Religious Life

Handwashing – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – March 5, 2020

Shalom Chaverim,

Since the time we were little kids, we were taught to wash our hands before we eat, after using the bathroom, before preparing food, etc. This washing is about physical cleanliness.

As Jews, we are familiar with another kind of washing. We wash “al netilat yadiim” upon awakening in the morning, before eating bread, and after going to the bathroom. Although it might seem like these rituals grew out of an impulse for physical cleanliness, the Torah suggests otherwise.

We read in next week’s parasha, “let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet from the laver. When they enter the Tent, they shall wash. When they approach to serve, they shall wash.” (Exodus 30:19-20). It is from here that we learn the tradition of netilat yadiim.

In this scene, Aaron washes his hands as act of spiritual preparation and purification. Still, there is a relationship between the physical and the spiritual.

Rambam, a doctor and scholar, made that point explicitly in his code of law writing, “physical purity leads to spiritual holiness.” (MT Defilement of Foods 16:12). This is the message of a well-known midrash:

Once when Hillel was walking with his students, they said to him, “Rabbi, where are you going?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” “What commandment: they asked. He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They responded: “But is this really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just like one who baths and scrubs the statues of kings which are set up in the theaters is rewarded with sustenance and status, I, who was created in the Divine image and Form, all the more so!” (Leviticus Rabbah 43:3).

To care for our body is a mitzvah. It is not only healthy. It is holy. It is how we honor our Creator who fashioned us.

I have heard it said that Jews in the Middle Ages were less susceptible to the Black Plague because they washed hands and used the mikvah. In truth, handwashing is just one of several possible factors. But in our own day with the spread of the Coronavirus, we know that handwashing is essential.

Wash to stay healthy. And wash to dedicate yourself to the holy.

Rabbi Alexander Davis