In the last 12 months, the CDC has often reminded us to keep social distance, wear a mask, and… Wash our hands as often as possible.
And for us Jews, we can say: We have done it for hundreds of years.
Much before the CDC made its recommendation – or even before America was discovered! – our frequent hand washing saved us from another pandemic.
In the 14th century, when the bubonic plague raged in Europe, Jewish communities were significantly less affected by the plague. Many historians believe it was due to the hand-washing that is so common in Judaism.
(That didn’t help us with the plague of antisemitism… noticing that Jews are less affected by the pandemic, many of their neighbors blamed them for poisoning the wells and causing the plague… but that’s a topic for another time)
So let’s learn about hand washing in Judaism.
HAND WASHING AS AN HOLY ACT
While washing our hands is good hygiene, it is also a Mitzvah and a holy act. Water has spiritual purifying qualities, and when we wash our hands, we not only remove physical dirt, but also the spiritual impurities.
We see the first mention of hand washing in this week’s Parsha. G-d ordered Moshe to create a “Kiyor” (a water basin) and put it in the courtyard of the Mishkan. Every day, before they began their service at the Mishkan, the Kohanim washed their hands and feet as a preparation for their holy work.
Today, there are many instances when we wash our hands throughout the day. Here are some examples:
* When we wake up. As soon as we wake up, we recite the Modeh Ani prayer and thank G-d for restoring our soul. And just like the Kohanim, washing our hands is our way to purify ourselves and prepare for a beautiful new day in the service of our Creator.
* Before we eat bread. This hand-washing is intended to ensure that our hands are spiritually pure and do not make bread impure.
* After we eat bread. This hand-washing is called “mayim achronim,” “after-water” with the intention of cleaning our hands from any food residue.
* After cutting our nails
* After showering or using the bathroom.
In some cases, but not all, a blessing is said after washing our hands. I encourage you to look at this list and introduce some of the hand washing into your daily routines.
THE KABBALAH OF WASHING HANDS
We have reviewed some of the history and practical aspects of hand washing. It is time to discuss some of the hidden secrets of this Mitzvah, and for that we should turn to Kabbalah.
According to Kabbalah, hand washing is intended to correct a spiritual dysfunction stemming from the fingernails.
When you think of it, the nails represent distance. Unlike any other part of the body, nails have less life force in them. You can cut them, pull them and you will not feel any pain. Because they are less connected with the body and its life.
In other words, nails represent a distance and a disconnect between us and our source of life – G-d.
By pouring water over our hands, we want to create the connection again. Colorless and pure water reminds us of the unity and purity of G-d; and by injecting more of G-d essence into our lives, we eliminate the distance and reconnect with the one above.
May we all always be connected to ourselves and our true source of life!