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One quarter of water should be provided for the hands per person, or even for two. One half-log [provides] for three or four. More than one log [provides] for for five, for ten and for one hundred. Rabbi Yosé says: provided that there is no less than one quarter for the last of them. More may be added to the second [pouring of water] but none may be added to the first.


Before we begin to study this mishnah we must first review some introductory material that is essential to our understanding of this rather recondite tractate.

Many aspects of religious life separate our religious experiences from those of the Tanna'im and the Amora'im - the sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods respectively. But one aspect in particular is so strange to our experience that, apart from one or two vestiges, it is quite beyond our religious experience - and this has been the case for more than 1500 years. I refer to the whole question of ritual purity. In the written Torah the laws of ritual purity are detailed thoroughly in many places - particularly in some of the more recondite chapters of Leviticus and Numbers. When we read Parashot Tazri'a or Metzora, for example, we read from the Torah the laws of the woman who has given birth, the laws of the man who has a genital emission, the leprous person - even the leprous textile and the leprous building! Almost none of these considerations play any part in our religious lives today, but to the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud they were of utmost importance. In the Mishnah of Rabbi Yehudah the President of the Sanhedrin, which was published around the beginning of the third century CE, one whole Seder, containing twelve tractates (some of them very long), is devoted to the topic of ritual purity. Of these twelve tractates only one has Gemara in the Babylonian Talmud, which was arranged less than two hundred years later! This must be some indication of the reduction of importance of the topic: it had ceased to be part of everyday life.

The more difficult a mitzvah [commandment] is to keep the more it is likely to be ignored by some and elevated by others. Modern examples are so obvious that there is no need to mention them: Shabbat and Kashrut immediately spring to mind. In the time of the sages this was true in particular regarding the laws of ritual purity. The vast majority of the people were not punctillious in observing the multitude of minutiae associated with these mitzvot. The sages, however, made every effort to be paragons of virtue in this matter. Those who seriously took upon themselves the uttermost observance of the multifarious laws of ritual purity were termed 'Ĥaverim', 'Colleagues'. The overwhelming majority of the people who did not were termed 'Am ha-Aretz', and this must be the origin of the pejorative nature of the term (which means literally 'the people of the land', peasants).

The basic concept which underlies these laws is that ritual impurity is 'contagious'; that is to say that it can be transferred from a source to people and things that came into physical contact with that impurity, and that to a certain extent these secondary sources of impurity could also transmit it further down the line. Thus it was deemed imperative that everyone make every effort to remain aloof from contracting ritual impurity and if rendered ritually impure the person or the thing must be ritually purified according to law.

The primary source of ritual impurity is a human corpse. The Torah [Numbers 19:11-14] teaches:

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Anyone who touches a human corpse shall be impure for seven days... If a person die inside a tent anyone who enters the tent ... shall be impure for seven days.

The only way in which this primary ritual impurity could be corrected was by having water which contained ashes of the 'red heifer' sprinkled over the person who had contracted the impurity. This ceremony is described in detail in Numbers 19. According to the Mishnah [Parah 3:5] the ceremony of the burning of the carcass of the red heifer (as described in Numbers 19) was performed only nine times from its inception until a few years before the destruction of the Bet Mikdash in the year 70 CE. If we examine that mishnah carefully we can glean that in 'historical' times the ceremony was performed three times between the years 160 BCE and 60 CE, a period of 220 years. This would suggest that each ceremony provided enough material for approximately 70 - 80 years. Thus the material created the last time the ceremony was carried out, around the year 60 CE, should have lasted well into the second century; and there are indications in our sources that this was indeed the case. But from the moment that the material ran out there was no way to remove primary ritual impurity.

Other major sources of ritual impurity are insects and reptilia [Leviticus 11:29ff], the carcasses of animals [Leviticus 11:27-28], people who suffer excretions from their genitalia [Leviticus 15], women during and after menstruation and childbirth [Leviticus 12], and various forms of skin disease [Leviticus 13 and 14].

The most severe form of ritual impurity is what derives from physical contact with a human corpse as we have already said in paragraph 5. This source of ritual impurity is termed 'the supreme major source of impurity' [Avi Avot ha-Tum'ah]. The other sources, mentioned in paragraph 6, are termed 'major sources of impurity' [Avot ha-Tum'ah]. The practical halakhic difference between them is the fact that anyone who comes into contact with a human corpse (the 'supreme major source') immediately becomes 'a major source' himself or herself; whereas anyone who comes into contact with the others only becomes a 'minor source' of ritual impurity [Vlad ha-Tum'ah].

But it is not only people who can contract and transmit ritual impurity. The list also includes clothing and utensils made out of metal, wood, leather or bone and earthenware pottery. Foodstuffs that have come into contact with liquids and liquids themselves can contract ritual impurity (but they do not transmit it further down the line).

