Friday, July 06, 2012

Washing Hands After Meals - Halacha or Superstition?

Another fascinating (to me) comment by RABH in his Sefer Hamaspik in a discussion about Mayim Acharonim caught my attention. The traditional explanation given by Halacha as the reason for Mayim Acharonim, washing hands after eating a meal before benching is to remove “Melach Sedomit” Soddomite salts from the hands. Apparently the salt used during the meals that remained on the hands could be dangerous if they ended up in the eyes.

(Rambam Hilchot Brachot 6:4)
   כל את המלח, צריך נטילת ידיים באחרונה--שמא יש בו מלח סדומית או מלח שטבעו כטבע מלח סדומית, ויעביר ידיו על עיניו וייסמה; ומפני זה חייבו ליטול ידיים בסוף כל סעודה, מפני המלח.  ובמחנה, פטורין מנטילת ידיים בתחילה, מפני שהן טרודין במלחמה; וחייבין באחרונה, מפני הסכנה

RABH writes:
“Externally, the reason for Mayim Acharonim is given by Halacha to prevent the risks caused by Soddomite Salts. In my opinion the reason for Mayim Acharonim and the Rabbi’s making them more important than pre-meal washing as they said “Pre-meal is a mitzvah, post- meal is an obligation and in an [army] camp one is not obligated to wash before a meal but obligated to wash after the meal”, is because one needs to make preparations for Benching (the blessing after the meal) which is De’oraita (a Torah obligation) and a minor Tefillah. They gave danger as the exoteric reason and set it into Halacha so that people should take it seriously and not be lenient [and not wash hands after the meal], making them fear for their life. I report something similar from my father A’H on the Rabbi’s saying “a person may not eat pairs and may not drink pairs [of cups]” (TB Pessachim 109b). He said that the rationale for the prohibition is to distance from the custom of doubling up in the Beit Hamikdash, where the reason for doing so was to be blessed, therefore the Rabbis said this and tied it in with danger to prevent them from doing so.”

RABH reports that his father, Rambam, explained the famous Issur of “pairs”, Zugot, which is discussed in the Gemara. The supposed reason as given by the Gemara is that pairs are dangerous apparently for mystical or spiritual reasons and could harm a person that indulges in them. Rambam apparently was bothered by this reason as it seems to endorse superstition. He therefore explained that, and this is just a guess on my part as to what he means exactly, there was a superstition in the Beit Hamikdash for people going for doubles as a talisman, and the rabbis frowned at that. To dissuade people from it the Rabbis claimed that it was dangerous and harmful, knowing full well that this is the only thing that would work for the masses.

I understand doubles as a talisman based on the Gemara Yoma 26a that explains the drawing of lots for which Cohen will have the privilege to do the Ketoret because of the popularity of the ritual as it supposedly brings riches to the person who does it. I cannot put my finger on the location but I seem to remember the same thing regarding who gets to eat the Lechem Hapanim. If anyone has a better idea, please don’t hesitate to comment and straighten me out.  

“What caught my attention and made me revisit the reason for Mayim Acharonim is the rule that “immediately after washing one must make the blessing” and the prohibition of using hot water, because hot water does not clean. If the reason for post-meal washing was danger these restrictions would not apply. Furthermore the Rabbis giving the reason for using good oil {on the hands after the meal] “because a dirty person is not allowed to worship [in the temple] (TB Brachot 53b)” is a direct proof to my thesis, for one who understands. It is not just a hint. Pay attention well as it a secret that is only understood by scholars”.

RABH is arguing that if the reason for the obligation to wash after the meal is to avoid a dangerous situation why does the Halacha forbid delaying the blessing after washing?[1] He then points to the Gemara that requires quality oil to be used to anoint hands after the meal, and explain that requirement by comparing Benching to the Avodah in the Beit Hamikdash. Clearly, the Rabbis considered Benching as a replacement or a process similar to the one done in the temple. All temple worship requires washing hands so too does Benching. Indeed so does Tefillah which we know that the Rabbis see it as mirroring the Korbanot. (See Hilchot Tefillah 1:5)
There are several interesting undercurrents in this discussion. The general custom nowadays is to bring a small cup or at more elegant homes a special silver Mayim Acharonim plate with a cup at the end of a meal to wash the fingertips. This is based on Tosafot Brachot 53b s.v. Vehe’yitem Kedoshim that says that nowadays there is no more concern about Melach Sedomit as it is not available and therefore Mayim Acharonim washing is no longer obligatory. We therefore wash symbolically rather than as a Mitzvah. Rambam on the other hand does not make that distinction making it an obligation even nowadays and the way the Halacha is organized in Hilchot Brachot 6, it is clear that the same rules of washing with a Revi’it, a Kelli etc… apply to Mayim Acharonim. RABH’s explanation fits very well with this.

