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What is the Kabbalistic reason for washing hands before eating?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg


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Intellect vs. Emotions

The distinguishing factor between humans and their animal counterparts is the ability to control and even modify natural instincts and emotions. Animals are born with a certain nature – some are naturally kind, some are playful, and some are mean – and the animal that is cruel is not at fault, for it does not have the means by which to change itself into a kinder creature. The human being, however, with the power of his intellect, has the ability to temper his natural self and do the opposite of what his nature dictates. This, in fact, is the purpose of Man: to tame his natural self, and live according to the dictates of intellect.

It is very easy to philosophize about this subject. It is actually quite pleasurable to discuss the necessity of self-control. It is a different story altogether when a person is actually faced with temptation. At that moment, it is very challenging to remain focused on that which is necessary instead of succumbing to inclination. It is precisely at such a moment that a person must use extra concentration to control his emotions.

Cleansing the Emotions With the Waters of Wisdom

Water is neutral; it contains neither taste nor color. Yet precisely for this reason, it can assume any taste or color. Therefore water is analogous to intellect. Emotions are naturally “colored” and “flavored,” some people being predisposed to kindness, while others are disciplinarians; some are instinctively happy while others are naturally serious. With the power of intellect, however, a person can choose to be whatever he wishes. For example, intellect can cause the naturally miserly person to give charity with an open hand, and vice versa.

As explained elsewhere (see What is the mystical significance of the morning hand-washing?), the two hands represent the basic emotions of Kindness and Severity. Before sitting down to consume a meal, at which point one will be faced with delicious food – which is symbolic of the temptations and attractions which appeal to our base instincts – it is necessary to wash the emotions with the waters of intellect. Yes, we are humans and therefore must indulge our desires and instincts, but we must never let our instincts get the better of us. We must always be in control of our emotions and instinct, not vice versa.

This is also why we raise our hands above the shoulders after washing the hands for the meal. This symbolizes the elevation and purification of the emotions, to the point that they are perfectly in sync with our supreme faculty, our intellect.


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