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Washing Hands for Tefillah

Halacha Talk

Washing Hands for Tefillah

In this week’s parsha, we finally come to the culmination of the Bnei Yisroel’s efforts in providing a residence for the Shechinah in this world. One of the necessary preparations was the making of the kiyor, the vessel from which Aharon and his sons sanctified their hands and feet by washing them before commencing the avodah, the Divine service. In a similar vein, when a Jew prepares himself to stand in prayer before Hashem, he is likened to the kohein preparing to do the Divine service in the Beis Hamikdash and must wash his hands. Let us take this opportunity to discuss some of the relevant halachos.


The Gemara Brachos (14b-15a) states: Anyone who wishes to accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven in its fullest sense, should relieve himself, wash his hands, don tefillin, read Krias Shema and pray… the verse considers it as if he built a mizbayach, an altar, and brought an offering on it, as it says (Tehillim 26:6), “I wash in purity my hands and I circle Your altar, Hashem.”

The Rishonim derive from here the obligation to wash one’s hands as a preparation for tefillah. However, they argue regarding the reason why washing is necessary for Shacharis:

1) According to some, washing is required in the morning because when one sleeps, his hands move involuntarily and touch parts of the body that are considered unclean (Rosh, Brachos 9:23; Shu”t HaRosh 4:1). Although it would seem that this reason only applies to washing prior to Shacharis, this opinion maintains that one must always be concerned that his hands touched unclean places and therefore he must wash them before every tefillah (Elyah Rabbah 4:9; Pri Megadim 4, Mishbatzos Zahav 1).

2) Others maintain that the necessity of washing in the morning is because at the time when a person awakens, he is considered to be a “briyah chadasha” – a new creation. Therefore, we are obligated to give thanks to Hashem who created us for His honor and to serve Him. Just as the kohein prepares himself to serve Hashem by washing his hands, so too we wash in anticipation of davening to Him (Shu”t HaRashba vol. I #191).

There is actually a third reason for washing in the morning; to remove “ruach ra’ah” – or evil spirit. There are two possible causes for this ruach ra’ah: 1) it is generated by the nighttime (and it is for this reason that a person should wash his hands in the morning even if he did not sleep) (Orchos Chaim, cited in Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim #4, s.v., v’im hishkim); 2) it is caused by the absence of the neshamah when a person sleeps (ibid. s.v., u’mihu, in the name of the Zohar). However, when Chazal instituted a bracha for washing hands in the morning, they only did so for one of the two reasons cited earlier. Had the only reason for washing been ruach ra’ah, no bracha would have been instituted (Mishnah Berurah 4:8). The reason for this is because removing the ruach ra’ah is merely avoiding a potential danger and Chazal did not formulate a bracha for such an act (Pri Megadim 4, Eishel Avraham 1 and 13).


The Shulchan Aruch (4:7) writes that when washing hands in preparation for tefillah, one should preferably observe all the details of netilas yadayim prior to a bread meal. Let us give a brief synopsis of the halachos of washing for a bread meal that are relevant to washing before davening.

The water that is used for netilas yadayim has many requirements. Although many types of water are excluded because of these requirements, most of the tap water supplied today meets these standards. However, there are a few points that would invalidate it for use (lechatchilah). For example, care must be taken that the water is not yad soledes bo, or so hot that one would instinctively draw his hand back. Often in the winter, people do not want to wash their hands with water from the cold tap and will open the hot faucet instead. As it is difficult to ensure that the entire hand is washed properly with very hot water, one should see to it that the water is at the most warm (Shulchan Aruch 160:6 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).

Only water should be used for netilas yadayim and not other liquids (ibid. 160:12).


Some maintain that if one prepares water for the morning before going to sleep, the water should be covered. The reason for this is because during the times of the Gemara, poisonous snakes were prevalent and Chazal forbade the use of certain liquids left uncovered, from fear that a snake had injected the water with venom. This prohibition is referred to as “giluy” – uncovered. Those who still forbid this are concerned that although poisonous snakes are no longer common in urban areas, Chazal had other reasons to forbid this and they only chose to reveal one particular reason (Shemiras Haguf v’Hanefesh 44:6, in the name of the Chazon Ish).

