In a few days, Jews around the world will be celebrating the Passover Seder – the largest yearly gathering of Jewish families and guests, one of the most observed of all Jewish holidays. Only in this, the Year of Our Virus, millions of Sederim will be held virtually. It will certainly be a challenge, for the Seder is an immersive experience, infused with ritual, symbolic foods, nostalgic smells, questions, answers, stories, treasure hunts and song. Some of these actions can be shared easily online; others, not so much. Yet, one of these practices will have enormous resonance at this Seder: hand washing.
In the traditional Seder, participants wash their hands not once, but twice. The first instance happens early in the evening, the second step in the “order” (“seder” in Hebrew) of the ceremony. Called “Urchatz” (“washing”), it is a silent washing of hands before eating the “Karpas” vegetable, symbolic of the coming Spring. Unusual for a Jewish ritual, there is no blessing recited for Urchatz. Why? There are various explanations: it is done before eating an appetizer, not a full meal. A more likely reason is that the first Seder experiences probably began with the meal. The first four steps of the Seder certainly indicate this: a cup of wine, hand washing, appetizer, break matza – a meal would most certainly come next. Once the rabbis realized it was difficult to keep people at the table after they’ve had dessert, the rabbis moved the meal to later in the evening, after the story of the Exodus was told.
The second hand washing, called ‘Rochtzah” (a variant of “washing”), is more familiar to observant Jews who perform this ritual cleansing before eating a meal with bread (matza is bread, just unleavened). This time, the usual blessing is recited, although the language is curious: “Baruch atta Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-Olam, Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim – Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us through the mitzvot and commands us to uplift the hands.” Notice, the Hebrew word for washing is not used in the blessing. So, what’s with the word “netilat?” It means “to lift up.” Strange, indeed. Why this word? (A good question to ask at your Seder.)
There is one other Jewish ritual that uses the term “netilat.” Upon the lifting of the lulav, the palm frond-willow-myrtle object of Sukkot, the words of the blessing are “al netilat lulav.” Perhaps this gives us a clue.
The rabbis considered that hand washing was primarily a sacred act of purification. The origin of the practice comes from the Torah (Exodus 17-21):
And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “You shall also make a basin of bronze, and its pedestal also of bronze, to wash with; and you shall put it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it. For Aaron and his sons shall wash there their hands and their feet. When they go into the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the Lord. So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not; and it shall be a statute forever to them, to him and to his seed throughout their generations.”
This practice was continued by the priests in the Holy Temple until it was ultimately destroyed in 70 C. E. When the rabbis ingeniously moved the Temple rituals to the dining table, transforming every home into a “mikdash m’at” – “a small sanctuary,” hand washing became de rigueur not just for the priests, but for everyone.
Luckily – or perhaps prophetically – hand washing turned out to be more than just a reminder of the Temple days of old. It had then, as now, obvious hygienic benefits. Though, just as with the laws of kashrut, the primary intent of the practice was not to improve health by warding off illness – this was a spiritual act. Yet, the intersection of an instruction from God and good hygiene resulted in the oft-cited axiom: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
This may be the reason the rabbis used the term “netilat” for the ritual blessing. When we wash our hands before a meal, we are lifting ourselves above our animal existence. We are elevating the very act of eating. It reminds us of the blessings we enjoy, blessings we should never take for granted.
If there is a silver lining in this terrible coronavirus pandemic, it may be that in our “new normal,” we will be doing a lot more hand washing. As we do, we will remember the 2020 plague of Covid-19, we will tell stories to our descendants of how we were restricted to our narrow (mitzrayim) homes, how we virtually celebrated the Passover of 5780, and ultimately how we emerged into freedom, with clean hands and grateful hearts.