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Hand Washing

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The procedure is to pour water out from a cup or glass first twice over the right hand and then twice over the left hand--care being taken that the unwashed hands do not touch the water used for the washing. The hands are then dried with a towel before partaking of the meal. A benediction is recited over the washing of the hands: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands." The reference to the command has to be understood in the context that rabbinic ordinances are also commanded by God. Observant Jews are very strict in this matter of washing the hands before meals. The Talmud also refers to washing the hands after meals but here the reason given is that people used to eat with their hands and a certain salt added to food in those days might cause injury to the eyes if it came into contact with them. The French authorities in the Middle Ages argued that this hygienic reason no longer obtains, since this kind of salt is no longer used. Many observant Jews follow this line of thinking and do not wash the hands after the meal, not as a ritual in any event. But many authorities introduce the holiness motif here as well, although no benediction is recited over mayyim aharonim, "afterwards water." For those who observe it, the procedure is simply to pour a little water out of a cup or glass over the fingers of the two hands. There is a further ritual washing of the hands on rising from sleep. This is a later innovation for which two reasons are given. One is that during sleep an unclean spirit rests on the body. This departs on waking, except for a residue left on the fingernails and to remove this, the hands have to be washed. The second reason (perhaps introduced as a rationalization) is that a Jew, a member of the "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:5), must, when he rises from his bed to serve his Maker, follow the practice of the priests in the Temple who would wash their hands from the hand-basin (Exodus 30:17-21). The procedure for this washing of the hands is to pour the water first on the right hand and then the left and to repeat this three times. Some of the more scrupulous have a cup of water and a basin at the bedside so as to wash the hands immediately on waking. Following the first reason, they will pour out the "nail water" (neggel wasser in Yiddish) and not allow it to come into contact with food or drink. Many pious Jews also carry out the ritual of washing the hands before performing any religious act, especially before prayer. It is also the custom to perform the ritual of washing the hands on returning from the graveside after a burial.

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