The correct time to recite “al netilat yadayim” is immediately after washing and before drying one’s hands. However, the general rule regarding all berakhot recited upon the performance of mitzvot, is to recite the berakha first and then perform the mitzva. Hence, we make a berakha on the separation of the ĥalla (hafrashat ĥalla) before separating and make a berakha on the mezuza before affixing it to the doorpost. Yet, regarding netilat yadayim, the law is different. Since it is inappropriate to recite the berakha while one’s hands are unclean, its recitation is delayed until after the washing. Therefore, immediately after washing, even before drying one’s hands, the berakha must be recited.
In actuality, the berakha is usually not recited immediately following the first washing upon waking. This is because people generally need to relieve themselves upon waking up and one should not recite a berakha while having to tend to one’s bodily needs. Furthermore, according to Rosh, the washing was instituted to prepare the person for prayer; therefore, one is obligated to recite a berakha on netilat yadayim before praying. Hence, after relieving oneself in the morning, one washes her hands again but need not wash three times alternating, since the ru’aĥ ra’ah was removed the first time she washed. She then recites the berakha before drying them. One who does not need to relieve herself in the morning should recite the berakha on the first washing immediately upon waking up (SA 6:2; MB 4:4). 1
Le-khatĥila it is preferable to recite Birkhot Ha-shaĥar and the Amida soon after waking up. First, it is proper to thank God by reciting Birkhot Ha-shaĥar at the very beginning of the day. Likewise, it is best to pray the Amida before becoming involved in other matters (see below, 8:4). Additionally, it is not appropriate to have a long break between the berakha of al netilat yadayim and the Amida, for some poskim maintain that the washing was essentially instituted as preparation for prayer (Rosh). Even a woman who does not pray in the morning because she is involved in household concerns should at least recite Birkhot Ha-shaĥar immediately after rising and washing her hands, so that her netilat yadayim will be considered preparation for Birkhot Ha-shaĥar.
A woman who wakes up before dawn must wash her hands, recite al netilat yadayim, and then recite all Birkhot Ha-shaĥar. This is if she wakes up after ĥatzot (halakhic midnight). However, before ĥatzot it is forbidden to recite Birkhot Ha-shaĥar, and therefore she may not recite al netilat yadayim either. Instead, she waits until after ĥatzot, and after she uses the bathroom she washes her hands and recites al netilat yadayim as well as the remaining Birkhot Ha-shaĥar. 2
- MB 4:4, based on MA, states that one who wakes up and needs to relieve herself must first wash her hands three times without a berakha in order to remove the ru’aĥ ra’ah from upon them. After relieving herself, she must wash her hands with a berakha because, according to Rosh, the morning washing with a berakha was instituted as preparation for prayer. However, R. Ovadia Yosef (Halakha Berura 4:4; Berur Halakha 4:4) rules that one should first relieve herself in the bathroom and then wash her hands three times so that the berakha will be on the first washing of the day, for that is the more correct way according to Rashba. Moreover, if one has a great need to relieve herself, to the point where if she abstained she would be transgressing the prohibition “Do not abominate yourself” (“bal teshaktzu”) the law is that one must relieve herself first and only after that wash her hands. It is possible to retort that there is no concern for “bal teshaktzu” in such a case, since washing one’s hands takes so little time. The practical custom follows the opinion of MB and the kabbalists, so that ru’aĥ ra’ah can be quickly removed. Regarding the berakha before drying one’s hands, see Kaf Ha-ĥayim 4:8. According to the Ashkenazic practice, one may delay reciting the berakha and combine it with Birkhot Ha-shaĥar. Nevertheless, it is best to recite it immediately following the performance of the mitzva, as per MB 6:9. ↩
- In Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 8 n. 3, a dispute among the Aĥaronim is recorded, concerning how a man should act if he wakes up much earlier than the time to pray and he knows that he will need to relieve himself again before praying. Some say that according to Rashba he must recite the blessing on the washing closest to his sleep, whereas according to Rosh, he must recite the blessing on the washing closest to prayer. I maintain that it is best to recite the blessing on the washing closest to sleep. Certainly women, for whom the obligation to pray Shaĥarit is not definite, should preferably recite the blessing on the washing closest to sleep as part of Birkhot Ha-shaĥar (based on the explanation given above, n. 1).
Regarding when one who woke up after ĥatzot for a few hours and then went back to sleep until morning should recite Birkhot Ha-shaĥar, see below, 6:6. ↩