Apart from ritual impurity contracted through the 'supreme primary source' (which required the ashes of the red heifer as explained) human beings and untensils could be purified by the waters of a Mikveh [ritual bath]. However, this is now meaningless since all human beings are considered to be in a state of ritual impurity through contact with a corpse; and if the supreme impurity cannot be removed what point is there in removing lesser impurities? The outstanding exception to this are human hands. Hands do not require the water of a Mikveh to remove ritual impurity and it is deemed sufficient to wash them.

This finally brings us to the topic of our tractate (but not, unfortunately, to the end of our introduction) and we now turn our attention to the hands in particular. According to the Torah one's hands can only contract ritual impurity if they come into contact with a 'prime source' of ritual impurity and not with any lesser level of ritual impurity. In all our discussion so far we have not seen any reason to assume that the minutiae of the rules and regulations governing purity and impurity as given in the Torah had any purpose other than purely ritual purposes. It was the sages who added the dimension of hygiene to the issue and it was in connection with the ritual purity of the hands that they did so. To begin with they decreed that priests (and the members of their households) must have ritually pure hands in order to touch terumah.

We have explained the concept of terumah on several occasions. Here's what we said when we studied Tractate Kiddushin:

Terumah was originally an amount varying between 1.666% and 2.5% of the produce, depending on the farmer's generosity, and was to be set aside as a perquisite for the Kohen [priest] of his choice... Today, the amount to be deducted from the produce is minimal: 'something'.

Food prepared from this terumah ['donative'] could be eaten only by priests and the members of their household. (A kindred work to the Mishnah, the Tosefta [Ketubot 5:1], mentions incidentally that Rabbi Tarfon, who was a Kohen and certainly was not poor, one year married 300 women simply so that they could eat of his food during a period of severe drought.)

The sages had several ways of influencing the development of halakhah. One certainly was the method of interpretive exegesis - 'explaining' the text until it says what you want it to say! We have noted this on many occasions. However sometimes even the greatest ingenuity of rabbinic exegesis could not make the Torah say what they wanted it to say. In such circumstances the sages did not hesitate to issue 'decrees'. Rabbinical decrees could be both positive and negative in formulation: positive decrees (called 'takkanot') requiring something to be done and negative decrees (called 'gezerot') requiring us to refrain from doing something that would otherwise be permitted. All such decrees were explained as being for 'the well-ordering of society' ['tikkun olam']. The sages based their right to issue such decrees on the passage in the Torah [Deuteronomy 17:11] -


According to the Torah as they teach it to you and according to the law as they tell it to you shall you do: do not depart from their instruction to the right or to the left.

In our present case the sages issued a 'gezerah' prohibiting the eating of terumah with unwashed hands.

The reason given for this 'gezerah' is that "people's hands are fidgety" ['askaniyyot']. That is to say that our hands get into all sorts of places (on our bodies and elsewhere) that are unclean (not necessarily 'impure') without us even being conscious of the fact. It is inappropriate that hands that may well be unclean come into contact with terumah, they argued. In order to reinforce this decree they further decreed that

  1. even someone who was certain that their hands were clean was required to wash them before touching terumah; and

  2. even if it is not from terumah produce, bread requires us to wash our hands before touching it.

One last introductory comment is surely required to explain the rather quaint Hebrew term for washing the hands before eating bread: 'netilat yadayyim'. The mishnaic Hebrew verb 'natal' means quite simply 'to take', so the original meaning of the phrase means 'taking water to or for the hands'. This can be understood as originating in the social customs of Talmudic times. When people ate together one of their number was always selected to be the 'waiter' ['shammash'] whose task it was to set the food before the diners, to pour them wine - and to bring them water to wash their hands. Thus the waiter 'taking' water to or for the hands of the diners became the origin of the term 'netilat yadayyim'.

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Berakhot 6:1, sums up all the preceding succinctly as follows:

Anyone who eats bread over which the berakhah is 'ha-motzi' must first ... wash their hands even if the bread is from non-sacred produce and even if the hands are not dirty and there is no presumption of ritual impurity: one may not eat without washing both hands...

Later in the same chapter [6:6] he lists the major requirements concerning netilat yadayyim:

Anyone doing 'netilat yadayyim' must be careful as regards four things:

  1. that the water itself not be disqualified for netilat yadayyim;
  2. that there be at least 'a quarter' for both hands;
  3. that the water poured come from a utensil; and
  4. that the water be poured by human effort.

The first chapter of Tractate Yadayyim will be concerned with items a), b) and c).


I wrote: 'The primary source of ritual impurity is a human corpse. The Torah teaches: Anyone who touches a human corpse shall be impure for seven days...'

David Rosenthal writes:

As a physician, I pronounce patients [dead] when they have passed away. Part of doing this is listening to the heart and lungs, observing the patient, strong tactile stimulation and an examination of the pupils. Several of these tasks require that I physically touch my patient. Am I 'to'evah for 7 days after doing so each time? Several medical halakhah books I have ... do not address this matter.

