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Why do we wash our fingertips before Grace after Meals?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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Prior to Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals), one is obligated to wash Mayim Acharonim, the “Last Waters.”  Before blessing G-d, we sanctify ourselves by washing our hands, removing any food remnants which may have remained from the meal.

In times of old, many Jews were illiterate. Furthermore, prior to the invention of the printing press, even those who were literate often lacked even the most basic books, such as a Siddur. Therefore, when people ate together, it was common practice for one person to read the Birkat Hamazon, while everyone else would listen and answer Amen after each blessing, thus fulfilling the Mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon.

Since the primary reason for washing Mayim Acharonim is sanctification before blessing G-d... it is proper for every person to be meticulous in the observance of this washing
Since these people would not actually utter G-d’s name in blessing, it would seem that they would be exempt from Mayim Acharonim. The Rabbis instituted, however, that the listeners, too, should wash Mayim Acharonim, due to the pernicious “Sodomite salt” which was prevalent in the foods of olden times. This salt caused serious injury when it came in contact with the eyes.

Today, Sodomite salt is not to be found in our foods. Therefore, there are those who are lenient with regards to washing Mayim Acharonim. However, since the primary reason for washing Mayim Acharonim is sanctification before blessing G-d – and the Sodomite salt reason is the reason why the listeners must wash – it is proper for every person to be meticulous in the observance of this washing.

[Rabbi Jacob Emden, renowned 17th century scholar, writes that in Talmudic times people generally ate with their fingers. Today however, since most people eat with flatware, Mayim Acharonim isn’t as obligatory as it was then.

He concludes by saying, “perhaps this is why women today do not wash Mayim Acharonim, for they are more careful than their male counterparts in eating with spoons [forks and knifes]!”]

 

See also How do I wash Mayim Acharonim?


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Question

Posted by: Anonymous, Hartford, CT on Dec 10, 2005

How does washing hands sanctify ourselves?

Editor's Comment

It isn't respectful to utter G-d's holy name with greasy or otherwise soiled hands.
Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Grace After Meals
Biblically mandated prayer, consisting of four blessings, recited after eating more than an ounce of bread.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Birkat Hamazon
Grace after Meals. A Biblically mandated prayer, consisting of four blessings, recited after eating more than an ounce of bread.
Siddur
Prayer book.
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.