Others disagree with this entirely and contend that since snakes are not common in our locales, one need not be concerned (Aruch Hashulchan 4:16; also see Mishnah Berurah 160:23, who maintains that even one is careful not to drink uncovered water, he can be lenient with regards to washing).


Another requirement of netilas yadayim is known as “koach gavra,” which literally means “power of man.” This refers to the fact that the water must pour over one’s hands by having a person pour them. An example of washing without koach gavra that is therefore invalid for netilas yadayim is water flowing from a faucet after the initial gush of water. In all water systems, the water is under a certain amount of pressure. This pressure forces the water to flow out of the faucet, even when the faucet is very distant from the water source. When a person initially opens the faucet, the first burst of water happened because of koach gavra, as the person made it possible for the water to flow by opening the tap. However, any subsequent water flow is viewed to be caused by the pressure in the pipes and not because of koach gavra. For this reason, if one has no vessel available for netilas yadayim, he can improvise by placing his hand under the tap and turning on the faucet with the other hand. This is the equivalent of pouring water from a vessel over that hand. He should then continue in this fashion alternating hands until he has finished (Shulchan Aruch 159:9 and Mishnah Berurah 64; Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 23:3). Please note that according to some poskim, this method of washing only applies to washing before tefillah, and not for a bread meal. However, this is beyond the scope of our article.


Another element that is required lechatchilah for washing hands before tefillah is that the vessel used should be complete without any cracks or holes and it should contain a minimum of a revi’is (86 ml/2.9 oz.) of water (Mishnah Berurah 159:5 and 10).

Additionally, one’s hands should be free of any dirt or substance that prevents the water from reaching the entire hand. Similary, it is preferable to remove one’s rings prior to washing (Eishel Avraham [Butchatch] 4:1, s.v., tzarich l’ayein).

Lechatchilah, one should wash the entire hand – the palm, the back, the fingers and in between the fingers – until the wrist. If he does not have sufficient water for this, it is sufficient to wash from the finger tips until the knuckles (Mishnah Berurah 4:9 and 57; Sha’ar Hatziyun 4:77). This is only relevant for washing before tefillah. The halacha is different when washing before a seudah.


The correct way to wash the hands is to pick up the vessel with the right hand and hold it thus while filling it. He then transfers it to the left hand and pours on to the right first. The reason for this is because according to the Kabbalah, the right is symbolic of Hashem’s attribute of chesed, while the left represents Hashem’s strict judgment. By first picking up the vessel with the right and then transferring it to the left, we demonstrate that Hashem’s chesed should overpower His judgment (Shulchan Aruch 4:10 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).


As we mentioned earlier, all of these halachos are the optimum method of washing one’s hands in the morning for tefillah. However, if one is missing any of the above-mentioned factors, he should still wash his hands with water and recite the bracha of “al netilas yadayim.” For example: if one does not have a vessel, or if he has one but it is cracked, or it is not possible to wash with koach gavra, or there is a chatzitzah on the hands, one should still wash with a bracha (Shulchan Aruch 4:7; Mishnah Berurah 4:7 and 16). (This is only true regarding washing for tefillah. Washing for a bread meal is more complex and requires its own discussion.)


We can get an appreciation of how great the obligation is to wash hands prior to davening from the halachos of how far a person must go to obtain water in order to wash. Chazal established that if a traveler who wishes to daven but has no water available to wash his hands, but he knows that within the coming four mil (2.7 miles/4.3 km) he can obtain water, he must wait until then in order to wash before davening. Alternatively, if he is aware of a place with water that is not in the direction he is traveling but it is within one mil (seven-tenths of a mile or one kilometer), he must take a detour in order to obtain water for washing. This is true even if he must travel back one mil in the direction he came from (Shulchan Aruch 92:4 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).

The reason for the different distances is obvious. If one knows that he will obtain water in the direction he is traveling, Chazal obligated him to wait before davening for up to four mil, as he is anyway traveling in that direction. However, if he will only be able to obtain water in a direction other than the one he is traveling in, Chazal did not overburden him to detour more than necessary.

This is all true for a person who is traveling. However, if one is at home and has no water available, Chazal obligated him to go up to one mil in order to obtain water. A person at home is no different from a traveler who must go out of his way to find water (ibid.)