I respond:

The word 'to'evah is the wrong word in this connection (it denotes something disgusting); the correct term would be 'tamé' - ritually impure. (The abstract derivative is 'tum'ah', ritual impurity, and its opposite is 'taharah', ritual purity.) Now to answer David's question: I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that according to Torah law anyone touching a corpse for whatever reason is deemed to be 'tamé' for seven days and requires ritual purification on the seventh day. The good news is what I wrote in our last shiur: 'The only way in which this primary ritual impurity could be corrected was by having water which contained ashes of the 'red heifer' sprinkled over the person who had contracted the impurity.' No such water is available nowadays (and has not been available for the past 1700 years). Therefore we are all in a state of ritual impurity from the moment we are born and there is no way that the status can be resolved. (This is the main reason why we are forbidden to go up onto the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.) So, David, your ritual status after touching a corpse is the same as it was before you did so!

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

We can now, at last, proceed to the study of our present mishnah. Rambam, in his Mishnah Commentary, states that our mishnah is referring to 'the second water' and not to 'the first water'. What he means is that it was the custom in Talmudic times to wash the hands twice before eating. Firstly water was poured by the waiter on the hands of the diner up to the wrist. Then water was again poured over the hands. The idea was that 'the first water' had become impure when it came into contact with the hands and the hands only became pure when 'the second water' removed the impurity that attached to 'the first water'.

According to this no less than 'one quarter' of water must be poured over the hands of each diner and the water must reach from the fingers to the wrist. However, less water could be used for 'the second water', which is the subject of our present mishnah. The 'quarter' to which our mishnah refers is one quarter of a 'log'. When we studied Tractate Tamid we noted:

The basic unit of cubic measurement was 'an egg's bulk' [beytzah]. It is customary to compute this as the equivalent of about 80 cubic centimetres. Twenty-four of these made up one 'kav', which would bring us to about 1.92 litres. Six 'kabim' made up a 'se'ah' (11.52 litres) Thirty of these made up one 'kor'.

Because our main interest was at that time to explain the enormous size of the 'Ash Pile' on the main altar in the Bet Mikdash we did not bring the smaller equivalents. Six 'eggs' bulk' made up one 'log', which was therefore about 480 cc. It follows that 'one quarter' of a log would yield about 120 cc. (I must add here that there are today two main views concerning these equivalents. For various reasons, that should not detain us here, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz (1875-1953), the Ĥazon Ish, was of the opinion that 'their eggs were then bigger than ours today' and computed a maximalist table of amounts. Another view, for equally cogent reasons, was minimalist. According to the maximalist view 'one quarter' [revi'it] contains about 140 cc's, whereas according to the minimalist view it contains only about 90 cc's. I mention these details because of their implications regarding other minimal amounts, such as wine for Kiddush.)

Thus our mishnah, according to this interpretation, says that when pouring 'the second water' over the hands of the diners the waiter may assume that 90 cc's (using the minimalist view) provides enough water for one or two diners, 180 cc's provides enough for three or four diners, 360 cc's would suffice for any greater number. This is because the purpose of 'the second water' is only to purify 'the first water', therefore the smallest amount will suffice.

Rabbi Yosé qualifies this view of Tanna Kamma. Rabbi Yosé agrees that even the smallest amount of water is sufficient for the purposes of 'the second water'. However, he requires that regardless of the amount actually poured there must remain 'one quarter' in the jug until the last diner has been served.

The seifa of our mishnah states that 'more may be added to the second [pouring of water] but none may be added to the first'. This means that if 'the first water' did not completely cover the diner's hand from the fingers to the wrist the deed may not be considered as having been completed by 'the second water', and the hands must be completely washed once again and only then 'the second water' may be poured over them. However, there is no such requirement regarding 'the second water'.


When I wrote my response to David Rosenthal I was reasonably sure that a further question would be asked, but decided to 'leave well enough alone'. I have received several messages dealing with the same question (some also raising tangential issues that I shall deal with separately). Here is the simplest form of the question as asked by Jay Slater:

You wrote: 'Therefore we are all in a state of ritual impurity from the moment we are born'. Why from the moment we are born? Certainly the newborn has not been exposed to the 'supreme major source of impurity'.

I respond:

I originally likened ritual impurity to a contagious disease, in that it is deemed to be passed on from one person to another (and from one object to another and from an object to a person and vice versa) by physical contact. (Negative implications of 'disease' should not be seen as implied here.) Once someone has touched a corpse they have contracted ritual impurity; if the 'waters of purification' have not been sprinkled over them they remain ritually impure and will transmit that ritual impurity by physical contact. It is a rabbinic assumption that since the cessation of the 'waters of purification' (about 1700 years ago) we are all in a permanent state of ritual impurity. (My guess is that the reasoning is that since the mother is presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity any child that she carries must also be in such a state because of physical contact.)

