Misconception: Instead of washing netilat yadayim before eating bread, one could hold a sandwich with a napkin.
Fact: There is a requirement to wash before eating bread and only under certain limited circumstances may one cover one’s hands in lieu of washing.
Background: The obligation to wash one’s hands from a vessel before eating bread1 is an early and important rabbinic enactment that was instituted for a variety of reasons (MB 158:1).
One reason is “srach terumah”—to accustom ourselves to acting in the manner of eating terumah. In clarifying the mishnah (Chagigah 2:5), the Gemara (Chagigah 18b) explains that for chullin (non-holy food) one is required to wash one’s hands prior to eating bread only, and this applies only if one eats it himself; for terumah (tithes, which have holiness and may be eaten only by Kohanim and their families in a state of ritual purity in the time of the Temple) even prior to touching the food one would have to wash his hands. Because of an earlier decree (Shabbat 14b) regulating how tumah (impurity) is transmitted, Kohanim, their wives and their children must wash their hands before touching or eating terumah. Although today Kohanim do not eat terumah, in anticipation that such will change at a moment’s notice, Chazal mandated that everyone wash their hands before eating bread. This applies despite the fact that there is no Mikdash presently, and even to those living outside of the Land of Israel, in order that everyone will be accustomed to this ritual when the Beit Hamikdash is rebuilt (see Aruch Hashulchan, OC 158:1-3).
Another reason for the requirement to wash one’s hands before eating bread is cleanliness and holiness. The Gemara (Chullin 106a) refers to washing one’s hands as a “mitzvah,” which Tosafot (s.v. mitzvah) explains the rabbis instituted for the purpose of cleanliness. The Gemara (Berachot 53b) understood the verse (Vayikra 11:44)2 “For I am Hashem, your God, and you shall sanctify yourself” to be teaching that one must wash one’s hands before eating and reciting the blessing. This washing is an act of cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity and purity leads to separation (perishah) and holiness (kedushah). Thus, some hold that if in the middle of the meal one’s hands become soiled—for example after one uses the bathroom—he should wash his hands again, in some cases with a berachah (Shulchan Aruch, OC 164:2; MB 164:13; Teshuvot V’hanhagot 1:168).
An additional reason for washing is because a person’s table affords atonement (by using it for hospitality) just as the altar did (Chagigah 27a). Therefore, just as the Kohanim washed before beginning their service on the altar, one should wash before approaching his table.
The prescribed method of washing before eating bread is to pour at least one revi’it (about four ounces) of water, all at once, from a vessel onto the unobstructed (Shulchan Aruch, OC 161:1, MB ibid.) right hand, covering the entire hand until the wrist (or at least until the knuckles—Shulchan Aruch, OC 161:4). If there is sufficient water, one should pour a second time on the right hand (MB 162:21), then repeat on the left hand.3 He should (preferably) rub his hands together (shifshuf; Rema, OC 162:2; MB 162:24), recite the berachah “al netilat yadayim” (Shulchan Aruch and Rema, OC 158:11; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 158:16) and dry his hands (Sotah 4b; MB 158:42). One should not speak or allow for too long a delay between washing and making the blessing of Hamotzi (Shulchan Aruch, OC 166:1); if, however, one did speak but there was no “interruption of thought,” he need not wash again (MB 166:6).
The requirement is to wash both hands, even if one plans on eating with only one. The Mishnah Berurah (158:4) explains that this is because one might accidentally touch the bread with the unwashed hand.4 The Chazon Ish (OC 23:13, s.v. katav haMishnah Berurah) agrees with the halachah, but says the reason for this is more fundamental. The halachah requires (Shulchan Aruch, OC 163:2) one who eats to wash both hands even if he does not touch the food. Thus, one feeding a sick person need not wash his hands,5 but the individual who is eating is obligated to wash whether he uses one hand, two hands or no hands at all if he is being fed.
In situations where water is not readily available,6 what is one to do? The Shulchan Aruch (OC 158:8), based on a discussion in Eruvin (17a) about those in a military camp, states that one who is in a desert or a dangerous place and has no water is exempt from washing his hands. The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 158:14) understands this to mean that such a person is entirely exempt from this obligation. The Mishnah Berurah (158:36) disagrees and says that such a person falls under the category of one who can obtain water only with effort and he therefore must cover his hands before eating.
The Gemara (Chullin 107b) discusses the permissibility of wrapping one’s hands (see Rashi) and then eating bread without washing. The Rambam (Hilchot Sha’ar Avot Hatumah 8:9; Hilchot Berachot 6:18) understands the gemara’s discussion to relate to those who took it upon themselves to maintain an elevated level of ritual purity even when eating non-holy food. [Different levels of purity are required for eating food with different levels of holiness. Examples of holy food include korbanot, terumah, ma’aser sheni, et cetera. Even in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, there were those individuals who, in order to accustom themselves to remain at a high level of ritual purity, took it upon themselves to eat even non-holy food while maintaining a high level of ritual purity.]
