The Chachamim instituted the washing of one’s hands every morning and the recital of the blessing, “Asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim,” (“…Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”)
A person’s hands endow him with the capability to function in this world. With his hands he can give and receive, hold and deliver, handle his different belongings, and care for his body. However, along with, and perhaps because of, their versatility, one’s hands also wallow in all the dealings of this world and tend to get dirty and contaminated more than any other limb. Whenever it is necessary to elevate and distance ourselves from the lower aspects of this world in order to engage in matters of sanctity, we wash our hands. This is the general significance of washing hands, including the washing in the morning. However, the Rishonim disagree as to the exact reason behind the morning washing.
According to the Rosh, since a person’s hands are constantly moving, it is almost certain that during one’s sleep they touch parts of the body that are normally covered. Therefore, in order to purify them before Shacharit, the Chachamim instituted the washing of one’s hands.
According to the Rashba, every morning people are created anew, as it is written (Lamentations 3:23), “They are renewed every morning; abundant is Your faithfulness!” A person goes to sleep tired, gives his soul over to his Creator, and arises in the morning with renewed strength. This new creation should be sanctified and designated for serving Hashem by washing one’s hands in the morning.
In other words, according to the Rosh, the washing of one’s hands in the morning is solely in preparation for prayer, and according to the Rashba, this washing constitutes a preparation and sanctification for prayer and for service of Hashem throughout the entire day.
. There are two sources for the morning washing: Berachot 60b, where it appears as one of Birkot HaShachar and seems to correspond to the opinion of the Rashba; and Berachot 14b-15a, where it appears as a preparation for prayer, consistent with the opinion of the Rosh.There is an opinion which states that a woman who does not intend to pray Shemoneh Esrei on a particular day should wash without reciting a berachah, for according to the Rosh, this washing was instituted specifically for prayer (Shut Machazeh Eliyahu 11). However, in practice, women have the custom to follow the Rashba, and recite a blessing on the morning washing regardless. The Bach writes that even the Rosh agrees that the Chachamim instituted washing in the morning as part of Birkot HaShachar, but that according to the Rosh, one also needs to wash his hands with a berachah before praying Minchah and Ma’ariv if his hands are dirty.
The essential objective of the morning washing before Shacharit is cleanliness, as it is written (Psalms 26:6), “I wash my hands clean,” and this is clarified in Berachot 15a. The reason for washing one’s hands before a meal is for purification and sanctification, similar to the washing of the Kohanim’s hands in the Kiyor (laver) before they worked in the Temple. Although there is a difference between the objectives of the two washings, the Chachamim instituted the washing in the morning following the example of washing before a meal, and even the berachah has the same wording. L’chatchilah, when washing in the morning, one should take care that all the necessary requirements for washing one’s hands before a meal are met – that there is at least a revi’it of water, that he washes with a vessel, that there is human force involved in the pouring (ko’ach gavra), and that the appearance of the water has not changed. B’dieved, even if there is no revi’it of water there, or a vessel, or human force (ko’ach gavra), since the water does in fact clean a person for prayer, it is the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama that the “Al netilat yadayim” berachah is recited. If the appearance of the water has changed and became invalid for washing before a meal, one may use it to wash his hands for Shacharit, but instead recite “Al nekiyut yadayim” (Shulchan Aruch section 4, paragraphs 1, 6, 7, 22). However, the Mishnah Berurah 4:7, and Bei’ur Halachah write that according to many Acharonim, even if the water becomes invalid for washing before a meal, one may recite Al netilat yadayim when washing before Shacharit, because the water does clean his hands enough for prayer. Kaf HaChaim 4:11 and Halachah Berurah 4:12 write that one does not recite a blessing for the washing in the morning if there is anything that renders it invalid for washing before a meal.