This next topic is recondite. If questions of Hebrew grammar are of no relevance to you - just skip this one. Ze'ev Orzech writes:

I hate to be picky, but... You use 'taharah' but the Encyclopedia Hebraica uses 'tohorah'. Siddur Sim Shalom, in the introduction, makes a special point about this and gives as an example the word 'tzohorayim'. (I seem to remember your stating that 'tzahorayim' or 'tahorah' was the correct pronunciation.)

I respond:

Ze'ev's memory serves him well! This topic is a bone of contention between various traditions. The Ashkenazi tradition is that a Kamatz coming before a Chataf-Kamatz is attenuated into Kamatz Katan (and pronounced 'o'). The Sefaradi tradition is that a Kamatz coming before a Chataf-Kamatz is a full long vowel (and pronounced 'a'). The Sefaradi tradition seems to fit in better with the tradition of the Masoretic text in all cases. Using as an example the word as it appears in the Hebrew text of Leviticus 12:4, we note that the first syllable is marked with a meteg, which must indicate that the vowel is pure and long: thus 'tahorah'.

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All utensils may be used for pouring water over the hands, even utensils made from dung, stone or earth. Water may not be poured on the hands from the walls of utensils, from the edges of a bucket or from the plug of a barrel. One person may not pour water over the hands of another from his cupped hands since only a utensil may be used to fill, sanctify and sprinkle the waters of purification or over the hands. Only a utensil which has a tight lid can save; [such] utensils only can save from an earthenware utensil.


Having dealt with the amount of water needed for 'netilat yadayyim' in the previous mishnah, our present mishnah now turns our attention to the nature of the utensil from which the water may be poured.

Our mishnah teaches that any utensil may be used to hold the water that is to be poured over the hands, even utensils which logic might have assumed were not acceptable. It is no surprise that the rich may use metal jugs (of silver and even gold) to pour water over the hands; but it must be very surprising that the poor were permitted to use jugs and pitchers made from baked animal ordure and from earthenware either fired (called 'stone' in our mishnah) or unfired ('earth'). None of the classical commentators find any need to comment on this beyond noting the fact that utensils made from such materials do not contract impurity. But we must ask ourselves how such leniency is possible.

My own view is that the answer must be sought in the dual nature of the society of the sages. This has been noted and documented beyond all doubt by several scholars, not the least of whom was Rabbi Eli'ezer (Louis) Finklestein z"l, a former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, in his works on the Pharisaic movement and society. (The most readable of these for the ordinary lay reader is surely his biography of Rabbi Akiva: Scholar, Saint and Martyr.) Throughout the tannaitic period the society of the sages was a dual society, consisting of both landed gentry and wealthy burgers on the one hand and peasants and the proletariat on the other. Each of these components had its own leadership, traditions and peculiar customs, which the members of the other component were obliged to respect. (In this sense the society of the sages was a truly pluralistic society.) In the first and second centuries of the present era these two components coalesced into Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai. Bet Shammai represented the more wealthy and more conservative elements, whereas Bet Hillel represented the much more liberal and poverty-stricken element. It was essential to the pluralistic ethos of the society of the sages that the utensils which the poorest of the poor had to recognized as no less acceptable than the utensils of the monied citizens and the landed gentry.

The only condition concerning the utensil was that it had to be whole. 'Water may not be poured on the hands from the sides of utensils, from the edges of a bucket or from the plug of a barrel'. The 'sides of utensils' and the 'edges of a bucket' means fragments of broken utensils, which may well have served the poor. Even though they could still hold water, such as what had once been the walls of a jug, such fragments could not be used. On the other hand, the rich could not use the plug which bunged their huge storage barrels: even if its hollow inside was large enough to hold the necessary amount of water it could not be used.

One person may not pour water over the hands of another from their cupped hands. This is because only a utensil may be used for this purpose - presumably to ensure that the minimum amount of water was used. This is also linked with the fact that when the 'waters of purification' which contained the ashes of the red heifer were prepared and used this could only be done by using a utensil: the container that would be used to house the 'waters of purification' had to be filled with water from a living spring by a utensil; the ashes had to be added to it with a utensil; and the mixture had to be removed from the container by a utensil in order to sprinkle a small amount of it over the person who had been rendered impure by a corpse.

Leviticus 11:29-33 reads:

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These are they which are unclean to you among the creeping things that creep on the earth: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard,the gecko, and the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink, and the chameleon. These are they which are unclean to you among all that creep. Whoever touches them when they are dead, shall be unclean until the evening. On whatever any of them falls when they are dead, it shall be unclean; whether it is any vessel of wood, or clothing, or skin, or sack, whatever vessel it is, with which any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the evening; then it will be clean. Every earthen vessel, into which any of them falls, all that is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break it...

