nefesh. So this year in particular, we emphasize the importance of lifesaving action through cleanliness above all else. We wash symbolizing how we value life itself as the paramount good.

In ancient times, washing raised the mundane to a holy level. Holiness is our second spiritual value. By washing we demonstrate the holy component in life. We wash daily and recite a blessing, haMotzi, before eating, emphasizing that God’s food sustains us. We are not mere animals gorging our bellies. We bring the holiness of life, of appreciating how the world sustains us due to God’s blessing, with each morsel of food. We wash and bless, because we are not just animals, we are “little lower than the angels,” God’s voluntary servants; God’s arms and legs in completing creation. We, like the angels, eat in holiness and purity through blessing.

Finally, the value of family and gratitude. This value may be particularly difficult this year, because so many of us are socially isolating, and we must not risk our lives to perform a mitzvah (see my posting below from yesterday, Friday, March 20th)

Didn’t your mother say to you, “Wash your hands before eating,” or “Wash your hands before coming to the table.” Mine did! “Mark, did you wash?” I can still hear her voice! Washing made meals into a family event. When civilized people who love one another get together for a meal, they do what civilized people do: they wash. Not simply cleanliness. No, the meal emphasized that together we are a family, the source of loving, caring and respect. It was the family that taught us to be our individual selves.

We wash to stay healthy. But as the seder emphasizes, washing is so much more than health. It is also holiness, and family, and gratitude, and raising our animal selves to become God’s servants, the lesson of the seder itself.

Let our seders before for health, for holiness, for family and gratitude for life itself. Ken yehi ratzon, may it be God’s will.

About the Author
Mark H. Levin was born in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Boston University, Rabbi Levin studied two years in Israel, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and received his DHL in liturgy in 2001. Rabbi Levin is the Founding Rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, KS, and has been retired since 2014.
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