of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



One must take care concerning the washing of the hands because anyone who treats the washing of the hands lightly is liable to excommunication, will end up in poverty and be uprooted from the world.


The observant will notice that we have skipped from the first paragraph of section 158 to the ninth of that section. This is because, as I mentioned when we first started studying the sections concerned with netilat yadayyim, that we shall only concern ourselves with matters that are more or less directly concerned with the ceremonies observed in the home on Friday nights.

The main injunction of our present paragraph is to take care concerning the washing of the hands. This does not mean to teach that the mitzvah itself is to be performed with care - though, of course, it should be, like all the other mitzvot. The intention of paragraph 9 is to indicate that the mitzvah of netilat yadayyim itself is not to be taken lightly. The sages understood that knowledgeable people would be aware that the requirement to wash the hands ritually before eating bread was not really of Torah origin. In fact, as you will recall, it was a precautionary measure upon a precautionary measure: it was required of priests before eating of their terumah lest their hands may be ritually impure and thus ritually contaminate their food and render it uneatable; and, in order to ensure that the priests would observe this precaution, it was required that everyone else, priest or non-priest, wash their hands ritually before eating bread - which was the usual form in which the priests ate their terumah. (For an explanation of terumah and other donatives see, for example, Pe'ah 044, explanation #3.)

If people were aware that the origin of netilat yadayyim was a super-precautionary measure introduced by the sages, and not directly required by the Torah, there was a danger that they would not attribute to the requirement the seriousness which the sages wanted to have associated with the ritual. The sages did have other considerations in mind, as we have seen in a previous shiur: certainly the concepts of kedushah (holiness) and hygiene were important to them as well. There are plenty of places in the Gemara - Shabbat 82a, for example - which indicate that for the sages the concept of an 'evil spirit' was often synonymous with dirt, uncleanness, grime. Thus, when they speak of a person's hands being possessed by an 'evil spirit' until it is washed away ritually clearly, for them, they were referring to what we would call germs and unhygienic dirt.

Thus the sages had good reason to enshroud their requirement of ritually wasahing the hands any time that bread was about to be eaten with hyperbolic warnings. In paragraph 9, the subject of our present shiur, Rabbi Karo quotes three dire fates that will indubitably overtake anyone who is lax regarding netilat yadayyim! The first is that such a person shall be excomunicated. This is a most unfortunate translation of the Hebrew term niddui because of associated conceptualizations borrowed from another religion. Niddui indicates that a person is to be boycotted socially and religiously - "sent to Coventry", as the British have it. The extent to which the sages would go with their boycotts - particularly among themselves - is well illustrated by an anecdote related in the Mishnah [Eduyot 5:6].

Akavyah ben-Mahalal'el insisted upon four things [with which all the rest of the sages vehemently disagreed]. They said to him, "Akavyah, recant of these four things that you say and we shall appoint you Israel's Av Bet Din [president of the Sanhedrin when sitting as a court of law]." He responded, "It would be better for me to be branded as a fool for the rest of my days than to be even for one hour a wicked person in God's eyes, lest people say that it was in order to attain power that he recanted." ... They boycotted him and he died as a social outcast, and the Bet Din stoned his coffin. Rabbi Yehudah [ben-Ilai] says: God forbid that it was Akavyah who was boycotted: there was no one in Israel as great as Akavyah ben-Mahalal'el in wisdom and fear of sin! It was Ĥanokh ben-El'azar that they boycotted, because he doubted [the halakhic need for] the ritual purification of the hands [before eating bread]. When he died the Bet Din sent and laid a stone on his coffin...

The second dire consequence of treating netilat yadayyim lightly derives from the Gemara [Shabbat 62b:

Rabbi Abbahu... says: Three things bring poverty upon a person: if he urinates naked at his bedside, if he treats netilat yadayyim with disdain, and if his wife has to curse him to his face.

And the third unfortunate consequence of treating netilat yadayyim lightly also derives from the Gemara [Sotah 4b]:

Rav Zarika says: Anyone who disdains netilat yadayyim is uprooted from the world.

Unfortunately, however, Rav Zarika does not explain how such a person is to be uprooted nor from which world the uprooting applies! (Rashi, in his commentary on this passage, laconically explains that people who do not obey the laws of the sages deserve to die!)


In a previous shiur I wrote that I did not want to get into the complicated issue of what constitutes bread from the halakhic point of view and how bread is to be distinguished from other comestibles whose essential ingredient is flour. However, Yehuda Falk nevertheless writes:

I know you said that you don't want to get into the issue of what does require netilat yadayim and ha-motzi and what doesn't. I was wondering, though, if you could say a few words about "mezonot bread", which is often served in contexts (such as airplanes) where netilat yadayim is difficult at best. My understanding is that the idea behind them is supposed to be that they are more cake-like (because they are made with juice instead of water) so they don't require ha-motzi, but that objections have been raised to this because they (a) look and taste like bread, and (b) are the basis of a meal (i.e. you have kviat seuda).

I respond

I am afraid that there is no simple way to resolve this dilemma. The issue is discussed in the Shulĥan Arukh [Oraĥ Ĥayyim 168:7]. There Rabbi Karo states that if the flour has been kneaded with "honey or oil or milk or spices" the resultant food will be 'cake' and not 'bread' - "provided that the taste of the fruit juices or the spice is still recognizable". However, Rabbi Isserles adds a negating rider: "But there are authorities who say that this is actually bread - unless it contains so much spice or honey that it [tastes like] pastries which we call [in Yiddish] 'Lekakh', in which the taste of the honey or the spices is paramount." And he adds: "This is our custom".

So, it seems to me that the parameters of the decision have been set: what does it taste like? But there are two problems here. Firstly, you won't know whether it tastes like bread or more like cake until you have already eaten it! And secondly, taste is a very personal matter and it is conceivable that different people will react differently to the taste of the same comestible. My own view would be - as Yehuda says, for the sake of convenience - that if the "bread" looks like a bun or a roll and the taste of the fruit juice in which the bread has been kneaded is even mildly apparent one can dispense with netilat yadayyim and recite the berakhah over cakes and pastries: boré minéy mezonot.