Sermon: On Washing our Hands

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 March 2020

There is one thing that we all have in common this Shabbat morning.  As well as the anxiety and the uncertainty of what will happen in the weeks ahead, what we also all have is dry and cracked skin on the backs of our hands.

We have all spent a great deal of the last fortnight washing our hands.  Doing so while singing happy birthday, or Staying Alive, or just counting slowly to twenty; making sure to do the backs of our hands, and our thumbs; washing till our hands are sore and dry.

Though most of us wash our hands as part of our everyday life, the current crisis has reminded us just how important this mundane act really is.  As moderns we almost take it as read that this is part of our normal routine, and rarely reflect on its importance, or on its history.

In fact, hand washing has a long backstory.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that we really understood the link between hand washing and health, when the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis identified discrepancies in mortality rates in two wards he oversaw and directly linked the difference to handwashing practices.  The medical profession was slow to respond even then – and it wasn’t until a few decades later that the discoveries of Pasteur and Lister explained the science of what we now know about hand hygiene.

But even though we didn’t understand the science, handwashing for reasons of cleanliness far predates these discoveries.  Knights in medieval England would have to wash their hands before attending meals in the Great Hall – it was not acceptable to come in dirty.  And one of the very first historical figures who could be identified as a surgeon, the 14th-century John of Arderne required his apprentices to have “clean hands and well-shaped nails…cleansed from all blackness and filth”.

And we can trace handwashing as a religious practice back even further – back over 2500 years.  In this week’s sidra, a couple of chapters before the section that Gabriella read for us, Moses instructed the priests as follows: “B’vo’am el ohel mo’ed, yir’chatzu-mayim v’lo yamutu – When they come into the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so they shall not die”.

The portion specifies the washing of hands and feet as a requirement for service in the Temple.  Washing, and especially handwashing, was part of a highly developed set of priestly purity laws.  Seeing the images this week of hand-washing facilities in the bus stations of Rwanda brought to mind the basins described as being in the Temple – according to Kings, ten lavers in the court for the washing of hands and feet by the priests.

Symbolic handwashing was extended beyond the priesthood to the wider Jewish people by the rabbis.  Rabbinic Judaism demanded handwashing on a variety of different occasions – before eating bread, dipping food, after sleeping, before worship or touching sacred texts, after going to the loo, on leaving a cemetery – for all these, and more, the rabbis required a moment of symbolic handwashing.

In some cases – for example washing on waking or after going to the loo – this reflected ancient superstitious beliefs about evil spirits that needed to be washed away.  In others it was about the nature of the act that followed, requiring special symbolic cleanness – the touching of sacred texts, for example.

But in the case of washing hands before eating bread what the rabbis instituted was deliberately an extension of the priestly purity law that we find in our portions this morning. The rabbis ruled that the hands were a conveyer of impurity, and so needed to be symbolically washed by the priests before eating consecrated bread.  They then extended this washing of hands in two ways – firstly to non-consecrated bread, so that the priests would be in the habit of doing it whenever they ate; also to non-priests, in particular to ensure that the custom remains live during a period without a functioning priesthood so that we will be ready for a rebuilt Temple.  The many Jews who still carry out ritual hand washing before eating meals with bread do so as an extension of Temple purity practice.

At this point I ought to acknowledge that I knew very little about this until last month when by chance one of my students at Leo Baeck College, fourth year Student Rabbi Iris Ferreira wrote a paper on hand washing for a class I teach on Halachah in Progressive Judaism.  I am not only indebted to her for this knowledge, but also for the question that this raises about our relationship as Progressive Jews with n’tilat yadayim, which is so clearly a remnant of Temple practice and in fact a practice designed to ensure that Temple service can be resumed in the future.  That, however, is her sermon to give not mine.

But what this background explains is why the handwashing in Judaism before meals is done in such a fixed way. It is part of a symbolic process and so it is done as ritual – water poured with a cup, three times on each hand.  Because it is not about getting clean but doing the act, it requires kavannah – intentionality so that it be a religious act.  A tradition in the Talmud states about this hand washing that ‘the one who washes their hands – if they did it with intent, their hands are pure; if they did not do it with intent, their hands are impure.’ And as an act of mitzvah, or obligation, requiring intent, it is accompanied by a mitzvah blessing – a statement of purpose – ending with the words al netilat yadayim – we are commanded concerning washing the hands.
In other words, it is not just getting clean before dinner.

Which brings us back round to our hand washing today.  How do we conceptualise it?  What are we doing when we wash our hands in the context of coronavirus?

It is certainly not an act of superstition – we do not believe in the evil spirits of sleep or the bathhouse, or an evil spirit of ill health.  Nor, despite some echoes of imagery is this about priestly purity for service in the Temple.

On the most basic level it remains a mundane act – one of hand hygiene, directly linked to those knights in the Great Hall, to John of Arderne, to Ignaz Semmelweis.  We know about bacteria and viruses, and what we need to do to combat them.

But, I would suggest that actually this is the most sacred handwashing of all.  More than those other types of Jewish and secular handwashing, this is a supremely religious act.  The washing of hands in the context of coronavirus is not just getting clean, but an act of protection of others.  It is directly linked to our religious values:  to the Jewish idea of ma’akeh, of creating a parapet around our rooftops, that is the responsibility to think about one’s own actions and how we can protect others; to the ultimate Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, the paramount responsibility of saving a life.

And as a religious action it requires kavannah – intentionality – focus on why we are doing it and its importance.  So, before it too becomes mundane and we begin to take this handwashing for granted, I want to suggest that it would also benefit from a blessing.  A statement of the purpose of what we do, the recognition that this is an act of mitzvah.
In line with the values that it reflects, we might precede washing our hands with the blessing for building a parapet, a blessing which ends la’asot maakeh – we are commanded to build a parapet because we are commanded to be responsible for one another’s welfare, and the way that we express this these days is by washing our hands.

Or perhaps we might amend the blessing for hand washing to end instead ‘al n’tilat yadayim l’shem pikuach nefesh’, we are commanded to wash our hands for the sake of saving the lives of others.

Because, however the next few months develop, we are all going to spend a great deal of this time washing our hands.  Doing so while singing happy birthday, or Staying Alive, or just counting slowly to twenty; making sure to do the backs of our hands, and our thumbs; washing till our hands are sore and dry.  Let’s add to this process the recognition that this washing is a sacred, a religious act.  So a final possible blessing that we might say, based on the Jewish ideal articulated in Deuteronomy:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu, la’asot hayashar v’hatov –
Blessed are You Eternal God, ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through Your commandments, and commands us to do the right and the good.