Before continuing with the next topic, we must digress for a moment and discuss how long it takes to walk a mil. Chazal determined that in one day, the average person can walk forty mil, including rest periods (Pesachim 94a). There is a disagreement among the Rishonim as to the definition of a “day.” Some maintain that a “day” is from sunrise to sunset during the spring or fall equinox, or in other words, twelve hours. Thus, a day is seven hundred and twenty minutes long, and it takes eighteen minutes to walk a mil (720/40=18) (Shu”t Terumas Hadeshen #1, 123, 167).

Others contend that a “day” is actually from alos hashachar (dawn) to tzeis hakochavim (when the stars appear at night). Therefore, since according to the Gemara, a person walks five mil from alos until sunrise and another five from sunset until tzeis, we are left with thirty mil to travel from sunrise to sunset. Using this calculation, it takes twenty-four minutes to walk a mil (720/30=24) (Rambam, Pirush Hamishnayos, Pesachim 3:2). (There is another opinion that a mil is twenty-two and a half minutes, but this will suffice for our discussion).

For the purposes of calculating how far a person must travel to obtain water for netilas yadayim, since this is a mitzvah miderabbanan, we may follow the lenient view that it takes eighteen minutes to walk a mil, and seventy-two minutes to walk four.


Getting back to our topic, we must now determine whether Chazal required one to travel the distance of either one or four mil (depending on the circumstances discussed earlier), or whether one must travel eighteen or seventy-two minutes. The practical difference between these two sides of the question is when someone is traveling by a method other than walking. For example, if a person has a car, is he only required to travel the physical distances mentioned, or perhaps he must drive for the entire eighteen or seventy-two minutes, even though he will end up traveling much more than one or four mil?

The Shulchan Aruch writes (163:1) regarding washing hands for a bread meal that a traveler must wait the distance of a four mil in the direction he is traveling in order to obtain water. The Chofetz Chaim comments that if a person is traveling by train, he does not calculate the distance traveled, rather the time it takes to travel that distance, i.e., seventy-two minutes (Biur Halacha 163, s.v., b’richuk).

Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, maintains that the Chofetz Chaim’s position regarding washing for tefillah is the same as what he writes about washing for a meal. Therefore, a traveler would have to drive seventy-two minutes in search of water to wash for davening, while someone at home is required to travel for eighteen minutes, assuming he has a car available to him (Sefer Nekius v’Kavod b’Tefilah; see also Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah vol. I, #106).

However, Rav Shmuel Wozner, shlita, contends that had the Chofetz Chaim intended to pasken this for netilas yadayim of tefillah as well, he would have said so. Since he only writes this in regards to washing for a bread meal, when it comes to davening, one only needs to travel the distances of one or four mil, no matter what method of transportation he is using (Shu”t Shevet HaLevi, vol. IX, #37. See there for further proofs).


These halachos of how far one must go in search of water to wash before davening are only relevant if one knows with certainty that his hands are dirty, e.g., he went to the bathroom or he touched a covered part of the body. However, if one’s hands are considered “stam yadayim,” hands that are presumed to be cleaned although not necessarily washed, he should only wash if water is available, but he is not obligated to travel anywhere in order to obtain it (Shulchan Aruch 92:5 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).


The obligation to travel up to eighteen or seventy-two minutes in order to obtain water only applies if he will not miss the time for davening (sof zman tefillah). However, if by going to get water, the time of davening will pass, he should not do so (ibid. 92:4).

The Acharonim extend this to include missing a minyan. If one will not be able to daven Shemoneh Esrei with a minyan due to the fact that he is traveling somewhere to get water in order to wash before davening, he does not have to get water.


We have just discussed several situations where one is not obligated to search for water: 1) No water is available, 2) he is unsure whether he will obtain water in another place, 3) he will miss zman tefillah, 4) he will miss minyan.

Although, as we mentioned, he does not have to look for water in these situations, he may not daven unless he cleans his hands. Therefore, he should wipe his hands on a surface or with a material that will clean them, e.g., a wall, desk, handkerchief, or tissues. When doing so, one must take care that the entire surface of the hand is wiped, including the palms, the backs, the fingers and in between the fingers. Many people err in this regard and merely wipe the palms and backs of the hands. Since this wiping is in place of washing, and while washing the water would normally cover the entire surface of the hands, the wiping must be done in a similar fashion (Shulchan Aruch 4:22 and Mishnah Berurah 4:57).


