Clean Hands and the Temple
During the Covid-19 pandemic I have been washing my hands every more than normal. As an observant Jew even in normal times I am constantly washing my hands. 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 manner 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? Are we just obsessive compulsive about hygiene, or is there more to it than that?
The Talmud tells us that one purpose of washing hands before eating is to imitate the kohanim, the Priests. In the times of the Temple, the Priests used to eat tithes – terumah, ma’aser. The Israelites would give the Kohanim some of their produce as a tax in order to support those who are working for the community. The terumah which they eat must be eaten in a state of purity. So 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, generally, 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, we are in a sense, like a kohen. Everything we eat, ideally, we should be eating in a state of purity. Eating, although it is very instinctive and very intuitive, is nevertheless something which we should think about. We should appreciate the food, 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 as the vitamins and the proteins and carbs. The purification of the hands before we eat bread is a reminder that we are all priests in G-d’s temple, the world, and we are all eating terumah.
Why do we wash our hands when we wake up in the morning? One reason is based on the fact that the kohen, when he goes into the Temple before he actually starts the service, has his hands and feet washed. Here again we are using the same analogy as we used for eating. When we wake up in the morning and are entering the day we are in a sense, entering the Temple, the place of our service of G-d. 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 full of the service of G-d.
So keep washing, both for hygienic and holy reasons, and God willing, we will soon merit to wash our hands in Jerusalem, in order to eat the holy food of the Temple and the Land of Israel in purity.