A Splash of Ritual: Handwashing on Shabbat

Dr. C. Tova Markenson

A Splash of Ritual: Handwashing on Shabbat

I do not have an especially green thumb, but that does not stop me from getting my hands dirty in the garden. This year, I attempted to plant garlic; I dug slim channels into the ground, gently placed each garlic clove into the earth, and then covered the cloves with a loose layer of soil. Afterward, there was dirt everywhere. And as I turned on the faucet to wash my hands, I could not stop smiling. My body had done so simple and concrete that, in a few months, could become something delicious.

I experience the ritual of handwashing as an opportunity to appreciate all that our bodies do throughout the week; to give thanks for the hands that plant the seeds, knead the dough, and set the table.

This week, what is something that your body did for others or for yourself?

Why Handwashing?

On Shabbat, some people wash their hands before blessing and eating the challah. This ritual can be traced back to ancient times when the priests lived off of donations from farmers. The priests would wash their hands before accepting these donations to make sure that their bodies were “pure,” or ritually clean, before accepting the donation.

It is thought that handwashing is a way to symbolically transform one’s inner world. Perhaps this ritual also helped the ancient priests internally prepare to receive the sacred gift of food.

In Judaism, one of the morning prayers is a kind of daily affirmation that the souls of all beings are pure. Throughout the week, invisible layers of “gunk” (fear, reactivity, mistrust, etc.) might accumulate — Shabbat is an opportunity to release that which does not serve and return to a state of pure being.

What helps you to prepare to receive?

How to Wash

As with all Jewish rituals, it’s good to go with your gut and do what feels authentic for you. This particular form of handwashing is less about hygiene and more about intention.

The ritual often takes place at a sink or beside a big bowl of water. Rather than placing the hands underneath the faucet, it is common to fill a cup with water first. Some people use a cup with two handles, but any vessel will do. Holding the cup with one hand, pour two or three splashes of water over your other hand, and then vice versa (the number three keeps away the evil eye!). Regardless of whether you are a righty or a lefty, some people pour water on the right hand first because, in Jewish mystical thought, the right side of the body symbolizes kindness, a quality that never hurts to prioritize.

Next, recite the handwashing blessing, also called netilat yadayimwhich you can listen to and read here. Since netilat yadayim literally means “raising of the hands,” some people say the blessing while raising their hands in the air (also a symbol of spiritual elevation). Others say the blessing while drying their hands with a towel. After washing, it can be a sweet gesture of hospitality to fill up the cup for the next person.

Fun fact: With most Jewish rituals, the blessing is said before the ritual. Handwashing is a rare case where the ritual comes before the blessing.

Why use a cup for washing? Some believe this connects back to the idea of purity. As in, each hand is considered “clean” only after it has been washed; for instance, if the “clean” right hand were to touch the “unclean” left hand, then both hands would be considered dirty all over again.

I resonate more with the idea that Shabbat is a time for taking a mini-vacation from my weekday routines.

This Shabbat, is there anything that you might want to experiment with doing a little bit differently?

Beyond the Basics: Other Creative Approaches 

In between handwashing and eating the challah, some people stay silent or hum a wordless melody rather than speaking. This is to symbolize that there should be minimal delay between washing hands and eating bread. It is also another opportunity to check back in with the body and the breath and notice any physical sensations that might be arising.

What are some ways that you might make this ritual your own?

I’ve seen some lovely adaptations of the handwashing ritual that expand on the theme of hospitality. One friend invited each person to give the person next to them a blessing before they washed their hands, something like “Wishing you good health” or “Good luck with that job interview you mentioned earlier!” If blessings aren’t your cup of tea, you could also silently send the people around you general good vibes.

For me, handwashing is a chance to reflect on something that I might be holding on to; as I feel the water touch my hands, I set an intention to loosen my grip and maybe even let go…

What is something that you are carrying with you into this Shabbat? What might you be ready to let go of?