However, for individuals who do not maintain this stringency, Rambam suggests that covering one’s hands is a legitimate alternative to washing one’s hands.7 Most other authorities disagree with the Rambam and understand that covering one’s hands is not a valid option prior to eating bread unless there are extenuating circumstances. The Tur (OC 163) states unequivocally: “It is forbidden to eat without washing, even if one wants to wrap his hands in a cloth or eat with a spoon and not touch the bread.”8 More recently Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky wrote (Shoneh Halachot 163:1): “One who has access to water is forbidden to eat bread using a napkin.”
Only in a situation where water is not readily available, such as a traveler who will not find water for a distance of 4 mil (a mil is approximately between 0.6 and 0.9 miles) ahead (Chullin 122b) or 1 mil back,9 and is very hungry, may avail himself of the leniency to cover his hands (Shulchan Aruch, OC 163:1). Both hands must be wrapped until the point where one would wash (Sha’ar haTziyun 163:7) or gloves may be put on and bread may then be eaten. The Rema (OC 163:1) seems to offer a leniency by permitting the use of a spoon, a novel suggestion (Biur Halachah 163, s.v. yadav) that is rejected by many Acharonim including the Gra (Sha’ar haTziyun 163:4). The Mishnah Berurah (163:7) says it is preferable not to use silverware, but rather to wrap one’s hands with a napkin. Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 8:7:6; cf. Avnei Yishpeh 2:11) compares wrapping the bread (instead of one’s hands) to using silverware and thus, when faced with no other option, he allows one to wrap the bread, relying on the Rema who permits the use of a spoon in lieu of washing. The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 163:2) equates one who is traveling with a group and fears to stay alone, or one with a wound on his hand that makes it difficult to properly wash, to a traveler who does not have water readily available; in such cases, he may thus rely on the Rambam and wrap
How to apply the rule regarding a traveler to one who is not traveling yet has difficulty obtaining water is a matter of debate. The Magen Avraham (163:1), Aruch Hashulchan (OC 163:2) and Shulchan Aruch Harav (163:1) say that such an individual must nonetheless also travel four mil to find water. On the other hand, the Mishnah Berurah (163:3) posits that all of the major Acharonim (see e.g., Chayei Adam 40:11) maintain that such an individual need only travel one mil.
The Peri Megadim (Eishel Avraham 163:1; cf. Chayei Adam 37:1) suggests that wrapping one’s hands is preferable to washing with water that is deemed unfit for netilat yadayim. Wrapping is also preferred when the washing can only take place in a non-ideal manner (and no berachah is recited), such as with a questionable utensil (MB 159:21, quoting Chayei Adam 37:1).
A modern situation that could raise these halachot is flying. An airplane bathroom may be akin to the “beit hakisei” of the Talmud and thus engender halachic questions regarding washing.10 An airplane bathroom may be regarded as a situation where water is lacking, for which the solution may be wrapping one’s hands. Thus, on an airplane, where washing in the bathroom is less than ideal, it may be appropriate to wrap one’s hands before eating bread, or to do so in conjunction with washing in a less-than-ideal manner. (Consult your posek before flying.)
Another, less preferred solution (see Tzitz Eliezer 8:7:7) can be used if one knows that he will be in a situation without water. One can have in mind when he washes his hands in the morning that he will be careful that his hands not touch any covered parts of the body during the day, and then the morning washing could serve to cover the washing before eating bread (Shulchan Aruch, OC 164:1). However, because it is difficult to guarantee that one’s hands will remain “pure,” the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 164:3) observes that people do not rely on this leniency. In a questionable situation this leniency can be relied upon along with covering one’s hands.
Some are more lenient with regard to handwashing. The Magen Avraham (163:1) says that one may wrap his hands even if one is only uncertain if water will be available. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch says (Teshuvot V’hanhagot 1:167) that one need not go “knocking on doors” to find water, and Rabbi Chaim Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler (Avnei Yishpeh 2:11) says one need not spend money to find water, but may rely instead on the wrapping solution; however, many other posekim frown upon using this leniency unless it is absolutely necessary. Commenting on the statement of the Shulchan Aruch that if there is no water within four mil one may wrap his hands with a napkin, the Gra (OC 163:1 s.v. yi’toal) says simply: “but otherwise it is prohibited to [eat without washing] using a napkin.” The Mishnah Berurah (163:3) says that many Acharonim permit wrapping one’s hands even if an individual is merely unsure if he will find water, but notes (Biur Halachah 163, s.v. im) that the Chayei Adam (40:11) approves of this only if one is truly famished; further, the Ritva says that even if one is certain that he will not find water, one should not be lenient unless he is weak from traveling. The Biur Halachah repeats this in the next section (s.v. b’rachok) where he again says it applies only if one is very hungry. The Ateret Zekeinim (on Shulchan Aruch, OC 163, s.v. im) citing the Maharshal, says that even in cases where it is permitted, one who is stringent should be blessed.
