of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



After reciting kiddush over the goblet [of wine, the celebrant] washes his hands and recites the blessing over washing the hands. If he washed his hands before kiddush he has [thereby] indicated that he prefers the bread; he should not recite kiddush over wine but over the bread. Note: Some [authorities (Poskim] say that it is preferable to wash the hands before kiddush and then to recite kiddush over the wine; and this is the prevalent custom in these lands and one should not deviate [from this custom] except on the night of Passover [at the Seder service].


On Friday night, before we begin eating the celebratory meal, three activities must take place:

  1. we recite kiddush,
  2. we ceremonially wash our hands,
  3. 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!


In our last shiur I quoted the text of kiddush which is prefaced by a quotation from the Torah [Genesis 2:1-3]. Art Evans writes:

You quote Genesis 2:1-3, apparently from the JPS translation:

... On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.

Some Siddurim render it differently. For example, Birnbaum has:

By the seventh day, God had completed his work which he had made.

I have heard suggestions that some Siddur writers were unhappy recording that God was working on the seventh day. Indeed, I too find that surprising. I have also heard that Birnbaum (and others) follow the Septuagint. JPS presumably followed the Masoretic Text. Comments, please.

I respond:

This is an old one, and the argument goes back more than 2000 years; it is not a "prayer-book" problem but a "bible" problem. Clearly, from a simple "halakhic" understanding of the Masoretic text there is a problem: how can God complete His creative tasks on the seventh day while it yet says that He ceased from all His tasks on the seventh day? I am not able to check Birnbaum (presumably a prayer-book available in USA), but from what Art quotes it is clear that he is not following the Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek, executed some time during the last centuries before the current era). I say this quite categorically because the Greek text changes the word "seventh" to "sixth"! In an English translation, the Septuagint text of verse 2 reads as follows:

And God finished on the sixth day his works which he made, and he ceased on the seventh day from all his works which he made.

Birnbaum (and others) are following classical Jewish sources which deal with this problem. Here are solutions proposed by two of our greatest commentators:

  • Rashi (quoting the aggadic midrash Bereshit Rabba 10:9): Rabbi Shim'on says: "Mere flesh and blood, which does not know the exactitudes of time, must add time from the secular to the sacred [see Shabbat 013]. But God, who knows the exactitudes of time, can calculate [time] to a hair's breadth, so it seems as if He is finishing on the same day [whereas actually He completed His tasks a split second before the onset of the seventh day].

  • Ibn-Ezra: There are some who hold that the days were created as well and the task [of creation] was completed with the creation of the seventh day. (This is a weak explanation.) There are others who say that the [enclitic] letter bet [translated 'on' the seventh day] means 'before' [or 'by'], as in ... "by the first day you shall cease all leaven" [Exodus 12:15]. But why do we need all this bother? Completion of an act is not the act itself: it is as if it says He did not perform an action [on the seventh day].

All the other multifarious commentators follow the line of one of these great sages (or both). Thus Birnbaum is clearly influenced by Ibn-Ezra and understands the phrase to be "by the seventh day". I hope this clarifies the matter for you.