Our mishnah conveniently points out that the above prescription of the Torah does not apply if the animal in question did not have access to the earthenware container because it was properly sealed with a tight lid. Furthermore, even if the earthenware utensil is in the same room as a corpse its contents does not become ritually impure if it was sealed with a tight lid: it is 'saved' from the ritual contamination.


Above, I explained that nowadays we are all considered to be ritually impure because the newborn infant contracts ritual impurity from its mother by touch. Josh Greenfield writes:

Although we are all considered to be in a state of ritual impurity nowadays, I thought a newborn baby was the only exception to that. Is that the case? There are two reasons why I thought this would be so. First, a friend who was a rabbinical student once told me about a passage in the Talmud where the wives of the kohanim gave birth in a special underground chamber so that the newborn kohanim could be ritually pure from birth onward. This, I believe, was a way to get back to ritual purity after a break in the chain of 'parot adumot'. I'm not sure if the passage described a hypothetical or historical situation. Second, in the following article (about precautions a Kohen's pregnant wife might want to take) the author notes that the rule forbidding a Kohen from being in the same room as a corpse applies also 'to a newborn baby who will become ritually impure for the first time.'

I respond:

When we examine texts we must be very careful to note the period to which they belong. The texts to which Josh refers all refer to the period when it was possible for a person to purify themselves from ritual impurity through the good offices of the 'waters of purification'. Thus it made sense for the wife of a Kohen [priest], who was ritually pure, to give birth in a place where her newborn Kohen would also remain ritually pure. (Incidentally, the passage is to be found in Mishnah Parah 3:2.) The second text to which Josh refers is only concerned with the elucidation of the Torah text 'as is' (when ritual purity was possible).

Juan-Carlos Kiel writes:

The present Mishna deals with the removal of ritual impurity (tum'ah) from the hands, but I am not sure I understand what is ritual impurity. What was the implication of being ritually impure in ancient times? Was the impure person forbiden to share the tents - be sent 'michutz lamaĥaneh'? Was he precluded from participating in certain rituals? Contacting people? Working? Eating? Reading the Torah? Could you please elaborate the concept? What are the present day implications of the tum'ah? If we are all tamé, why are cohanim excluded from cemeteries?

I respond:

As far as the first question of Juan-Carlos is concerned - see Numbers 19:11-16.

Obviously the ritually impure person is not precluded from society and ritual since we are all permitted these activities today. No ritually impure person (a menstruant woman for instance) is precluded from touching even a Sefer Torah or a Mezuzzah or Tefillin since 'the words of Torah cannot contract ritual impurity but constantly maintain their sanctity' [Rambam, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 10:8].

As for the last question that Juan-Carlos asks: all Kohanim today are Kohanim only by presumption and their ritual status is that of ritual impurity just like everyone else. Our tradition requires them to remain aloof from contact with a corpse so that the duties of the priesthood in this regard will not be forgotten and die out.

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Water that is unfit as animals' drinking water is unacceptable if it is in utensils but is acceptable if it is on the ground. If ink, resin or vitriol have fallen in [the water] and it has changed colour it is unacceptable. If the water has been used for some purpose or if one has soaked one's bread in it, it is unacceptable. Shim'on ha-Temani says that even if one meant to soak it in one [bowl of] water but it fell into another the water is acceptable.


Having dealt, in the two previous mishnayot, with the amount of water needed for 'netilat yadayyim' and the utensil that may be used for pouring it over the hands, our present mishnah now turns our attention to the quality of the water to be used. Obviously, the conditions described in our mishnah seem very strange in an age which offers clean piped water on demand.

Water that animals would not drink may not be used for 'netilat yadayyim', if the water is stored: obviously, if animals refuse to drink water out of a drinking trough (for example) there must be something wrong with the water. On the other hand, if the only problem with the water is that it is not stored, but is (for example) a puddle of clear water on the ground, it may be used for 'netilat yadayyim'.

Water whose colour has changed is unacceptable for 'netilat yadayyim': our mishnah gives the example of water that had been used for creating ink. (My translation of the ingredients comes from the dictionary of Marcus Jastrow.) In our own times we could think of water in which dishes had been rinsed and contained detergent.

Also water that has been used for any other purpose may not be used. In our own times we could think of water from a vase of flowers, even though the water was still clean. One purpose that may seem strange to us is using water to soak bread in before eating it. Presumably in Mishnaic times bread was much coarser than our emasculated bread today, and sometimes it was necessary to soak it so that it could be eaten - by the aged for instance. The Tanna Shim'on ha-Temani disagrees with Tanna Kamma, but his opinion is very difficult to understand. The problem is the word 'even'. One way of interpreting his words would be: if one did not intend to soak the bread but by accident it fell into the water that one intended to use for 'netilat yadayyim' the water is acceptable. Alternatively, he may mean that when Tanna Kamma disqualifies such water it is only where the bread was soaked deliberately; but if the bread got into the water unintentionally it does not disqualify the water. Rambam has a slightly different slant on this view. In his commentary on our present mishnah he understands the words of Shim'on ha-Temani to be a question: 'Are you, Tanna Kamma, suggesting that even if one did not mean to put the bread in the water it would still be unacceptable? This is not the case, but it is acceptable.' However we understand the statement of Shim'on ha-Temani is immaterial to halakhah, which follows Tanna Kamma, of course. Water that has been used for any other purpose may not be used for 'netilat yadayyim'.


