Peninei Halakha

03. Ru’aĥ Ra’ah Today

According to Zohar and the kabbalists, one must wash her hands immediately upon waking from her sleep so as not to prolong the ru’aĥ ra’ah upon her hands. They also caution against walking 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 her bed so that she can wash her hands immediately upon rising (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:2). There are those who are lenient regarding this because, in their opinion, the entire house is considered a single space of four amot. As long as one does not leave the house for more than the space of four amot, she is not considered to have walked four amot before washing (Responsa Shevut Yaakov 3:1).

Others maintain that ru’aĥ ra’ah has been eliminated from this world. Tosafot (Yoma 77b) cites an opinion that ru’aĥ ra’ah does not dwell in “these kingdoms” (France and Germany). Leĥem Mishneh states that it is implied from Rambam, who lived in Spain and Egypt, that he, too, is not concerned about the ru’aĥ ra’ah mentioned in the Talmud (MT, Laws of Observing Yom Kippur 3:2). Maharshal one of the greatest Ashkenazic poskim of the sixteenth century, writes no ru’aĥ ra’ah is found nowadays (Yam Shel Shlomo, Ĥullin 8:31). Several 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. Over time, intellectual prowess took center stage at the expense of spiritual forces, and together with the cessation of prophecy, the impure spirits weakened and disappeared; their place was taken by the “evil spirits” of false and deceitful ideas.

Furthermore, there is an amazing tradition regarding Count Valentine Potocki, the Polish nobleman who had his heart set on joining the Jewish people 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, Vilna Gaon said that the ru’aĥ ra’ah lost some of its strength, particularly regarding the ru’aĥ ra’ah of the morning. For this reason, the students of the Vilna Gaon are lenient regarding walking four amot before washing.

In practice, according to Ĥida, MB (1:2), and Ben Ish Ĥai, one should be careful not to walk more than four amot before washing. In contrast, there are poskim who are lenient, whether because the entire house is considered four amot or because today there is no longer any ru’aĥ ra’ah on one’s hands. Therefore, the common custom is to walk more than four amot before washing. However, even according to those who rule leniently, the custom is to be strict about anything mentioned in the Talmud, such as washing one’s hands three times and not touching bodily orifices prior to washing.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

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Editor: Nechama Unterman