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Why do we wash our hands before eating bread?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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There is a Torah commandment that when one has a harvest of wheat, wine or olive oil, a small percentage is given as Terumah (a "separation") to the Kohen.

Terumah must be kept pure, and the Kohen who eats it must be pure. Since a person's hands are active and might have come in contact with something unclean or impure, a Kohen must wash his/her1 hands before consuming terumah.

This applies only to bread, for olive oil and wine are not generally eaten directly with the hands.

In order to keep us ready for the time when we will once again be eating terumah - with the coming of our righteous Messiah, our rabbis instituted the washing of hands before eating any bread.

In order to insure that the Kohanim wash, the Sages applied this rule to all Jews, kohanim and ordinary Israelites alike.

[Ed. note: you may also want to read "Why the difference between the morning hand washing, and before eating bread?" ]

Footnotes

  • 1. The family of a Kohen shares many of his privleges. So although they do not participate in the Temple Service, the wife and (unwed) daughter of a Kohen do eat terumah.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Shabbat » Shabbat Meals

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Kohanim
Plural form of Kohain. Priests of G-d. This title belongs to the male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. The primary function of the Kohain was to serve in the Holy Temple. Today the Kohain is still revered and it is his function to recite the Priestly Blessings on certain occasions.
Terumah
The tithe given to the priest (descendant of Aaron) from certain crops. The tithe was approximately 2% of the harvest.