Albert Ringer writes:

If anybody is ritually impure anyway at any time, why do some orthodox men refrain from shaking hands with women. If I understand well, it will not change their state of (im)purity in any sense. What do I miss?

I respond:

When we say that we are all in a state of ritual impurity we are referring to the 'supreme primary source' i.e. ritual impurity passed on through contact with a corpse. But there are other forms of ritual impurity which are unconnected with this concept. Ritual impurity is not a disease or a punishment: it is a state. The ritual impurity will remain and may be passed on until it has been removed - each form according to its prescribed mode of removal. Another form of ritual impurity is incurred by a woman when she menstruates; the prescribed mode of removal is bathing in a Mikveh [ritual bath]. Until this is done, however, the ritual impurity remains and may be passed on. Strictly speaking if a woman has bathed in a mikveh there is no reason not to shake her hand. The ultra-orthodox will presumably still refrain from doing so for reasons of 'propriety' [tzeni'ut], but it is accepted in modern Conservative Judaism that shaking a woman's hand is no longer to be considered improper (!)

At the risk of creating the completely wrong impression perhaps I can exemplify the various forms of ritual impurity by analogy to disease (which they are not). If someone is suffering from an incurable (but not mortal) disease this would be no reason not to cure them of another disease which they have which is curable.

I can continue the above thought by bringing some wonderful lines written to me by Naomi Koltun- Fromm:

In my research concerning ritual purity in the bible (primarily the first half of Leviticus) there are no value judgements placed on the status of impure or pure. Hence to be impure was not a bad thing, not a negative. Impurity happens - to everyone - and it is unavoidable (menstruation for women, for instance). Therefore the Israelites are directed to purify themsleves and their things when impurity happens - but not necessarily to avoid impurity at all costs (because basically that was impossible).

Naomi also writes:

Do you understand from the rabbinic texts that the rabbis 'up the ante' and attempt to avoid situations which might render them impure? (I take my question from the comment you wrote: 'Thus it was deemed imperative that everyone make every effort to remain aloof from contracting ritual impurity and if rendered ritually impure the person or the thing must be ritually purified according to law.')

I respond:

The duty to remain aloof from ritual impurity devolves mainly on the priests (when the Bet Mikdash was in existence) who were expected to go to as great a length as possible in order to maintain their ritual purity for the sake of the Temple Ritual.(One source describes how the priests on duty found out that one of their number had officiated when in a state of ritual impurity and they forcibly removed him from the bet Mikdash and clubbed him to death!) Lesser mortals are not required to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid ritual impurity, but on the other hand they should not deliberately do so.

Naomi also writes:

Furthermore, this addition of hand washing - you understand it to be hygenic - but could it not just be another fence around purity? (Again coming from the statement: 'It was the sages who added the dimension of hygiene to the issue and it was in connection with the ritual purity of the hands that they did so.'

I respond:

'Netilat yadayyim' is part and parcel of ritual purity and that is its purpose. The sages 'added the dimension of hygiene', but they did not replace ritual purity with hygiene. The Torah does not require us to wash our hands before eating bread: this is a rabbinic invention which is explained by hygiene. But the concept was originally prompted by the need to ensure that priests ate bread made from their 'terumah' when in a state of ritual purity, which was then extended to all bread and all people.

, . , . :

If one washed dishes or rinsed measures in [the water] it is unacceptable. If one washed dishes that had already been rinsed or were new [the water] is acceptable. Rabbi Yosé holds that [water in which new dishes had been rinsed] is unacceptable.


In the previous mishnah we learned that water 'that had been used for some purpose' is unacceptable for the purposes of 'netilat yadayyim'. Our present mishnah seeks to refine that general requirement.

Water in which dishes had been washed is unacceptable. This is obvious since the water has been 'used for some purpose'. Presumably the reisha is included here as a necessary preamble to what follows: if the dishes were clean or brand new and the water was therefore unsullied it is not to be disqualified, even though it has been 'used for some purpose'. This is the view of Tanna Kamma. Rabbi Yosé disagrees: his logic must be that it is not the cleanness of the water that matters but the fact that it has been used. Therefore he would disqualify water in which new dishes had been rinsed even though the water was quite clean. Halakhah, of course, follows Tanna Kamma.

