There is a considerable discussion stemming back to the Rishonim as to how much of one's hand has to be washed. The root of the debate is our original gemara in Chullin 107, which discusses varying amounts of one's hand that has to be washed for different purposes. The basic foundation of this law is that if one is eating food that requires one to be in a state of purity, then he should do his best to ensure that as much of his hand as possible is washed. The exact phrasing of the gemara is that one has to wash his hands "ad ha-perek," until the joint. Rashi says that this refers to the middle joint of the fingers. His explanation for this approach is that since the only reason that we wash hands today is because of the connection to terumah, thus we only have to wash the part of the fingers that would actually come in contact with the food, namely the upper extensions.

While Rashi's view is later echoed by the Rokeiach, the main debate among Rishonim stems from a dispute over the correct interpretation of a textual variant of this gemara. Both Rif and Rosh had a version that read "ad ha-pekak." Rif (citing Rabbeinu Yonah) interpreted this to mean until the point where the hand joins the arm (i.e. the wrist), while Rosh felt that this was an overly stringent opinion and that one need only wash his hands until the point where the fingers join the hand. While there are Rishonim and Acharonim who fall out on both sides of this debate, the Beit Yoseif notes that this is a fairly simple mitzva to keep, and thus it is worthwhile and advisable for one to adhere to the more stringent view. However, he notes that one should do this while keeping in mind that he is opting to do so and not doing so as an obligation. The reason for this is that once a person accepts the more stringent view on himself he does not have the option of being lenient. The Beit Yoseif thus reasons that in case a person would ever find himself in a situation where he has very little water, he should leave open for himself the option of relying on the lenient view.

Interestingly, the Taz claims that there is a problem with this advice of the Beit Yoseif. Since it seems that the Beit Yoseif really holds like the more lenient view (and the Perisha indeed notes that it is the correct view), if a person keeps the strict view it will appear to others that there are "two Torahs," a situation that we generally try to avoid. Alternatively, it will appear that other people are being lenient when the law calls for them to be strict, and thus the person who is being strict will actually be unwittingly casting aspersions on others. Thus, Taz claims that a person should be strict when there is no one else around, but should adopt the more lenient view in public. Nonetheless, the more common practice today, when water is more than abundant and available, is for people to wash their entire hands until the wrist.

Connected to the issue of the extent to which the hand has to be washed is the issue of how much of the hand has to be available for washing. In other words, can one wash his or her hands if the hands are dirty or have any foreign objects that would come between the water and the skin? This issue presents us with a convergence of the laws of netilat yadayim with those of tevila (ritual immersion). Concerning tevila, and specifically that done by a woman at the end of her menstrual period, the law is that there can be nothing on the body that would impede the water from coming in contact with the skin. Only if something is small and is generally disregarded (mi'ut v'eino makpid alav) do we make room to be lenient (although the practice is generally to be strict about everything). The same general principle holds true for netilat yadayim, as the gemara in Chullin states that anything that is considered to be a barrier for the purposes of tevila is also considered to be a barrier for the purposes of netilat yadayim.

One particular point of contention is that of a ring. Mordechai cites Ra'avyah who claims that one does not have to remove a ring when washing netilat yadayim. The Beit Yoseif notes that this issue depends on the one that we just discussed. Those opinions which claim that one only has to wash the tops of his fingers will have no problem with a ring, since a ring is generally placed lower down. However, those people who feel that the entire hand or the entire length of the fingers has to be washed would be opposed to one's leaving rings on while washing. The Perisha notes that while a ring may generally not be considered to be something that a person actively regards, if such a person would remove the ring while kneading dough he or she is considered to be mindful of it and has to remove it for netilat yadayim. The Taz rules that a ring that contains a gemstone in it always has to be removed. Finally, while there are those who claim that as long as the ring is loose there is no problem, since the water can get to the skin, Ramo and others claim that even in such cases the ring should be removed, since we are not experts in terms of knowing the exact degree of looseness that is acceptable in the eyes of halacha (although the Magen Avraham says that is one washes his or her hands with a loose ring on them then he is fine).


