Washing Hands

Yadayim (1:2) | Yisrael Bankier | 6 years ago

This week we began the new masechet of Yadayim. Hands alone can become tameh, albeit a low level of tumahsheni le’tumah. One example is if one touched tameh food. Furthermore, the Chachamim decreed that stam yadayim, hands in general, are a sheni le’tumah due to the fact that people handle things during the day and are not always conscious of what they touch.1

In order to purify one’s hands they need to wash them, much like we do nowadays prior to eating bread. The Mishnah first teaches that any utensil can be used for this purpose, even if it is made from a substance that would mean they would not be susceptible to tumah. In other words, despite the fact that they may not be considered a kli (utensil) for tumah, they are for washing hands. If however the utensil was broken, then it may not be used for washing hands.

The Mishnah continues by explaining that one may not cup his hands to collect water and wash another’s hands. The reason provided is that for washing hands a kli is required. One might have thought, that even if there was no requirement that a kli be used, another hands may not be used to cup the water, since the other’s hands would cause the water itself to became tameh. The Mishnah Achrona however explains that since the sole reason provided is that a kli is required means that this is not a concern. Why?

The Mishnah Achrona cites the Beit Yosef (O.C. 160:12) who cites the Terumat HaDeshen who explains that they only made the gezeira that tameh hands can cause water to become invalid when they are washed for eating. If however it is not in the context of eating, then the water would not become tameh or invalid for use. This further supports why the Mishnah did not also include the case of one cupping water for himself. In that case it would be invalid due the water itself being tameh and not due to the fact that a kli is required, which is the focus of our Mishnah.

The difficulty however with this approach is the Mishnah in Taharot (2:6) amongst other sources. We learnt that anything that invalidates terumah, i.e. a sheni le’tumah, that comes into contact with liquid, causes it to become a rishon le’tumah. While the case of tuval yom is raised as an exception, the Mishnah however does not differentiate with respect to hands whether it is at the time of eating or not.

The Mishnah Achrona however provides another distinction which solves this problem. He explains that there is a difference whether we are dealing with stam yadayim or hands that touch something tameh. Hands that touched something tameh then touch liquid causes it to become a rishon le’tumah. This is true even of chulin (regular) liquids. Stam yadayim however only make trumah liquid tameh.2

The Mishnah Achrona however brings another reason to differentiate. He explains that there is another reason why stam yadayim are tameh. We had explained that this is because people may unknowingly handle tameh items. Rashi (Shabbat 14a) however is not satisfied with that answer. He asks, why should the hands alone be tameh? We should also be concerned that he touched an av ha’tumeh and require full immersion. Instead, he explains that since one touches their body and other unclean places, it is disgusting (mi’us) to the handle terumah with such hands when eating. That gezeira therefore applies only when eating.

Returning to our questions, he explains that tameh liquid is only invalid for washing hands if the person requires it for terumah. The gezeira expanded to chulin as a result of srach tumah, to engender the practice of washing hands covering the situation of those eating terumah as well. Consider that nowadays most people are tameh met. Also, a nidah and yoledet always washed hands even though they were tameh. In such cases since there is no other option, tameh liquid could be used for washing. Nevertheless, the other reason stated by Rashi still stands. In other words, even though the gezeira against washing hands with tameh liquids at any time is lifted, the gezeira of mi’us when eating is still in force, requiring them to nevertheless be washed with valid liquid when in the context of eating.


1 Last cycle (6:70) we looked at one difference between the reasons why the hands become sheni le’tumah.

2 He cites the Rambam’s introduction to this Masechet as support.

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