Washing hands in the ritual way is like a mini-mikveh.

The traditional way is to use a cup of water (there are special two-handled cups that can be purchased, or just use a regular cup)when getting up in the morning, after going to the bathroom, and before saying Hamotzi, the prayer for bread. Rings should be removed before washing. The way I learned, water is poured three times, alternately on each hand (up to the wrist), except for before Hamotzi, when it is poured three times on each hand in turn, while flipping the hand once over and then back. The blessing is said while drying the hands (some people literally lift up their hands). There are also customs to wash hands at other times, such as before prayer or Torah study, traditionally without a blessing.

I remember learning about this mitzvah for the first time as a teenager, while visiting a Chabad house for a youth group outing, and I thought it was so cool because it was spiritual, not physical, cleansing. Dr. Leonard Felder, in his book, Seven Prayers That Can Change Your Life, suggests doing this ritual whenever you need to focus and rededicate yourself to the task at hand. You can use warm water, cool water, and whatever type of vessel appeals to you.

Here is the prayer that is said:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu, al netilat yadayim. 

Hebrew text for hand washing prayer

Blessed are You, YHWH our God, sovereign presence of the world, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, and connected us to you with the mitzvah of washing (elevating) hands.

Some people lift hands while saying the blessing because netilat yadayim literally means “picking up hands.” It can also be beautiful to wash someone else’s hands, a friend or a loved one (as we often do at the Passover Seder). Some of my own rabbis and their spouses have the custom of washing one another’s hands on Friday night, Erev Shabbat (Sabbath Eve) and then replacing one another’s wedding rings as a symbolic rededication of their marriage.

Featured image: Netilat Yadayim Cup (from World of Judaica).

 

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