Mothers always instruct their children to wash their hands before supper. After all, children play in unclean places, touch strange objects and suck their thumbs, so their hands definitely need to be washed before they touch any food. In a Jewish household, however, the request for a child to wash his/her hands might only be an indicator that the child is about to eat bread.

According to Jewish law, before eating bread it is necessary to ritually wash one’s hands as follows (in the same manner that the priests of old washed their hands in the Holy Temple): Remove any rings. Fill a large cup with water. Holding the cup in your left hand, pour the water twice over the right hand, making certain that the entire hand is rinsed, then (after switching hands) twice over the left hand. (Some have the custom of pouring 3 times over each hand.) As the hands are dried, the following blessing is recited:

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’doh’nai Eh’lo’hay’nu Melech ha’o’lam ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu ahl n’tee’laht ya’da’yim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to wash our hands.

After this blessing is recited, one should not speak until the blessing over the bread (Ha’motz’ee) has been recited and a piece of bread has been eaten. This silence maintains the connection between the washing of the hands and the eating of the bread.

Notice that the word for washing in the blessing is “n’teelat.” Technically the Hebrew word “to wash” is lir’chotz. Ahl n’teelat yadayim literally means “the lifting up of hands.” The ceremonial washing has the effect of “lifting” one’s hands to a higher level–the hands being consecrated for nobler deeds in fulfillment of God’s commandments.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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