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What is the procedure for washing hands before a meal?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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The laws of Netilat Yadayim for a meal are quite complex. The following is not to be viewed as a comprehensive compilation of all the pertinent laws. We mention only the most basic laws which are applicable on a daily basis. 


– Before eating a food upon which the Hamotzie blessing is recited (such as bread or Matzah), one must ritually wash both hands. If one eats more than 1.89 ounces of such a food, than the Netilat Yadayim blessing is also recited.


– Before Netilat Yadayim the hands must be free of anything which will obstruct the waters from reaching the entire surface of the hand. Therefore:

1) The hands must be completely clean beforehand (wash up before you wash up...). Only dirt with substance poses a problem; an ink stain, for example, is not considered an obstruction. 

2) All rings should be removed.

3) If there is a bandage or Band-Aid on the hand which is painful to remove, one may wash Netilat Yadayim without removing it.


– The Netilat Yadayim must be poured from a cup which is complete without any cracks or punctures. If the cup has a spout, the water must be poured from the side of the rim which is not “spouted.”


– Water is poured twice* on the right hand and then twice on the left hand. According to Kabbalah, the cup should originally be lifted with the right hand, and be handed over to the left hand which then pours the water onto the right hand. (Left-handed people reverse this entire procedure). Those who follow Chabad custom wash each hand three times . There must be sufficient water so that the entire hand is covered by water until the wrist with each pouring. The fingers should be slightly separated to allow water to cover their entire surface.


– After the washing, the hands are raised above shoulder height and the following blessing is recited:**

Baruch atta Ado-noy Elo-hai-nu Melech ha'olam asher kid-sha-nu b'mitz-vo-tav v'tzi-vanu al Netilat Yadayim.
[Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded concerning the washing of the hands.]

After reciting the blessing the two hands should be rubbed together and then dried. Bread is not to be eaten while the hands are still wet.


– If there is a Kosher Mikvah (or river, stream, lake or ocean) available, you may dip your hands in there in lieu of Netilat Yadayim.


– If one is traveling, and there is no water to be found for a distance of 72 minutes forward in the journey or 18 minutes rearward, one may eat bread without touching it – either the bread must be wrapped in a napkin or the hands must be covered with gloves.


– One who uses the facilities, touches a part of the body which is normally covered, or scratches his scalp during a meal, must wash again. The blessing, however, is not repeated.



*With the first pouring of water, the hands become pure but the water becomes impure. We therefore pour water a second time in order to purify the first waters. The Chabad custom is to pour water on each hand a third time just in case the second pouring didn’t reach all the impure waters of the first pouring.

**Generally, blessings are recited before actually performing a Mitzvah (e.g. before putting on Tefillin, before lighting the Chanukah candles). Netilat Yadayim is an exception to this rule. Since hands are often unclean before the washing, one waits until afterwards to say the blessing. Furthermore, drying one’s hands is also part of the Mitzvah (when washing for bread), so the blessing does precede at least part of the Mitzvah.


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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Matzah
(pl. Matzot). Unleavened bread which is eaten on Passover, especially at the Passover Seder (feast), commemorating the Matzah which the Jews ate upon leaving Egypt. It consists of only flour and water and resembles a wheat cracker.
Tefillin
Black leather boxes containing small scrolls with passages of the Bible written on them. Every day, aside for Sabbath and Jewish holidays, the adult Jewish male is required to wrap the Tefillin--by means of black leather straps--around the weaker arm and atop the forehead.
Kosher
Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.
Mikvah
A ritual bath where one immerses to become spiritually pure. After her menstrual cycle, a woman must immerse in the Mikvah before resuming marital relations.
Chabad
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
Chanukah
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
Kabbalah
Jewish mysticism. The word Kaballah means "reception," for we cannot physically perceive the Divine, we merely study the mystical truths which were transmitted to us by G-d Himself through His righteous servants.
Hamotzie
The blessing recited over bread, Challah, or Matzah.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.