Beit Midrash

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Chapter eight-part two

Ruach Ra’ah


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

3. Ruach Ra’ah (Evil Spirit)
In addition to the reasons we have mentioned, the Chachamim state in the Talmud (Shabbat 108b) that one must be careful that his hands do not touch his mouth, nose, eyes, or ears before washing his hands in the morning because there is a ruach ra'ah (evil spirit) which rests upon one’s hands after sleep and it is likely to damage those organs. Only after he washes his hands three times alternately will the ruach ra’ah disappear and, subsequently, the danger caused by touching any of his bodily orifices will be eliminated.
The essence of the morning washing is to prepare and sanctify oneself for praying Shacharit and for the service of a new day. For that reason, the Chachamim instituted reciting Al netilat yadayim. Nevertheless, we are also careful about the ruach ra’ah, and in order to remove it, we must be strict in washing our hands three times alternately from a vessel. This means that we first wash the right hand, then the left, then again the right and left, and another time right and left, which comes out to be three times, each hand alternately.
Prior to washing, one must take care not to touch those organs that have openings toward the inside of the body – such as the mouth, nose, ears, and eyes (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 4:3-4; Mishnah Berurah 13). Similarly, one must be cautious not to touch food or drink before washing (Mishnah Berurah 4:14).
The Kabbalah teaches (see Zohar, part 1, 184:2) that at night, when a person falls asleep and remains inanimate, without thought and action, he experiences a taste of death and a spirit of impurity (ruach ra’ah) rests upon him. This is in line with Chazal’s statement (Berachot 57b) that sleep is one-sixtieth of death. The essence of human virtue lies in one’s ability to think, feel, and engage in activities leading to the rectification of the world (tikun olam). During sleep, when dormancy spreads throughout the body, a person loses, to a certain extent, the image of God (Tzelem Elokim) within him, and the ruach ra’ah rests upon him. When he awakens from his sleep and his consciousness returns, the ruach ra’ah disappears, remaining solely on the extremities of his hands. By washing one’s hands three times alternately, the ruach ra’ah is removed. In order to completely nullify it, one must begin washing his right hand, which symbolizes the attribute of chesed. Therefore, one should take the washing cup initially in his right hand and pass it over to his left, so that he pours the water over the right hand first and then the left, continuing this way until he has washed each hand three times (see Kaf HaChaim 4:12). In this way, the stern judgments associated with the attribute of gevurah (represented by the left hand) are made subservient to the attribute of chesed (represented by the right hand).
Some explain that the main damage caused by the ruach ra’ah is spiritual; if he were to touch his eyes or ears before washing, his internal senses of sight and hearing would be adversely affected, and on that day he would be like a blind and deaf person concerning matters of Torah and faith. Similarly, if he were to touch his mouth or nose, the ruach ra’ah would harm his spiritual senses of eating and smelling (Kaf HaChaim 4:19, based on Solet Belulah).

4. Ruach Ra’ah Today
According to the Zohar and the kabbalists, one must wash his hands next to his bed in the morning, so as not to prolong the ruach ra’ah upon himself. They also warn not to walk more than four amot before washing one’s hands in the morning. Therefore, one must prepare water before going to sleep and place it near his bed so that immediately upon rising he can wash his hands (Sha’arei Teshuvah 1:2). There are those who are lenient regarding this because in their opinion the entire house is considered four amot. As long as one does not have to leave the house more than a distance of four amot in order to wash his hands, he is not thought of as someone who prolongs the ruach ra’ah upon himself (Shut Shevut Yaakov 3:1).
Some maintain that ruach ra’ah has been nullified from this world. The Tosafot (Yoma 77b) bring the opinion that this ruach ra’ah does not dwell in the regions comprising the Ashkenazic countries. The Lechem Mishneh writes that it is implied from the Rambam that he, too, is not concerned about the ruach ra’ah mentioned in the Talmud (Shevitat HeAsor 3:2). Also, the Maharshal, who lived approximately 400 years ago, and who was one of the eminent poskim in Ashkenaz, writes that in our times, no ruach ra’ah exists around us (Chullin, chapter 8, 31). A number of other poskim agree with this approach.
In earlier generations, spiritual and mystical power was more pronounced and intense. This was expressed on the one hand by the ability to attain greater and more transcendental experiences, emotionally and spiritually, such as prophecy, and, on the other hand, by the presence of all sorts of sorcery and impure spirits. As time passed, intellectual strength took center stage at the expense of emotional powers, and together with the cessation of prophecy, the impure spirits weakened and disappeared; in their place there are evil spirits of false and deceitful ideas.
Furthermore, there is an amazing tradition regarding Graf Potoczki, born in Poland to aristocratic parents, who had his heart set on joining the nation of Israel and converting to Judaism. Since such a thing was prohibited in his time, he converted secretly and engrossed himself in Torah. Eventually, the Christians captured him and offered him two options: to return to Christianity or to be burned alive. The righteous convert chose to die by fire, thereby publicly sanctifying God’s Name. At that moment, the Vilna Gaon said that the ruach ra’ah lost some of its strength, particularly regarding the ruach ra’ah of Shacharit. For this reason the students of the Vilna Gaon are lenient regarding walking four amot before washing.
In practice, according to the Chida, Mishnah Berurah (1:2), and Ben Ish Chai, one should be careful not to walk more than four amot before washing. In contrast to them, there are poskim who are lenient, whether it is because the entire house is considered four amot, or because today the ruach ra’ah on one’s hands has ceased to exist. That is the common custom. However, even according to those who maintain that the ruach ra’ah does not fully exist among us, it is customary to be strict concerning everything mentioned in the Talmud, such as washing one’s hands three times and not touching bodily orifices prior to washing.

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