of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



Anything which is of no consequence to a person does not constitute a barrier. If something is of consequence to one person and of no consequence to another it constitutes a barrier for the former and does not for the latter. For example: one person may be a painter whose hands are dyed: the paint on his hands does not constitute a barrier even though they really are stained with paint; but if one were not a painter and one's hands were stained with paint on them - if the paint were dry it constitutes a barrier but if it were still wet it does not. Similarly women who paint their hands for beauty and so forth - that paint does not constitute a barrier. (Dried pus from a wound on one's hand does not constitute a barrier of one pays it no attention.)

One must remove a ring from one's hand for netilat yadayyim. (Even if it is loose fitting and even if one pays it no attention when washing the hands it must be removed since one does care about it when at one's work. A few people are wont to take a lenient view if it is loose fitting, but we should take the more stringent view since we do not really know what constitutes 'loose fitting'.)

The water must be poured over the whole hand up to the wrist. There are some who say that [it need be poured only] up to where the fingers join the palm. It is preferable to follow the former opinion.


As I pointed out towards the end of our last shiur, paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 of Section 161 should be treated as a unit. Indeed, I only separated them from paragraph 1 because I feared that the shiur would be too long. However, had I known that such a separation would have led people to consternation because of misunderstanding I would have kept the whole section as one unit. People seemed most concerned about nail polish, which is specifically mentioned in the paragraphs we cover in this present shiur. Another concern was about bandages.

From paragraph 2 of Section 161 (the first paragraph in the above translation) it becomes quite clear that what does and does not constitute a barrier for netilat yadayyim is to a considerable extent a matter of personal idiosyncrasy. In this matter the consideration what constitutes a barrier is very different regarding netilat yadayyim than it is regarding purification in a mikveh - despite what Rabbi Karo stated quite explicitly in paragraph 1. Indeed, Larry Lennhoff points this out in a message he sent to me:

I'm surprized to hear that anything that constitutes a problem for mikveh constitutes a problem for netilat yadayim. Most sources seem to think that all nail polish must be removed prior to immersion in a mikveh. If this were true for netilat yadayim as well, it would seem than most women not on the Atkins diet (which forbids carbohydrates such as bread) would not be able to wear nail polish. Yet this does not seem to be our actual practice.

From even a casual reading of paragraph 2 of Section 161 it becomes clear that for women nail polish does not constitute a barrier during netilat yadayyim. But if, for any reason - say a stage performance, a man has painted his nails and intends to remove the dye afterwards, the polish does constitute a barrier for netilat yadayyim because it is of consequence to him.

The later expositors of the Shulĥan Arukh explain that the matter of 'personal consequence' is not to be understood as granting the individual complete discretion in this matter. The example of the painter is expanded. Where the painter has cleaned his hands of paint but some colouring still clings to part of his (or her) hand but the painter does not mind people seeing his hands thus stained, the dye adhering to his hands does not constitute a barrier; but if his whole hand were covered in paint even if this is of no consequence to him it must be removed before effecting netilat yadayyim. However, if whatever it is that is on one's hands and constitutes a barrier will wash off under the water of netilat yadayyim then it does not constitute a barrier.

Another matter which was of concern to people who sent me messages was that of injuries. Cheryl Birkner Mack writes:

Regarding the discussion of netilat yadayim - while we are specifically considering the ritual done on Shabbat, I am a little confused about band-aids being considered a barrier. Logically this makes sense, but practically it does not. Netillat yadayim is done before any meal with bread. If I try to do this regularly during the week, I will never be able to keep a bandaid on my hand for more than a few hours. While they are relatively inexpensive to replace, this strikes me as an excessively wasteful practice. Even on Shabbat, if I wash at all three meals then I must replace a bandaid several times during the day.

While the bother of constantly having to change a dressing is what troubles Cheryl the fear of not being able to eat bread is what concerns David Baird:

I eagerly await the next shiur, and I hope you will cover the question of nail polish, and whether one who is unable to remove a bandage or cast can still partake in HaMotzi.

A bandaid does constitute a barrier, and even more so a bandage. But it is equally clear that such things cannot conveniently be removed for netilat yadayyim. This same consideration applies to rings that are too small to be removed from the finger. Paragraph 3 above requires all rings to be removed before netilat yadayyim, but some rings just cannot be removed (without spoiling either them or the finger). The solution is hinted at in paragraph 4 above.

When performing netilat yadayyim one should, ideally, pour plenty of water over the hand completely, up to the wrist. This statement of Rabbi Karo is based on something that we learned when studying Tractate Yadayyim, Chapter 2, Mishnah 1:

Before we pour water over our hands for 'netilat yadayyim' we must remove from our hands anything that would otherwise prevent the water from touching the skin. The most obvious example is a ring: rings must be removed before 'netilat yadayyim'.

This statement of mine raised questions, as can be expected. In order to understand my response to those questions we must consider the third mishnah of chapter 2 of Tractate Yadayyim.

The hands become [ritually] impure and become purified up to the joint.

The first clause of our mishnah is germane to some aspects of the discussion which will be presented below. It discusses how much of the hand must be washed with water during netilat yadayyim for it to render the hands ritually pure. Our mishnah says that the water must reach 'the joint'. This is enigmatic: which joint? Later authorities have given three different views. One view is that the phrase 'the joint' refers to the joint in the middle of the fingers. Another view is that the phrase refers to the place where the fingers join the main part of the hand. A third view is that it refers to where the hand is joined to the arm. I think one can say that the poskim [decisors] accept all these views, but in descending order. Where there is no problem ideally the water should cover the whole hand up to the wrist. If there are problems, less of the hand may be washed - the fingers up to the palm or even only the tips of the fingers up to the first joint.

The solution to our problems is reasonably clear. As Rabbi Karo states, ideally the water for netilat yadayyim should be poured up to the wrist. However, if there is a barrier on the hand which cannot conveniently be removed netilat yadayyim should be done as usual: if the barrier is on the main part for the hand the hand-washing will at least be effective up to where the fingers join the palm, and according to some authorities that is the intention of the mishnah; if the barrier is on a finger above the middle joint the hand-washing will at least be effective up to the jopint in the middle of the fingers, and according to some authorities that is the intention of the mishnah.

The problem will remain, however, if the barrier is on a finger between the middle joint and the tip of the finger. Here I have two suggestions:

  1. Where the barrier cannot conveniently be removed and you are most concerned not to eat bread with unwashed hands try using surgical gloves!
  2. However, I also have a suggestion that is more consonant with the halakhic rationale of Conservative Judaism: we have seen that netilat yadayyim is a rabbinic requirement that was only required of non-priests eating bread that was not terumah produce as a precaution against a precaution (see Shabbat 035). If you have a barrier on your finger which cannot be removed do netilat yadayyim as usual: even if it is not effective according to the strict letter of halakhic ruling it will be effective for the two purposes of inducing a sense of kedushah [holiness] and assuring hygiene.