The mishna in Yadayim 1:5 presents a debate as to whether or not the force exerted to pour the water over the hands has to come from a person or from a utensil. In other words, does an individual have to pour the water directly over his hands, or can he make use of a system that has water constantly flowing out of it (such as a faucet that is left open)? As far as our halachot go, we tend to split the decision - while there is a need for human force to directly pour the water, the water that is poured has to come from some type of utensil.

[There is much discussion as to which utensils may be used. While this is a topic beyond the scope of this Chabura, suffice it to say that the various washing cups available on the market today all meet the standards set out by halacha.]

The Tur (O.C. 159) and the Shulchan Aruch both rule that netilat yadayim must be done with a utensil, and that it must be done from a utensil that can hold at least the mandated revi'it of water. The source for this law is either that the Kohanim in the Beit HaMikdash washed their hands and feet from a utensil, and thus we do as well since our tables are considered to be altars (see Aruch HaShulchan) or because utensils were used for the sprinkling of the water and ashes of the red heifer (see Bamidbar 19:19 and Magen Avraham to O.C. 159). They both rule as well that the water must be poured by a person (ko'ach gavra), and thus a pipe that water flows through would not be usable for netilat yadayim since the water comes through on its own and not as a direct result of human action. However, if a person has a hand in making the water flow through the pipe and places his hands right at the beginning of where the water comes out, then his washing would be sufficient (and thus the practice of using water fountains or of turning a faucet on and off four times).

There is some discussion as to whether or not every person is fit to pour the water. There are many areas of halacha where certain individuals, such as minors and people who have the halachic status of fools, are not allowed to act on our behalf in the performance of the mitzva since their lower status reduces them to the point where they are unable to recognize what they are doing. In general, we permit anyone to pour the water for netilat yadayim, although the Hagahot Ashri forbids a minor under the age of six or seven to do so, and the Sefer HaManhig forbids a non-Jew or a slave, since they are not considered to have the halachic status of men for the purpose of performing mitzvot. Both opinions are generally rejected by Rishonim, and the Shulchan Aruch writes that even if a monkey were to pour the water onto a person's hands it would count on a b'diavad level for netilat yadayim.


Finally, we come to the case of what happens when all else fails. What is one to do when there is no water to be had? Rambam (Hilchot Berachot 6 and Hilchot Sha'ar Avot HaTum'a 8) rules that one is permitted to put a cloth over his hands and eat. However, while in the former case Rambam seems to make this as a blanket law, in the latter he says that it only applies to Kohanim eating terumah. Why is there a difference? The basic opposition that develops to this idea is that we are afraid that if a person is eating bread with unclean hands there is the chance that his hands will come to touch the food itself. However, we have a general concept that the Kohanim are more fastidious in their observance of the laws, and thus we trust them to be careful. Nevertheless, Rambam's first statement holds, and it is opposed by the Kesef Mishna.

The Tur (O.C. 163) states flatly that one may not eat bread without first washing his hands, and that even wrapping his hands in a cloth will not work. The Shulchan Aruch, on the other hand, rules that if there is no water for a mil (a Biblical measurement of distance, somewhat less than a mile) behind him or for four mils in from of him, then he may wrap his hands in a cloth and eat. In the Beit Yoseif, Rav Karo explains that when Rambam is lenient in this regard, he is lenient with regard to non-holy foods, since the stakes there are much lower. The Magen Avraham rules that if a person is unsure whether or not there is water ahead of him, he may rely on Rambam on eat with his hands covered.

Ramo tries to extend this leniency, ruling that if a person has no water he may eat by putting the food on a spoon, since that also creates a situation where one's hands do not come in contact with the food. However, the Mishna Berura cites views which are opposed to this approach, since it is worse that using a cloth in that it still leaves one's hands exposed, and thus there is still a fear that one will come to touch the food.


We end our analysis of netilat yadayim here. As noted along the way, there are many areas of these laws that have not been explored, some because they are too technical for this forum and others simply because of lack of space. We close with the statement of the Chochmat Shlomo, who notes that the first letters of the words of the bracha "al netilat yadayim" spell out the Hebrew word "ani," or poor person. He claims that this refers to the fact that one who washes his hands before eating converts his animal action of consumption into an act tantamount to bringing a sacrifice. Not only that, but our eating is considered to be tantamount to the sacrifices brought by the pour, which we are told were considered to be especially dear in the eyes of Hashem.

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