Chapped Skin and Washing
As the weather gets colder one of the things that I have been thinking of is chapped skin. Yes, my hands get very rough and chapped. I use a hand cream on them, but, when I put on my tie I can actually feel the fabric catching on my skin! I cannot help thinking that one of the reasons my hands are chapped is because as a religious Jew I am constantly washing them. When we wake up in the morning, we wash our hands by taking a cup and pouring water over each hand three times. Before we eat bread we wash our hands in a similar way and say a blessing. Before we pray we wash our hands. Many people also wash their hands when they have finished eating, before they say the Grace After Meals. The kohanim, Priests, before they give the blessing from the platform in front of the ark, have their hands washed by the Levites. So what is the deal with all the hand washing?
Let me start with washing hands before we eat bread. What is the idea behind it? The Talmud tells us that one purpose is to imitate the kohanim, the Priests. In the times of the Temple, the Priests used to eat what we call tithes – terumah, ma’aser. The Israelites would give them terumah, which is a tithing of the crop, to the Priests as a tax and the purpose of it clearly is that we are supporting these people who are working for the community. They are working in the Temple, they are teachers, leaders and so on.
But terumah, that which they eat, which is usually grains etc. has to be eaten in a state of purity. So the Priests – the kohanim, have to be pure when they eat the terumah. The terumah itself has to be pure, ritually pure, and the kohanim, the Priests themselves have to be ritually pure.. Now of course purity in Jewish tradition requires immersion in a mikvah, a ritual bath.
But since we eat with the hands there is a little bit of a reminder to everyone that in the same way as a kohen has to be pure when he eats terumah, so the truth of the matter is we all are, in a sense, like a kohen. Everything we eat, ideally, we should be eating in a state of purity. What do we mean by that? Because eating, although it is very instinctive and very intuitive, is nevertheless something which is something we should think about. We should think about, appreciate the food. We say a blessing, appreciate that G-d gave it to us, appreciate life, appreciate that there is a spiritual component to the food, a spark of the word of G-d that sustains us, as much if not more than the vitamins and the proteins and the carbs and everything else and that eating should not be done in a state in which we are not in control of ourselves but it should be done in a state in which we are in control of ourselves. So in that sense the purification of the hands beforehand, before we eat bread is a reminder that we are in a sense also like kohanim, we are like the kohen who is eating terumah.
And Tosefot, one of the great commentaries explains that when the Talmud says one of the reasons for washing hands is a commandment to listen to the Sages, what it actually means is hygiene. The Talmud obligates to be clean when we eat, a very important idea.
Why do we wash our hands when we wake up in the morning? One reason is that just as a kohen, when he goes into the Temple before he actually starts his service of G-d, has his hands and feet washed. There was a special basin with faucets and the the Levites would wash the hands of the kohanim before they went into the Temple. Now here again, we are using the same analogy. When we wake up in the morning and are entering the day, we are, in a sense, entering the Temple, because the Temple is really just a miniature of the world. The world is a macro-Temple and the Temple is a mini-world. Everything we do in this world can be a mitzvah, a Divine precept. If we sleep for the right reasons and the right intent, eat, work, install software or plumbing, we are doing an act of Divine service, avodat Hashem. If we work with the intent of supporting our families, with the intent to use our money to provide health, comfort, and love for as many people as possible then every single second in which we work is really a mitzvah. So, as a way to remind ourselves that just as a kohen enters the Temple for the beginning of his day of service of G-d, when we wake up in the morning we too are entering a Temple
Why do we wash our hands before we pray? One of the requirements of prayer that the Talmud says is nekiyut, is being clean and pure beforehand. But there is a beautiful comment made by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, who was the chief Rabbi of what at the time was called Palestine. And he says that before we ask G-d for everything and put out hands to Him, begging for life and health and dignity and wealth and so on, we have to make sure that those hands are morally clean. Washing the hands before stretching them out in supplication is a way of reminding ourselves to consider if we responding to someone else’s begging hand. It is a reminder to contemplate what we did with our hands to others or for others. We ask G-d for forgiveness, when someone asked us for forgiveness, did we forgive them? In other words, are our hands clean? Rav Kook says, cleaning the hands physically with water is a way of reminding ourselves to clean our hands morally before approaching G-d. Is all the above worth having chapped hands? I think so, and there is always hand cream (buy an Israeli brand at your local mall!)