In order to understand what our mishnah has to say about measures we would do best to quote a mishnah to be found in Bava Batra [5:10] -

, . , . , , :

A wholesaler must clean his measures once every thirty days; the private person should do so once a year. Rabban Shim'on ben-Gamliel says that the requirement should be reversed. A retailer must clean his measures twice a week and his weights once a week, and the scales must be cleaned after each use.

It is clear that this mishnah is based on a specific requirement of the Torah [Leviticus 19:35-36]:

: ...

You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures of length, of weight, or of quantity. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall you have.

The measures are utensils used for measuring amounts of both dry and moist items (flour, wine, oil etc). If they are not regularly cleaned they get clogged up. Once the weights and measures are clogged they can no longer yield just measure and the vendor is not giving full value to the buyer.

Thus our present mishnah is saying that water that has been used to clean weights and measures is disqualified for 'netilat yadayyim' - because the residue of flour, wine, oil etc will have sullied the water.


I answered a rather recondite question from Ze'ev Orzech concerning the correct reading of the Kamatz in words such as 'Tahorah'. I wrote: 'The Sefaradi tradition seems to fit in better with the tradition of the Masoretic text in all cases.'

Zackary Berger is not prepared to take my word for it! he writes:

Can you give a source for this assertion? The example you give is nice but is just that - a single example.

I respond:

I thought that the subject was so recondite that only one example was appropriate. So let us see what we can offer as further examples:

The word Tzahorayyim ['noon'] occurs three times in the Torah. Check out Genesis 43:16, 43:28 and Deuteronomy 28:29 and you will find in all cases that the Massoretes marked the first Kamatz with a Meteg.

Apart from the example that I gave last time there are three more examples in Leviticus 12:4-6. Then there is Leviticus 16:10 - ya-omad.

The word Machorat ['tomorrow'] occurs 14 times in the Torah and in every single case the first syllable bears a Meteg [Genesis 19:34, Exodus 9:6, 18:13, 32:6, 32:30, Leviticus 7:16, 19:6, 23:11; 23:15, 23:16, Numbers 11:32, 17:6, 17:23, 33:3].

This is just a very few that I recall from Torah reading over the past couple of shabbatot. I hope this suffices to show that the phenomenon is consistent.

Having said all that, Josh Greenfield demurs:

This is an interesting way to justify the Sefaradi tradition - however, I believe it is based on a few misconceptions. For one thing, the meteg does not indicate the length of the vowel - it indicates whether the syllable is open or closed. Rabbi David Kimĥi (the Radak) misunderstood this, and Sefaradim tend to follow his understanding of grammatical issues. So speaking of attentuation is not correct - the kamatz katan in the first letter is still pronounced "o" not "a." In all likelihood, the word started out as toh-rah, but since the sh'va under the heh presented difficulties, it borrowed the kamatz katan from the tet to become a chattaf kamatz. To indicate that the first syllable is now open, a meteg is added. Furthermore, according to Rabbi Miles Cohen at JTS (who is my source for this information):

The meteg before hataf vowels does not even appear in the early model Ben Asher manuscripts. So to use the meteg as a proof of what follows the Masoretic tradition and what does not is not useful. Some Masoretic schools wrote kametz + meteg + sheva. Others wrote kametz + hataf kametz. Either version showed that the syllable was open. Our common current printings combine both. No question, the syllable is open. But the length of the vowel is not demonstrated by anything written.

I respond:

I am unconvinced. First of all, an open syllable (one that is not closed by a consonant) must bear a long vowel. Secondly, as far as the intentions of the Massoretes are concerned: the earliest surviving manuscript of [most of] the Bible is the Aleppo Codex, which is very soon to be published for all to examine. We shall see.

, . , . , . . . . :

Water in which a baker has dipped small loaves is not acceptable, but if it is only his hands that he has dipped in it, it is acceptable. Everyone is qualified to pour water over the hands - even the deaf-mute, the mentally incompetent and the minor. One may set a cask between his knees and pour or tilt it on its side and pour. A monkey can pour water over one's hands. Rabbi Yosé disqualifies these last two.


Our mishnah seeks to define two discrete issues. The reisha of our mishnah is, in fact, a continuation of the previous mishnah in that it seeks to further define what exactly disqualifies water for 'netilat yadayyim'. We have already seen in mishnah 3 that water that has been used to perform some task becomes thereby disqualified from use for 'netilat yadayyim'. Mishnayot 3 and 4 gave examples. The reisha of our present mishnah gives one further example. It seems that in mishnaic times some loaves of bread were not the large loaves that we are used to today but smaller, individual, loaves - what we would call rolls. In Hebrew these are called 'gluskin'; the larger loaves are called 'kikar'. According to Marcus Jastrow the word 'gluskin' is a popular corruption derived from the name of the Mediterranean island of Lesbos. The island was well-known for its fine flour (among other things) and although it eventually gave its name in the western world to a completely different dimension, in Eretz-Israel it gave its name to expensive, delicate small loaves of bread. Thus, according to Jastrow, the best translation of 'gluskin' would be 'lesbians' - small loaves made in the style of the isle of Lesbos. (The things one learns when studying mishnah!) It seems that these rolls were coated with water before being baked. Our mishnah states that if the baker dips these lesbian rolls into water before putting them in the oven the water, since it has been used for a purpose, may not now be used for 'netilat yadayyim'. On the other hand, if the baker dips his hands into the water and then splashes water over the loaves the water is not disqualified for 'netilat yadayyim' since dipping his hands into the water is not considered to be 'some other purpose'.

