According to the Zohar and the kabbalists, one must wash his hands next to his bed in the morning, so as not to prolong the ruach ra’ah upon himself. They also warn not to walk more than four amot before washing one’s hands in the morning. Therefore, one must prepare water before going to sleep and place it near his bed so that immediately upon rising he can wash his hands (Sha’arei Teshuvah 1:2). There are those who are lenient regarding this because in their opinion the entire house is considered four amot. As long as one does not have to leave the house more than a distance of four amot in order to wash his hands, he is not thought of as someone who prolongs the ruach ra’ah upon himself (Shut Shevut Yaakov 3:1).
Some maintain that ruach ra’ah has been nullified from this world. The Tosafot (Yoma 77b) bring the opinion that this ruach ra’ah does not dwell in the regions comprising the Ashkenazic countries. The Lechem Mishneh writes that it is implied from the Rambam that he, too, is not concerned about the ruach ra’ah mentioned in the Talmud (Shevitat HeAsor 3:2). Also, the Maharshal, who lived approximately 400 years ago, and who was one of the eminent poskim in Ashkenaz, writes that in our times, no ruach ra’ah exists around us (Chullin, chapter 8, 31). A number of other poskim agree with this approach.
In earlier generations, spiritual and mystical power was more pronounced and intense. This was expressed on the one hand by the ability to attain greater and more transcendental experiences, emotionally and spiritually, such as prophecy, and, on the other hand, by the presence of all sorts of sorcery and impure spirits. As time passed, intellectual strength took center stage at the expense of emotional powers, and together with the cessation of prophecy, the impure spirits weakened and disappeared; in their place there are evil spirits of false and deceitful ideas.
Furthermore, there is an amazing tradition regarding Graf Potoczki, born in Poland to aristocratic parents, who had his heart set on joining the nation of Israel and converting to Judaism. Since such a thing was prohibited in his time, he converted secretly and engrossed himself in Torah. Eventually, the Christians captured him and offered him two options: to return to Christianity or to be burned alive. The righteous convert chose to die by fire, thereby publicly sanctifying God’s Name. At that moment, the Vilna Gaon said that the ruach ra’ah lost some of its strength, particularly regarding the ruach ra’ah of Shacharit. For this reason the students of the Vilna Gaon are lenient regarding walking four amot before washing.
In practice, according to the Chida, Mishnah Berurah (1:2), and Ben Ish Chai, one should be careful not to walk more than four amot before washing. In contrast to them, there are poskim who are lenient, whether it is because the entire house is considered four amot, or because today the ruach ra’ah on one’s hands has ceased to exist. That is the common custom. However, even according to those who maintain that the ruach ra’ah does not fully exist among us, it is customary to be strict concerning everything mentioned in the Talmud, such as washing one’s hands three times and not touching bodily orifices prior to washing.