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Obsessive Compulsive

by Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum


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Happens all the time. Guests sampling our Shabbos hospitality for the first time are welcomed in, set at ease, invited to the table to hear Kiddush and then, just as they’ve gotten comfortable, we make them stand up and troop into the kitchen to ‘wash’.

“But my hands are clean” or “I’ve just washed” are standard responses, and I don’t blame them. People unfamiliar with traditional rituals are often bemused by our constant preoccupation with water sports. I’m not claiming higher standards of hygiene; rather I’m referring to the multiple occasions in which we ceremoniously lave our hands over the course of the day.

First thing in the morning we wash netilat yadaim. Before prayer there’s a quick trip to the tap. Eating bread demands a full production, replete with towels and prayers, and after we finish eating we rinse our fingertips for mayim achronim.

Unlike people suffering from full-blown neurosis, our passion is for spirituality, not cleanliness. Not to say that some people are not fixated on the concept to an unhealthy degree; as with any mental illness the symptoms of obsessive-compulsion can present in a variety of ways, and unquestionably some poor souls are afflicted with the desire to practice religious rituals to a damaging extent. That however is a matter for psychiatrists, not Rabbis. I intend to address the ritual of washing, as mandated by Jewish Law.

Don’t come to the table till your hands are clean

We read in the Torah how the priests assigned to serve in the Temple were enjoined to wash their hands and feet every single time they would enter the sanctuary or begin a new act of service.

True, cleanliness is next to G-dliness, but this was an act of holiness, not hygiene. By this ritual washing the Kohanim were simultaneously accomplishing two objectives; they demonstrated the importance with which they viewed the ritual they were about to perform; investing the forthcoming act with a sense of ceremony and purpose, and they were spiritually cleansing themselves as well. Just as immersing in a mikva is an act of rebirth and consecration, so too, to a lesser degree, is the ceremony of washing one’s hands. In an effort to emulate the kohanim and bring holiness into our daily lives, we too wash our hands before engaging in acts of devotion, both as an act of respect and in the quest for spiritual regeneration. 

But they’re not really dirty

Come on, who are we fooling? Do you really believe that pouring water over your fingers brings about any sort of spiritual benefit? What spirituality, I don’t feel any different, I don’t see any shadow of sin being washed away, and I certainly cannot quantify the effects. Isn’t this just some sort of religious hocus pocus?


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Daily Life » Eating

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.
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.
Prayer recited at the beginning of the Sabbath or Holiday meal--both the evening and afternoon meals. This prayer, acknowledging the sanctity of the day, is recited over a cup of wine or grape juice.
"The Name." Out of respect, we do not explicitly mention G-d's name, unless in the course of prayer. Instead, "Hashem" is substituted.
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.