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Mayim Acharonim – Washing Before Birkat HaMazon

I was reading that the Hassidic practice is to wash one’s hands at the end of a bread meal, before Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals). What is the basis for this and do you recommend I do it?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Washing before Birkat HaMazon, called mayim acharonim, literally, “the last waters,” is definitely a recommended practice, whether one is Hassidic or not. The obligation is mentioned in Talmud Brachot 53b, based on Leviticus 20:7: “And you shall sanctify yourself” – this refers to the first waters (i.e., the water used to wash one’s hands at the start of a bread meal); “and you shall be holy” – this refers to the last waters. The Talmud thus considers washing at both the beginning and end of a bread meal obligatory – a means of sanctifying ourselves – in this case washing the food residue off our hands – so we can properly bless God at both the start and finish of our meal. (It should be noted that the verse is only an allusion, as neither of these washings are true Torah obligations.)

The Talmud elsewhere (Eiruvin 17b, Hullin 105b) gives a second reason for this practice. In Talmudic times Dead Sea salt (lit., “Sodomite salt”) was considered especially irritating to the eyes. (The Talmud states it that it causes blindness.) Since some might have accidentally gotten mixed into their ordinary table salt, the Talmud rules that a person should be careful to remove it from his hands as soon as his meal concludes.

The applicability of these reasons, especially the second one, has engendered an interesting debate among later authorities. Tosafot (Brachos 53b, Eiruvin 17b), a commentary on the Talmud authored primarily in France in the 12th-14th centuries, writes that since Dead Sea salt is not common in their area, and furthermore since they do not typically come in contact with salt during their meals, there is no reason to continue the custom to wash at the end of the meal.

Tosafot (Brachot 53b only) additionally addresses the first reason given by the Talmud. The Talmud wrote that we must wash our hands at the end of the meal in order to “sanctify” them before reciting Birkat HaMazon. However, since it is not customary today to wash after eating (since most people today are not bothered by any bits of food residue left on their hands (in addition to the fact that today’s eating habits generally do not involve the hands directly touching the food)), there is no need to clean our hands in order to recite the blessings (see also Magen Avraham O.C. 181:8 and Mishna Berurah 22).

Some follow this opinion in practice (as brought in Shulchan Aruch O.C. 181:10), and this likewise became the common custom among German Jews (who have even less reason to be concerned about their hands becoming dirty). However, even those who are lenient must wash their hands if they became dirty to the extent that it does bother them (Tosafot ibid., Shulchan Aruch ibid.).

Many authorities, however, take strong issue with the lenient opinion for several reasons. Firstly, other types of salt, especially sea salt, may have qualities similar to Dead Sea salt (Yam Shel Shlomo, Hullin 8:10; Aruch HaShulchan 181:5). But more significantly, Kaf HaChaim (181:1) writes that we should never take it upon ourselves to argue with a law in the Talmud, even if we believe the reason no longer applies. There is far more spiritual depth to the words of our Sages than is outwardly evident. The “revealed” reasons they give for their rulings may very well be only a part of the picture. In fact, Kabbalistic sources emphasize the importance of washing at the end of the meal (see e.g. Ta’amei HaMinhagim 189). And furthermore, the Talmud states explicitly (Hullin 105b) that the water used for this washing has an “impure spirit” on it when it falls to the ground.

(It should also be noted that the Talmud’s “revealed” reason does not seem that convincing, as Dead Sea salt today is no more irritating than other salts – although quite possibly theirs was mixed with various contaminants.)

Having established the importance of this custom, here are a few the rules for how it should be done (mostly from Shulchan Aruch (SA) O.C. 181 with Mishna Berurah (MB) unless specified otherwise):

(1) You only have to wash your fingers, not your entire hand, from the second-to-top joint to the fingertips, and the top joint of your thumb. (This is the primary area which might have become dirty during the meal.) However, if your hands are dirty beyond there, you must wash off all dirty areas. (There are customs to wash the entire fingers or even the entire hand.) (SA 4, MB 10, Biur Halacha s.v. “ahd”).

(2) There is no specific amount of water which must be used for the washing, just whatever is needed to rinse the fingers, though some have the custom to use a revi’it – the volume of 1.5 eggs (86-150 ml or 2.9-5.07 oz; MB 19).

(3) You don’t have to wash from a cup, but can just wash your hands at the sink, a single time (MB 21). (Some authorities write that preferably a cup should be used.) Note that if a cup is used – such as when it is passed around the table, one should not dip his fingers in the water but must pour out of it (MB 3).

(4) Preferably, the water used should be cold and not warm. Hot water may not be used (SA 3, MB 7).

(5) You should tilt your hands downwards when washing (so the dirt will more readily roll off of them; SA 5).

(6) It is preferable to dry your hands after the washing (SA 8, MB 19)

(7) A blessing is not recited on this washing (SA 7).

(8) In olden days, before indoor plumbing, it was important not to wash directly onto the ground – in an area where people might afterwards walk – because of an impure spirit which rested on the water (SA 2). This is probably the basis for the common custom today that if washing into a bowl at the table, the bowl is subsequently removed or covered. (This response did not find much source for this practice.)

(9) You should recite Birkat HaMazon immediately after washing mayim acharonim (Talmud Brachos 42a). You may not eat after washing and should preferably not talk (SA 179:1, MB 1).

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