Masechet Yadayim discusses the laws of washing hands. There are certain types of tumah that if touched, do not cause the person to be tameh, yet rabbinically cause their hands to be sheni le’tumah. If the person then touches trumah he would invalidate it. Similarly, since one is not always conscious of what their hands touch, the Chachamim ruled that all hands should be treated as being a sheni le’tumah until they are washed.100 The subsequent washing would rid one’s hands of tumah.101 For contact with kodshim pouring water over the hands is not enough and they must be immersed in a mikveh. The masechet initially deals with the laws that relate to washing hands including the details that relate to the act of washing, the required water and the utensil that must be used.
One of the requirements is that a utensil containing a revi’it of water must be used (Chulin 107a). The Mishnah Berurah (OC 160:67) explains that the water should be poured twice on each hand. If the entire revi’it was poured on both hands at once then that would be enough. If one only needed to pour the water on one hand, a revi’it of water in the kli would still be required as this is the minimum measure required for this purification (shiur tahara).
The first Mishnah teaches that one revi’it of water can be used to wash two people’s hands. If there is a requirement for a revi’it to be used for one person how can it now be shared by two people? The Gemara (Chulin 107a) explains that our case is different since “it is coming from shiyarei tahara – “remnants of tahara”. What does this mean?
Rashi explains that in our cases one person is washing after the other. Even though when the second person takes the utensil it contains less than a revi’it, it is nevertheless acceptable since the kli initially had a shiur tahara. To explain, since in the beginning there was a revi’it, the water got a din of tahara water for these purposes thereby enabling the second person to use the water (provided there was enough left to cover his hands).
The Rambam however requires a revi’it of water when washing hands. Nevertheless there are two washings, the initial wash that purifies the hands (mayim rishonim) and the second that removes the tameh water left on the hands (mayim shniyim). The Rambam understands that our Mishnah is referring to mayim shniyim and teaches that even though mayim rishonim require a revi’it, since mayim shniyim remove the “remnants of tahara”, they may suffice with enough to wash the mayim rishonim off.
The Ramban and Rashba understand that our Mishnah is referring to mayim rishonim and have two difficulties. Firstly if our case is where both parties wash their hands at the same time, then the term “remnants” does not fit. Secondly, if our case is where they washed on after the other then the second person will not be washing with a revi’it. They argue with Rashi, asserting that having a revi’it in the beginning should have no bearing on the fact that the second person is now washing without a revi’it.
Instead the Ramban and Rashba explain that our Mishnah is discussing a case where one washes after the other while the water is being poured as a constant stream. The case would be where the second person placed his hands directly under the first. The constant flow allows the water to be considered one mass thereby making as if the second person’s hands are also immersed in a complete revi’it (nitzuk chibur). This then would be similar to the Mishnah in Mikvaot (7:6) where two people immersed in a mikveh with a minimum volume one after the next. Provided that the first person kept one foot in the water, it was as if the second person immersed in a valid mikveh.
Two additional points must be added to this final explanation. The Beit Yosef explains that the second person’s hand must be close to the first person’s. The reason is that if there is a gap, then it might be consider like the second person used water that was used for washing, which is invalid. The Mishnah would then be teaching if they are closed together then it considered like their hands are one. The Magen Avraham adds that the case must be referring to where they came to wash together. If however one was washing and another quickly slipped his hands under, he would not be considered shiyarei tahara.
100 See the Rambam’s introduction to this masechet who differentiates between yadayim that touched tumah and stam yadayim. Also see the Mishnah Achrona’s comments on the Rambam.
101 Washing hands prior to consuming bread today stems from this masechet. The Chachamim instituted that everyone wash their hands even prior to eating chulin bread so that the kohanim would become accustomed to washing their hands prior to eating. See the Aruch HaShulchan (OC 160:23) who explains that the Rambam differentiates between washing for chulin and washing for trumah.
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