On Friday night, before we begin eating the celebratory meal, three activities must take place:
- we recite kiddush,
- we ceremonially wash our hands,
- we recite the blessing over ĥallah.
The subject of paragraph 12 of section 271 is the elucidation of what should be the preferred order in which those three activities should be carried out.
There are two basic views in this matter: that of Rabbi Yosef Karo is presented first and that of Rabbi Moshe Isserles is presented in his note on what Rabbi Karo rules. All things being equal, it is clear that Rabbi Karo prefers the order with which most of us are familiar: first recite kiddush, this should be followed by the ceremony of washing the hands, and lastly we should recite the benediction over the two ĥallot. However, according to Rabbi Karo, it is halakhically permissible to first wash the hands, then recite kiddush, and then recite the blessing over the bread. But, he says, we always wash our hands before we eat bread; therefore, if someone washes his hands before reciting kiddush he is disclosing a conscious (or subconscious) preference for the bread over the wine. Since one's heart should be filled with joy when reciting kiddush clearly for this person it would be preferable for him or her to recite kiddush over the bread and not over a goblet of wine.
The reason why we usually wash our hands after reciting kiddush is so that the recitation of kiddush not be an interruption between the washing of the hands and the breaking of the bread. (So important is it in the Jewish tradition that there be no interruption between the washing of the hands and the benediction over the bread that it is a universal custom that after reciting the blessing over washing the hands we try to refrain from speaking until we have recited the benediction over the bread.) It follows logically that if kiddush would not come as an interruption between the other two activities there is no reason why one should not first wash one's hands. For example, if all those present at the Sabbath table fulfill their duty not by reciting kiddush themselves but by listening to the kiddush recited by the celebrant, for them the kiddush is no interruption, so they may first wash their hands, then listen to kiddush (and respond 'Amen') and then proceed to the benediction over the ĥallot. This is particularly useful when a very large number of people are celebrating together: it is much more convenient to have them all first wash their hands rather than to create a prolonged hiatus between kiddush and ha-motzi (the benediction over the bread) while everyone washes.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles presents a different custom. According to him it is always preferable to wash the hands before reciting kiddush! Being a part of the ceremony, he holds that the recitation of kiddush does not constitute an interruption. Therefore, he says, even someone who does not have a greater predilection for bread over wine should first wash the hands, then recite kiddush and lastly recite ha-motzi - and he quotes five prominent medieval sources to back up his ruling. He goes further: he says that in Ashkenazi circles ('these lands' of Eastern Europe) it is the universal custom to wash the hands before kiddush and will not accept any deviation from this ruling. (Indeed, in a later section he even goes so far as to say that kiddush should always be recited over wine, and not bread, even when the celebrant does not like wine!)
So here we have yet another instance where despite an unequivocal ruling by Isserles and contrary to usual practice, the vast majority of Ashkenazi Jews today follow the ruling of Rabbi Karo! (In our last shiur we pointed out another instance.) It is very strange and I have not seen any serious comment on such deviations. I will make one guess - and that very, very hesitantly: Isserles is writing some 200 years before the mighty impact of Ĥassidism on East European Ashkenazi Jewry towards the end of the 18th century. Ĥassidim tended to adopt the ritual customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) which were Sefaradi. If I am correct then we have here yet another example of how Kabbalistic innovations permeated Jewish religious practice and ousted former practice even among those who are not kabbalistically inclined.
Rabbi Isserles admits that his system will not work at the Seder service on Passover. At the seder service we first recite kiddush, then we wash our hands towards the beginning of the ceremonies (before eating karpas) and then there is a very long 'interruption' while we recite the haggadah, before we reach ha-motzi and the matzah. Presumably he thinks that this is the exception which proves the rule!