of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



There are [halakhic authorities] who say that one need not take care not to pause between washing the hands and [the benediction] ha-Motzi. But there are [other halakhic authorities] who say that one should be careful [not to pause]; and it is best to be careful [not to pause]. And if one waits for the [span of time that it takes] to walk 22 cubits this constitutes a pause.


In the Gemara of Eretz-Israel [Berakhot 6a] there is a rather novel commendation. Among a series of actions each pair of which should follow each other without a break we find:

Rabbi Ze'ira quotes Rabbi Abba bar-Yirmiyah as saying that there are three things which must immediately follow each other... the berakhah should immediately follow the washing [as suggested by Psalm 134:2] "Raise your hands in sanctity and [then] bless God"... Rabbi Yosé bar-Bun says...: "during that meal, Satan does not accuse anyone who makes the berakhah follow immediately after the washing."

The biblical verse quoted is understood as implying that first one should raise one's hands in order to wash them in order to bless God immediately afterwards. That the blessing referred to is the blessing over bread (and not the blessing over washing the hands) may be inferred from a parallel reference in the Babylonian Gemara [Berakhot 52b] where the word 'blessing' is replaced by 'meal':

... Immediately after the washing [comes] the meal.

Obviously, from such a source it is not clear whether there is here a pious recommendation or a rabbinic requirement. This uncertainty is reflected in the phrasing of Rabbi Ya'akov ben-Asher [1270-1343] in his famous halakhic compendium, the Tur [Oraĥ Ĥayyim 166]:

One should dry the hands well and immediately recite the ha-motzi blessing. However, Rabbi Yo'el wrote that one need not be concerned about a pause between washing and ha-motzi because the table set before him and his intention to eat will not constitute a loss of concentration... Rabbi Alfassi and Rambam understand it likewise. But my father, Rabbi Asher ben-Yeĥi'el [1250-1328] would observe this, being careful not to pause or to speak [between the washing and the blessing], and when he was dining with others he would be the last to wash his hands so as not to pause or speak...

It is now clear why Rabbi Karo, in Section 166, shows uncertainty as to whether it is necessary to avoid a pause between the washing of the hands and the blessing over the bread. The fact that the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben-Yeĥi'el) interpretated the passage in the Talmud of Eretz-Israel as deprecating a pause or speech between the two actions coupled with the fact that his son, in the Tur, sets this down as halakhah, is what brought Rabbi Karo to add: 'it is best to be careful [not to pause]'.

Clearly, the purpose of this injunction is to ensure that there is a veritable connection between the washing of the hands and the breaking of bread at the start of the meal. A long pause during which one might even be occupied with some other act, however trivial, might well be enough to create a 'loss of concentration'. It is to ensure that a mental connection is made between the sanctification of the hands and the blessing over bread that pausing and speaking between the two are deprecated.

Even such a pietist as Rabbi Israel Me'ir Kagan, in his monumental commentary Mishnah Berurah admits that

If one just sits quietly [at the table], not doing anything, even if there is a long pause - and even if he does lose a little concentration - this should not be of any concern because the table is set before him and it his intention to eat immediately; therefore this could not be considered 'loss of concentration'.

However, despite all this, his ultimate decision is that 'it is best to be careful'. He writes:

It is best to avoid [pause and speech] even when one is alone ... and not to say between them [i.e. the washing and the blessing] even something inconsequential - even words of Torah are to be considered as a pause...

However, there is no need to take this matter to extremes. I have been present at meals when people have used the most ridiculous gesticulations just to indicate that there is no salt on the table, for example. Apart from the fact that such bodily contortions are a most effective 'loss of concentration' and therefore these people are 'throwing out the baby with the bath-water', the poskim [halakhic decisors] are quite clear on this. The Mishnah Berurah itself says:

This does not include matters which are intimately connected with the meal itself for which it is permitted to introduce a break according to all halakhic opinions.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles, at the end of this section, seeks to define what constitutes a pause. Basing himself on a statement of the Tosefists in the Talmud, he opines that if one pauses longer than the time it takes to walk 22 cubits one has infringed this injunction. This is a very short time indeed. A cubit is approximately 50 centimetres. We have established on several occasions that a Roman mile consisted of 2000 cubits and could be marched in 18 minutes. This would suggest that 'the time it takes to walk 22 cubits' is considerably less than a minute!

Another reason not to take the provisions of this Section too far can be found in the fact that all halakhic authorities agree that avoiding a pause is to be recommended 'le-khatĥilah', as an optimal behaviour, but even if one did in fact create a long pause between the washing and the blessing, and even if one spoke a whole conversation, 'be-di-avad', in a less than optimal situation one does not have to wash one's hands all over again before reciting the benediction.


Yehuda Wiesen writes:

Thank you for your clear description of current practices for hand washing for bread. What hand washing techniques are called for or allowable for various non-bread purposes?

I respond:

There are many occasions when a Jew is required to wash his or her hands - far too many to include their details here. The most important of them, however, is the requirement that we ritually wash our hands upon awakening from sleep. This washing of the hands is very much mixed up with kabbalistic influences and medieval superstitions. One can ignore the influences and superstitions without losing any of the effectiveness that a ritual washing of the hands lends to dedicating oneself anew to living yet another day. The main difference between this washing of the hands after sleep and the washing of the hands before eating bread is that for this washing we are required to pour water generously over each of our hands three times.

Other occasions when we are required to wash our hands include the washing and the blessing to be performed after evacuating the bowels or bladder; after touching one's shoes; before prayer; before writing a Sefer Torah, Tefillin or a Mezuzah; before pronouncing the Aaronic blessing and before leaving a cemetery. I am sure there are others which I have forgotten to include!

In our last shiur I wrote: Likewise, someone who dips their hands [in water] does not have to raise them.

Cheryl Birkner Mack writes:

Is dipping hands an allowable option today?

I respond:

If it is not possible to pour water over the hands it is permissable to dip them into water. An example might be someone who is an a nature ramble: they can dip their hands into a handy stream in order to enjoy their sandwiches.