The other issue is the rationale for the Halacha of washing hands in general. The Rishonim had different understandings of the basis for the obligation.  In the Gemara there are a variety of reasons given for different situations; Tume’ah for Teruma and Kodashim which is the only Halacha where hands only are seen as unclean versus the whole body as a Rabbinical obligation; bad spirits on hands overnight; preparation (Hikon) for Tefillah and Kery’at Shema and of course plain cleanliness as in the Melach Sedomit explanation for Mayim Acharonim. (I am sure I forgot one or two more reasons.) The Rishonim apply the different reasons to each situation and from a practical standpoint, details of praxis differ according to each situation based on which reason is seen as the correct one. Rambam breaks up the Halacha of hand washing placing it in two separate places. The one for Teruma and Kodashim he places at the end of Hilchot Mikva’ot, the end of Sefer Tahara in MT, because it is another detail in how to prepare for dealing with matters of holiness such as Kodashim, Beit Hamikdash etc… which is the core for Hilchot Tahara ( a discussion which I will leave for another post). The other Halacha which covers washing hands for Kery’at Shema, Tefillah, bread (and liquid dipped foods) and Mayim Acharonim he places in the 6th chapter of Hilchot Brachot. He does not give an explicit reason other than it being a Mitzvah Derabanan and for Mayim Acharonim – Melach Sedomit. He links the Halachot from a practical standpoint in Hilchot Mikva’ot (11:11) referring back to Hilchot Brachot.  There is no mention of any of the other reasons. In practice according to Rambam one does not have to wash hands in the morning before making a Bracha just for Kery’at Shema and Tefillah.  On Yom Kippur one does not have to wash hands at all as well as on Tisha Be’av. In fact one is prohibited from doing so (however RABH disagrees in Sefer Hamaspik). There are other differences but I don’t want to digress here.

RABH in this piece addresses the reasoning behind this Mitzvah Derabanan and explains that it is because Tefillah is organized as a parallel to the worship in the Beit Hamikdash, the Korbanot Tamid and therefore require washing hands just like there was such a requirement before Korbanot. This idea is mentioned in Beit Yosef on the Tur where he quotes a Teshuvah of the Rashba that is struggling to understand the basis of this Takanah of washing hands for Tefillah and suggests the comparison to the washing in the Beit Hamikdash as one possible explanation among others. In Hilchot Tefillah 4:3 Rambam rules that before the Morning Prayer one should wash hands, face and feet. Ravad questions the basis for washing feet. Rabbeinu Manoach ad locum points to a Gemara ignored by Ravad and suggests that it is based on the washing from the Kiyor in the Beit Hamikdash where hands and feet were washed. These two Provençale Rishonim apparently arrived at the same conclusion as RABH. Rabbeinu Manoach went one step further and saw it as Rambam’s underlying idea for the Halacha.  

What I find interesting is the context that RABH uses to introduce this idea. He struggles and does not accept the reason for Mayim Acharonim given by the Gemara as apparently it was not something that made sense to him. He compares his objection to the danger reason given for Mayim Acharonim with the reason given for pairs - Zugot. This to me indicates that he saw the ostensible danger of Soddomite salts as a superstition rather than a scientific fact.  He then proves internally, from the praxis the Halacha requires that it is not the true reason as it does not explain the praxis. We have here a Straussian approach to Halacha – an exoteric and an esoteric reason. RABH adds that the reason for keeping the real reason secret is because it would not have guaranteed compliance[2]. The Rabbis then give a reason that will induce the masses to follow their Takanah. Another interesting thing is that this rationale binds the two Halachot of Netilat Yaday’im of Rambam – Hilchot Mikva’ot and Brachot – both have a Beit Hamikdash component.  
Shabbat Shalom.


[1] I am not sure what his problem is with using hot water as that does make sense. Hot water prevents one from washing carefully as he said in an earlier piece leaving some residual salt on the hands
[2] Similar to his father’s explanation why the Gemara would allow a superstitious reason for pairs


  1. Isaac Berdugo7/18/2012 5:28 PM

    According to RABH, I wonder why the Hachamim only gave this esoteric reasoning for mayim achronim?
    Why would people abide to washing before the meal, more than after?
    Just trying to better understand RABH...

  2. Issac, apparently the Rabbis were more worried about the washing after, being that we already wash before. They worried that we would rely on that washing and not wash after the meal especially since on the first washing there is a Bracha and not on the second.

    RABH in general sees all actionable Mitzvot as tools to trigger contemplation. I hope to write about that soon.