Beit Midrash

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Chapter eight-part one

Washing One’s Hands in the Morning


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1. Morning Washing
The Chachamim instituted the washing of one’s hands every morning and the recital of the blessing, "Asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim," ("…Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the washing of hands.")
A person’s hands endow him with the capability to function in this world. With his hands he can give and receive, hold and deliver, handle his different belongings, and care for his body. However, along with, and perhaps because of, their versatility, one’s hands also wallow in all the dealings of this world and tend to get dirty and contaminated more than any other limb. Whenever it is necessary to elevate and distance ourselves from the lower aspects of this world in order to engage in matters of sanctity, we wash our hands. This is the general significance of washing hands, including the washing in the morning. However, the Rishonim disagree as to the exact reason behind the morning washing.
According to the Rosh, since a person’s hands are constantly moving, it is almost certain that during one’s sleep they touch parts of the body that are normally covered. Therefore, in order to purify them before Shacharit, the Chachamim instituted the washing of one’s hands.
According to the Rashba, every morning people are created anew, as it is written (Lamentations 3:23), "They are renewed every morning; abundant is Your faithfulness!" A person goes to sleep tired, gives his soul over to his Creator, and arises in the morning with renewed strength. This new creation should be sanctified and designated for serving Hashem by washing one’s hands in the morning.
In other words, according to the Rosh, the washing of one’s hands in the morning is solely in preparation for prayer, and according to the Rashba, this washing constitutes a preparation and sanctification for prayer and for service of Hashem throughout the entire day. 1

2. Hand Washing Concerning One Who Did Not Sleep All Night
Based on what we have learned in the previous halachah (according to the Mishnah Berurah), in the Rashba’s opinion, even a person who did not sleep at night must wash his hands with a berachah in order to sanctify himself so that he may thank Hashem for a new day. In the Rosh’s opinion, however, because he did not sleep, there is no concern that he unintentionally touched the parts of his body that are normally covered and therefore it is unnecessary to wash his hands before praying.
Hence, the Shulchan Aruch rules (4:13) that a person who remains awake all night must wash his hands without a berachah. He must wash his hands, according to the opinion of the Rashba, however he does not make a blessing on that washing, so as not to recite a berachah in vain, consistent with the opinion of the Rosh.
The Mishnah Berurah writes (4:30) that a person who did not sleep all night should relieve himself before Shacharit. After his hands touch the parts of his body that are normally covered, then even according to the Rosh, he must wash his hands with a berachah. He can therefore wash his hands with a berachah according to all opinions. This is the Ashkenazic custom for those who stay awake all night on Shavuot.
The minhag of the Sephardim is that before praying, even a person who touched the normally covered parts of his body washes his hands without a berachah. This is because we take into consideration the opinion stating that the Chachamim instituted washing with a berachah only for a person who slept at night. But a person who dirtied his hands and did not sleep is the same as one whose hands were dirty before Minchah and Ma’ariv – he washes his hands without a berachah. The sole advice for someone who was awake all night and wants to fulfill the obligation according to all opinions is to hear the berachah recited by another person and have in mind to fulfill his obligation by hearing it (Kaf HaChaim 4:49). (See further in this book 8:5; 9:5-6, for the law regarding someone who remains awake all night, or who wakes up in the middle of the night, concerning the recital of Birkot HaShachar and Al netilat yadayim.)

^ 1.There are two sources for the morning washing: Berachot 60b, where it appears as one of Birkot HaShachar and seems to correspond to the opinion of the Rashba; and Berachot 14b-15a, where it appears as a preparation for prayer, consistent with the opinion of the Rosh.
There is an opinion which states that a woman who does not intend to pray Shemoneh Esrei on a particular day should wash without reciting a berachah, for according to the Rosh, this washing was instituted specifically for prayer (Shut Machazeh Eliyahu 11). However, in practice, women have the custom to follow the Rashba, and recite a blessing on the morning washing regardless. The Bach writes that even the Rosh agrees that the Chachamim instituted washing in the morning as part of Birkot HaShachar, but that according to the Rosh, one also needs to wash his hands with a berachah before praying Minchah and Ma’ariv if his hands are dirty.
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