Normally, this method of cleaning the hands is only used when one does not have water available. However, there is a situation where one may merely wipe his hands and not wash them, even if there is water. This is when one is in the middle of davening Shemoneh Esrei and he remembers that he touched a covered part of the body. Since he may not move from his place, he must wipe his hands on an accessible surface or material in order to clean them. On the other hand, if this were to occur during Pesukei d’Zimra, Birchos Krias Shema, or even during Shema itself, he must go to the sink and wash his hands with water since walking is permitted then (ibid. 92:6 and Mishnah Berurah ad loc.).


We mentioned earlier a disagreement between the Rishonim regarding the reason for netilas yadayim in preparation of tefillah. According to the Rosh, we wash because our hands involuntarily touch covered parts of the body. Therefore, in order to prepare them for davening, we must wash them. On the other hand, the Rashba maintains that we wash in the morning since when we awaken in the morning we are considered to be “newly created” beings and we must praise and daven to Hashem. Therefore, before serving Him, we wash our hands in preparation, just as the kohanim did in the Beis Hamikdash.

One of the practical differences between these two approaches is whether a bracha is required when washing in preparation for Mincha or Maariv. When washing for Shacharis, generally both reasons for washing are applicable, i.e., while sleeping his hands touched covered parts of the body and upon awakening he is considered “newly created.” However, this is not true with regards to Mincha and Maariv.

The Rosh maintains that if one goes to the bathroom before Mincha and Maariv and then washes his hands in preparation for the tefillah, he washes his hands with a bracha, since his hands became dirty. However, according to the Rashba, the bracha is only recited upon awakening in the morning. According to most poskim, although washing for Mincha and Maariv is required, no bracha is recited, even if one goes to the bathroom beforehand (Elyah Rabbah 4:9; Mishnah Berurah 4:1; Shulchan Aruch 233:2).


According to the Rama, there is a mitzvah to wash one’s hands for davening even if he had been learning beforehand and he probably did not touch any covered parts of the body. However, some Acharonim point out that if one washed his hands for davening and then sat down to learn before davening, this is sufficient and he does not have to wash again (Rama 233:2; Magen Avraham 233:8; Mishnah Berurah 233:18).

The same is true if one came to shul, washed his hands in anticipation of the davening, and merely sat in shul waiting for the tefillah to start. Although a significant amount of time might pass between the washing and the davening, his hands are considered clean for davening as long as he remains in shul (Aruch Hashulchan 233:15).

However, if someone washed his hands for eating, and went out to daven either in the middle of the meal or immediately after benching, he should wash his hands prior to davening. This is because the washing for the seudah is not considered a preparation for tefillah (Magen Avraham 233:8; Mishnah Berurah 233:19).

If one washes his hands for Mincha, he does not need to wash again for Maariv as long as he bears in mind that he wishes to keep his hands clean (Mishnah Berurah 233:16).


There is a disagreement among the poskim regarding one who davened without washing his hands. According to the Pri Megadim, the Rambam holds that even if one davened inadvertently without netilas yadayim, he must repeat Shemoneh Esrei. This is true even if his hands were not necessarily dirty (stam yadayim). However, the Mishnah Berurah maintains that if he is not aware that his hands are dirty, there is no need to repeat the tefillah. Additionally, even if his hands were truly soiled, he should not repeat Shemoneh Esrei (Rambam, Hilchos Tefilah 4:1; Biur Halacha 92, s.v., tzarich lirchotz; Mishnah Berurah 92:13).


The obligation of netilas yadayim for tefillah applies equally to women as well as to men (Shu”t Teshuvos v”Hanhagos, vol. I, #72). However, some maintain that this is only true for a woman who at least davens Krias Shema and Shemoneh Esrei. If she fulfills her obligation of davening by merely reciting some supplication, she should wash her hands but without a bracha (Shu”t Machzeh Eliyahu #11). Others contend that since the supplication is the equivalent of tefillah for those women, they may also recite al netilas yadayim when washing (Sefer Ishei Yisroel chap. 2, footnote #93).


The Navi tells us, “Hikon likras Elokecha, Yisroel” – “Prepare to meet your G-d, Yisroel” (Amos 4:12). Chazal derive from this posuk the great importance of preparing oneself for davening. Just as one would spend much time preparing for a meeting with a mortal king or ruler, how much more so should one anticipate his daily audiences with the King of kings.

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