The candles are flickering, Shalom Aleichem and Eishet Chayil have been sung, and kiddush has been made for all those gathered around the beautiful Sabbath table.
Now it is time to begin the meal. But first, we are invited by the host to step into the kitchen to wash our hands in preparation for the eating of the challah.
No, this is not a call for cleanliness, but an important step that will lead us to ha-motzi, the blessing over the bread.
Before explaining this simple action, we need to understand some Jewish symbolism:
Water ― symbolic of Torah; wisdom. Water is the essence of physical life, for without it we would die; whereas wisdom is the essence of spiritual life, the foundation of self-growth and self-realization.
Hands ― symbolic of our interaction in the physical world.
Bread (challah) ― symbolic of physical sustenance; the staff of life.
We take the water and pour it over each hand ― that's the understanding that all my interactions in the physical world - writing, touching, working ― should be done in a wise, meaningful way.
And it is a reminder that tonight our table is holy, like an altar. Just as the Kohanim in the Temple so long ago prepared themselves by washing, so do we wash before our meal. It is a unique pleasure to perform a simple act that represents something so meaningful.
1. Before washing, make sure the challahs, challah knife, challah cover, and salt are all on the table.
2. In the kitchen, hand towels should be laid out for guests to dry their hands after washing.
3. Use either a special washing cup (a large, two-handled cup) or a regular glass without handles ― providing the top rim has no indentations or spout and holds at least 5 ounces.
4. Remove any rings from your fingers. Hold the cup in your right hand while filling it with water from the tap.
5. Pass the cup to your left hand and then pour about half the water ― pouring twice in quick succession ― over the right hand. Soak the hand on both sides from the wrist down, getting every area of the hand wet.
6. Now pass the cup to your right hand and repeat on the left side. (Refill the cup if necessary.)
7. After the hands have been washed, they should be held upward, so that the water drips toward the wrist and not the fingers. The blessing is then recited:
Blessing over Washing the Hands
8. The hands are dried, and one returns to the table, careful not to speak until ha-motzi is recited and the bread is passed and eaten.
Questions and Answers
Why do we pour water on the right hand first?
According to Jewish tradition, the right symbolizes kindness, a trait we always want to emphasize. You will notice many other areas where this comes up, including the custom of a bride and groom beginning their walk down the aisle with their right feet. And that's why we first pick up the washing cup with our right hand, only then passing it to our left.
Why do we raise our hands after washing, letting the water drip toward our wrists?
The blessing for the washing says, "netilat yadayim," which literally means "raising of the hands." On a technical level, this parallels the washing done in the Holy Temple. On a conceptual level, we are elevating our hands spiritually.
I like washing my hands before the blessing of ha-motzi. It slows me down and makes me realize that there is sanctity in food. It separates us from animals and reminds me that I was created with a soul. It makes a statement that this is special.
Nourishment is a gift, not a right. And that gift is from God; a God who is there keeping the whole thing in motion.
To me it makes sense, all the preparation and specialness of washing and ha-motzi, because bread is not an apple. It is the result of a long and involved process that can come only from civilized man. It is a statement that man has to be involved in his own existence, and yet bread is the culmination; for when God is the partner in all of this, it is like taking creation and making it even better.
I always remembered something being said over a big braided challah at all the weddings I went to as a kid. But I didn't connect the loudspeaker blessing to the little cubes of raisin bread that were passed around.
When I was traveling through Israel, I spent a Shabbat with a family in the Old City of Jerusalem. They explained what was going to happen with the washing and not talking and everything. I didn't think twice about following and participating. It seemed like a cultural, fun thing to do and it was done in a very tasteful way.
I remember one of my first Shabbat experiences as if it were yesterday. I was at a rabbi's house on Friday night and after kiddush it was announced that it was "time to wash."
Then I heard clinking. It was the women taking off their rings and putting them on their plates. I remember feeling so embarrassed thinking that I hadn't worn any rings for this ceremony so that I could remove them, too.
It was three or four more Shabbats before I realized that you take off your rings to wash only if you happened to be wearing any. Live and learn.
I like Shabbat. I like the food. I like the company. I like the whole idea. But I can't seem to be able to stop talking between washing my hands and eating the challah!
I was attending a Jewish community luncheon when suddenly one of the organizers came over to my table and asked me if I would please do the honors and make ha-motzi for everyone at the function.
Now, I am no rabbi, but I was one of the few kippah-laden Jews there, so I accepted the invitation and waited for them to announce ha-motzi and introduce me.
Suddenly a horrible thought came to mind: I could say ha-motzi only if I washed, and there seemed to be no washing stations in sight.
I quickly raced through the options in my head: politely refuse the honor... feign sickness at the last moment and race from the room... or frantically try and find a washroom where I could wash.
Although not the ideal, I decided to choose the last, but before I could even stand to look, I heard from the microphone: "... who will now honor us with ha-motzi."
Panic. In a second that seemed like an eternity, I somehow had the presence of mind to act. In one deft move I grabbed my glass of ice water, brought it under the table, threw water over my hands (creating icy puddles on the floor below), and strode confidently to the head table, reciting the "al netilat yadayim" blessing quietly to myself.
Now I couldn't talk, so I ceremoniously nodded to the guest of honor and his entourage and reached for the large braided challah laid out before me. Before I could even say ha-motzi, someone tapped me on my shoulder. It was a waiter who had just wheeled in a tray with a large bowl and a pitcher full of... water.
They had planned for me to wash all along. And now I was really up a creek because I wasn't sure what to do ― wash again? Wave it away??
Well, to make a long story short, I washed again and only pretended to say the blessing, picked up the challah, said the ha-motzi into the microphone with as much intent as I could muster, cut the challah, and ate a piece.
Then I returned to my seat... putting my feet into the puddles.
Adapted from "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik