Ritual Wrist Washing

For several months, I sat one day a week ending drafts of chapters of a book while facing the hand washing station in a local establishment. I noticed what seemed to me like a new phenomenon.  People were doing the Jewish ritual hand washing by only pouring the water on their wrists or occasionally they cupped their hands and poured the water into their palms and then tossed it. The correct approach is pour the water on the fingers or to make sure they are included.

handwashing correct

Traditional Jewish hand washing before the eating of bread is to imitate the priestly washing of hands in the temple. The fingers need to have a specific measure of water poured on them in order to purify them.  As a praiseworthy greater act, one washes up to the wrists. Hands are then held upward to prevent impure water falling on the fingers. This washing is in distinction to the alternating washing done in the morning or at a cemetery.

What I watch was a steady tend of people pouring the water solely on their wrists and the fingers remaining dry or only some of the fingers getting wet.  Or they poured the water into a cupped palm in which some of the fingers only became wet by the splash. What is up with that?

When I noticed the phenomena, I started to look at the people. I have no specific tallies but the Israelis wash their hands correctly. The younger Americans quickly splashed water on their wrists. Has anyone else seen this? Is it because of the large number of incorrect web images? For example, see here at MyJewish Learning.


Or are people learning from irrelevant pictures?

hand wash incorrect

2 responses to “Ritual Wrist Washing

  1. Is the purpose of ritual hand washing only symbolic? Or is it strictly hygienic? Who can make sense of this?:

    “To wash the hands to the extent that the sages decreed, namely five knots, which contain fourteen joints.
    Similarly there are fourteen joints in the left [hand], making twenty-eight joints. And against these twenty-eight [are the] ‘the כֹּחַ [koaḥ] power, of YHWH’ [where the gematria of כֹּחַ (koaḥ) is 28], and these are the twenty-eight letters of the first verse in the Works of Creation [Genesis 1:1], and about them it is written:
    And now, I pray you, let the כֹּחַ [koaḥ] power, of Adonai be great [Numbers 14:17]. The ten fingers correspond to the ten sayings at the creation of the world:
    For this reason, the sages of the Mishnah taught: Whoever is careless over the washing of the hands is uprooted from the world [BT Sotah 4b]. Why is this? It is because the ten fingers of the hands and the twenty-eight joints of the fingers contain the mystery of the ten sayings and the twenty-eight letters with which the world was created” (Ra’aya Meheimna Pinḥas).

  2. walter benjamin

    ” Hands are then held upward to prevent impure water falling on the fingers.”
    actually it seems that the washing required for bread{which is the only washing requiring a vessel} is only a ‘r’viet’ for both hands. in other words this amount would only be sufficient for the tips of the fingers and all the other ‘gesticulations’ have somehow worked their way into the ritual.
    thus there would be no concern for the water to be dispersed.

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