Rabbi Aron Moss will now be contributing regular Q&A commentaries to Gather the Jews. Rabbi Moss is the proprietor of Nefesh and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Moss.
What is the meaning behind the ritual washing of hands before meals? Was this some ancient Jewish version of hygiene?
One of the laws of the hand washing ritual is that the hands must already be completely clean before you wash them. You first clean the hands of any dirt, and only then do you pour water from a cup over each hand three times.
This is ridiculous: the prerequisite to washing hands is that they be clean?! The ritual washing of hands has no visible effect. It seemingly does nothing. So why do we do it?
The hand washing before meals has nothing to do with hygiene. It is not about cleanliness. It is about holiness.
Cleanliness is a physical state. By removing dirt you become clean. But holiness is an entirely spiritual concept. Holiness means a sense of something beyond, something higher, something with a higher purpose. You can be completely clean, but that doesn’t mean you’re holy.
You can have two business people who work side by side. They are both honest and good people. They are both clean. There is no visible difference between them. And yet one uses his wealth to help the poor and needy, while the other accumulates wealth purely for himself and his family. He is clean. He is not a bad man. But he is not holy.
You can have two plates of food. Both are made of healthy ingredients and prepared to the highest standards of hygiene. There is no visible difference between them. And yet one plate is kosher food, the other not. Kosher food is not healthier or cleaner. It is holy. It is prepared according to divine standards with a higher purpose in mind.
You can have two pairs of hands. Both have been cleaned and are spotless. And yet one hand has been ritually washed, the other not. There is no detectable difference between them. But these hands are holy, those are not.
Holiness means connecting to something higher. It means living with an awareness that not all dirt is visible, and we don’t always see the effect of our actions. So before engaging in physical activity, before consuming the fruit of our handiwork, we wash our hands. They may be clean already, but we must ensure that they are pure and holy too.
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