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Washing Before Touching Bread

I understand that we must wash our hands before eating bread because our hands are ritually unclean. Let’s say a person touches bread without eating it. Wouldn’t the same concern apply? This happens to me many mornings when I make my lunch for work.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s a good question. Since we wash our hands for bread because of ritual uncleanness, by rights the concern should be the same however we come in contact with the bread, whether through eating or touching.

Even so, the Sages decreed washing only before eating bread but not before any other sort of contact. The reason is because there is no actual concern of ritual uncleanness. Washing the hands was only necessary for Priests in earlier times, when they would eat their tithes (terumah) in a state of purity. To help ensure that the Priests would be in the habit of doing the required washing, the Sages decreed that all Israel should wash before eating bread – the most common form of coming in contact with terumah, and this decree was maintained in later times, even though Priests may no longer eat terumah.

Thus, although in the olden days a Priest would have to wash his hands for both bread and other tithed produce, and both before touching and before eating them, the nationwide decree was instituted for eating bread alone. (See Mishna Berurah 158:1-2.)

In fact, as the Talmud points out, if one person were feeding another one bread, the one who is doing the feeding would not be required to wash, while the one doing the eating would (Hullin 107b).

Note that apart from the issue of washing before bread, one must wash his hands three times in the morning before touching any food (Mishna Berurah 4:14).

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