These rules apply equally to men and women. It seems that in certain times and places, women specifically were lax regarding this obligation and thus the Ben Ish Chai (year 1, Shmini:2) says to adjure the men to instruct the women and children in his household regarding this obligation. Similarly, the Kaf Hachaim (158:74 end) says to inform women about the punishment for those who don’t wash so that they will be exceedingly careful not to eat bread without washing.
The rabbis treat the washing of the hands before eating bread with considerable seriousness and speak harshly of one who is not scrupulous in observing this halachah. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 158:9; cf. Rambam, Berachot 6:19) writes that one who denigrates this obligation is deserving of excommunication (Mishnah, Eduyot 5:6), will come to poverty (Shabbat 62b) and is uprooted from the world11 (Sotah 4b). The Gemara enjoins one to be generous in the amount of water used for washing and mentions that Rav Chisda washed with abundant water and was blessed with abundant good from Heaven (Shabbat 62b; Shulchan Aruch, OC 158:10).
The Gemara also relates that Rabbi Akiva regarded this halachah so seriously that when he was imprisoned by the Romans for teaching Torah and had a limited water supply, he was willing to forgo drinking in order to wash his hands (Eruvin 21b; see Rambam, Hilchot Berachot 6:19; Yabia Omer 6:YD:13:13). He stated, possibly meant hyperbolically, that he will use the limited water to wash because it was preferable that he die of thirst rather than violate the rabbinic ordinance of eating without washing. Tiferet Shmuel (Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Koidonover [Maharshak] seventeenth century; to Chullin 8:1 [to Rosh]) quotes the above and says that wise folk never availed themselves of leniencies; only the fools did.
Part of the explanation for Chazal’s focus on handwashing may be based on the significance of the human hand; human hands are unique. We are among the few species with an opposable thumb. And humans are the only animal in which the small and ring fingers can reach across the palm to meet the thumb, what is known as “ulnar opposition.” These features enable us to use our hands for untold tasks, great and small, and have contributed to man’s ability to fulfill God’s mandate of conquering the world. It also means that the human hands are always active. Chazal attached great significance to our active hands and created a series of complex laws regarding their ritual purity, so complex as to necessitate an entire tractate called Yadayim. Every time a Jew eats bread and washes his hands, he is reminded of the complex tasks that went into making the uniquely human product of bread and of God’s wondrous creation of the human hand.
1. This washing is distinct from the other required washings, such as upon arising, after touching shoes, before davening, before duchening, after getting a haircut or leaving the cemetery. Each has different reasons that in turn lead to different halachot. This article is only about washing before eating bread.
2. Torah Temimah, note 199 to Vayikra 11:44 explains that the derivation is from this verse in conjunction with Vayikra 20:7.
3. I.e., twice on the right and then twice on the left, not alternating as is done with other washings such as negel vasser (MB 4:10).
4. Shulchan Aruch Harav 163:1 seems to agree with the Mishnah Berurah’s reasoning.
5. See Nishmat Avraham, vol. 1, p. 81-83 about permission to feed a sick person who will not wash or say berachot.
6. Lack of a utensil would seem to trigger the same rules as lack of water (Tzitz Eliezer 8:7:8).
7. That is how most commentators understand the Rambam.
8. The Bach understood this to apply even if the individual has no water available.
9. Usually understood to be the travel time and effort involved, as opposed to the distance (Biur Halachah 163, s.v. b’rachok; Shu”t Az Nidbaru 6:66). Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Shemini:18) does not even mention the mil, only the time (one-and-a-quarter hours and a quarter hour). The time to walk a mil is usually estimated as eighteen minutes, and seventy-two minutes for four mil. The implication is that if the water is in the direction in which he is traveling, and thus does not take him out of his way, he may not eat until he travels up to seventy-two minutes to reach water; if water is not to be found in the direction in which he is traveling, he should go out of his way for up to eighteen minutes to find water. While his position is not clear, Shu”t Sho’el U’meishiv, Kamma 3:103 possibly maintains that it refers to distance, not time.
10. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo, Tefillah 20:24) permits washing in an airplane bathroom. See Ari Z. Zivotofsky, “Your Camp Shall be Holy: Halachah and Modern Plumbing,” Journal of Halachah and Contemporary Society 29 (spring 1995): 89-128.
11. Rashi (Sotah 4b) says it refers to a habitual offender, while Be’er Haitev (OC 158:16) says it refers to even a one-time violator.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of brain science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.