In paragraph 15 on mishnah 1 I wrote:

Anyone doing 'netilat yadayyim' must be careful as regards four things:

  1. that the water itself not be disqualified for netilat yadayyim;
  2. that there be at least 'a quarter' for both hands;
  3. that the water poured come from a utensil; and
  4. that the water be poured by human effort.

Having covered the first three of the above items in the chapter so far, the seifa of our present mishnah now seeks to conclude the chapter with the fourth item.

The requirement that the water for 'netilat yadayyim' reach the hands 'by human effort' is now defined. It transpires that the Hebrew term ko'ach adam ['human effort'] does not quite define the issue, but I must admit that having sought for a better term that does accurately meet the parameters defined in our present mishnah I must admit defeat. It would perhaps be helpful at this point to try and define the positive by suggesting a negative. If on a hike in the country I wash my hands before eating bread by holding my hands in the water streaming down in a waterfall I have not performed 'netilat yadayyim' because the water did not reach my hands by 'human effort'. The same would apply if I dip my hands in a stream or in the sea. The water must reach my hands in some 'non natural' way - by intervention.

But this 'non natural' intervention is not based on understanding or on conscious effort, and this is exemplified by the details given by our mishnah. The 'shammash' [waiter] who pours water over my hands, for example, can be a minor (a boy who has not yet reached the age of 13). It is a commonplace in halakhic writing to group together 'the deaf-mute, the mentally incompetent and the minor'. They have absolutely nothing in common except for one thing: none of them are required to observe the mitzvot and cannot be a facilitator to enable someone else to observe a mitzvah. This is because they are not considered to be legally competent. So legal competence is not a requirement for the 'waiter': he doesn't have to understand what he is doing.

Another example given by our mishnah is that of a person pouring water over his own hands by holding a cask of water between his knees and tilting it over his hands, of simply pouring the water over his hands. (This is essentially what we do today when we pour water over our hands from a jug, jar, glass, mug or a specially designed 'natla' - and we each act as our own 'waiter'.) Our mishnah is even prepared to concede that the water can be poured by non-human effort - the example given is that of a monkey trained to perform the task.

Rabbi Yosé does not accept the halakhah as defined by Tanna Kamma in these last two instances (when we pour ourselves or a monkey does so). However, his view is not accepted and halakhah is according to Tanna Kamma.


I have received the following message from Marc Kival. Given that the Jewish people as a whole are considered in a state of ritual impurity, but our hands may be purified through 'netilat yadayyim', shall we then learn out from this that at this time we release holiness in the world primarily through the work of our (sanctified) hands? What is the moral and ethical relevance of one's hands being ritually clean if they are attached to 'unclean' bodies? It occurs to me that liberal Judaism, inasmuch as it is not Mikdash-dependent in this age, perhaps should revisit Seder Tahorot and ask, what is the relevance of ritual purity in our day and age? I would suggest that it is very relevant to all Jews considering the huge amount of 'environmental' pollution we as Jews are exposed to daily ... physical as well as mental and spiritual. While the Tannaim were perhaps concerned with impurity invalidating their ability to serve, even as ma-amadot, at the Temple, it strikes me that the pollution of daily living in our age is more pervasive and subtle. And that the failure to deal with this pollution, even if only by offering a 'popular' ritual response, is a cause of many of Contemporary Judaism's problems. I would argue that for liberal Jews, as part of a nation of priests and a holy people, being tamé today is not a permanent state but a conditional state of being unable to optimally perform the miztvah of VaYikra 19:1, 'you will be (humanly) holy, as I, HaShem, am (Godly) holy...'. As we can purify our hands, and I would suggest our actions and intentions as well, through 'netilat yadayyim', so I would say we can also 'overcome' tamé as it is relevant in our lives today... Therefore, I would urge that

  1. 'netilat yadayyim' should be an essential everyday ritual for focusing ourselves (establishing kavvanah) before ritual acts of holiness (e.g. tefillah and consuming food)

  2. tevilah is appropriate for utensils and our bodies at all times as we consider ourselves tamé for any one of a number of reasons (as many Jewish feminists rightly point out)

Marc asked for my comments, but I think that it would be eminently appropriate to ask all participants who care to do so to address these issues and to send me their comments.

This concludes our study of the first chapter of Tractate Yadayyim.