The Cohanim (priests) are commanded to wash their hands and feet before entering into the Temple or Tabernacle in order to perform the service.  Similarly every Jew is obligated to wash their hands upon waking in the morning because each one of us is like a priest about to enter the Temple (the world on this day) in order to serve G-d. In addition there is a concept of tum’ah, impurity associated with sleep.   While we sleep, our actions (symbolized by the hands) are controlled entirely by instinct, rather than free will. Therefore, they are considered impure.  In order to dedicate our actions to the control of our free will, and to the service of G-d, we wash our hands in the morning as soon as we wake up. The washing is done by pouring water from a cup over the hands, three times on each hand, alternating right and left.  We use a cup, rather than simply putting our hands under a tap, in order to make the washing a more deliberate and conscious action.   Washing three times and alternating hands are both based on Kabbalistic ideas associated with the impurity of the hands as a result of sleep.

The Sages  also sought to raise our consciousness about how we can access spirituality when eating by obligating us to wash our hands before we eat bread.  In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Priests always purified themselves completely before eating tithes and other sanctified foods. King Solomon’s court legislated that all Jews imitate this priestly behavior by washing their hands and reciting a blessing before eating bread. An additional motivation for this decree was hygiene, a revolutionary concept in general society until about 150 years ago.  Netilat yadayim, washing the hands, is performed by pouring water from a cup twice over the right hand then twice over the left. As in the washing in the morning, using a cup to pour the water makes the washing more of a conscious process and distinguishes it from washing purely for the sake of cleanliness.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that netilat yadayim also helps refine the way a person eats:

If you consecrate your hands for the meal… [and understand] that even your lower physical functions should be Divine service… will you then allow yourself to be taken captive by allurements of pleasure…?  [if you] realize that your eating should only be a strengthening for life, will you then be able to eat more than is necessary for this?… Be temperate… remain master over the animal instincts in you and ultimately ennoble them… By thus harmonizing the conflicting forces within you, you will achieve that unity and holiness which are reflections of the Unity and Holiness of your Father in heaven.

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