Ask the Rabbi

  • Halacha
  • When Awakening

Netilat yadaim and bircat hatorah


Rabbi David Sperling

Elul 1, 5773
I often wake up before sunrise - how and when do i make netiilat yadaim and bircat hatorah? Do i do netilah and then repeat with bracha Do i wait for sunrise for bircah hatorah? can i learn without making bracha?
Shalom, Thank you for your question. King David also arose early every day in order to learn Torah – so you are in good company! Allow me to give a quick overview of the laws of blessings and hand washing for someone who has slept but wakes up early. The first thing to know is that there are two important times of the morning. The first is the well known "sunrise", or "netz" in Hebrew. This is when the sun starts to appear on the horizon (there are actually many technical details about how to calculate this time, but in general it is when the sun can been seen). The other important time is "alot ha'shachar" or "first light". This is much earlier than sunrise, and is when the sky starts to lighten. There are several accepted opinions of when this is, some say 90 minuets before sunrise, and some say 72 minuets (and again there are many other opinions based on various technical rules). So today, for example, the 1st of Elul 5773, sunrise in Israel was close to 6am, but "alot ha'shachar" or "first light" was around 4:20 or 4:40 according to the different opinions. Why is this important? Because if you get up after "alot ha'shachar" or "first light" then there are no problems at all with immediately washing your hands and saying all the normal morning blessings, including those of Torah learning. (In this case though you must make certain that you don’t get carried away with your learning and forget to pray! If you have a regular minyan in synagogue that you go to you can rely on that to make sure you pray, but if you normally pray by yourself, you must set an alarm or get someone to remind you to pray on time). But if you get up before "alot ha'shachar" or "first light", then the situation is trickier. In this case you should wash twice – first upon arising, then again before you start praying (which will be after "alot ha'shachar" or "first light"). (Some hold that the second washing should be done immediately at "alot ha'shachar" or "first light", unless you are in the middle of learning or say slichot etc, but many hold that you can wait until you want to pray for the second washing, and that is what I would advice). In connection to the blessing of washing hands, if you got up after halachic midnight (which is today 12:45am), then you may say the blessing after the first washing. However it is also acceptable to wait and not say the blessing until after the second washing (before you go to pray) – but in this case you should make sure you go to the bathroom first (or otherwise dirty your hands) before washing. In relation to the blessings over Torah learning, you should say them when you wake up (after using the bathroom and washing your hands) before you start to learn. You do not say them again even when you start to pray shacharit. May your learning be for a blessing, as your blessings are a cause for our learning!
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