Chapter 05: Netilat Yadayim in the Morning

01. The Morning Netilat Yadayim

Yisrael 2:29 and Halikhot Shlomo 2:5).

The essential objective of netilat yadayim before Shaĥarit is cleanliness, as it is written (Tehilim 26:6): “I wash my hands clean,” and as detailed in Berakhot 15a. The reason for washing one’s hands before a meal is purification and sanctification, similar to the washing of the kohanim’s hands in the kiyor (laver) before serving in the Temple. Although there is a difference between the objectives of the two washings, the Sages instituted the morning netilat yadayim based on the model of washing before a meal, and even the berakha has the same wording. Le-khatĥila, 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 she washes with a vessel, that there is human force involved in the pouring (ko’aĥ gavra), and that the appearance of the water has not changed. Be-di’avad, even if there is no revi’it of water there, or a vessel, or human force, since the water does in fact clean one for prayer, it is the opinion of SA and Rema that Al Netilat Yadayim is recited. If the appearance of the water has changed and has become unacceptable for washing before a meal, one may use it to wash her hands for Shaĥarit, but instead recite “al nekiyut yadayim” (SA 4:1, 6, 7, and 22). However, MB, 4:7, and BHL state that according to many Aĥaronim, even if the water becomes invalid for washing before a meal, one may recite Al Netilat Yadayim when washing before Shaĥarit because the water does clean her hands enough for prayer. Kaf Ha-ĥayim 4:11 and Halakha Berura 4:12 state that one does not recite a berakha on the morning netilat yadayim if there is anything that renders it invalid for washing before a meal. ]

02. Ru’aĥ Ra’ah (Evil Spirit)

In addition to the reasons mentioned, the Sages of the Talmud state (Shabbat 108b) that one must be careful that her hands do not touch her mouth, nose, eyes, or ears before washing her hands in the morning because there is a ru’aĥ ra’ah (evil spirit) which rests upon one’s hands after sleep, and it is likely to damage those organs. Only after she washes her hands three times alternately will the ru’aĥ ra’ah disappear and, subsequently, the danger caused by touching any of her bodily orifices will be eliminated.

Although the main reason for netilat yadayim is to prepare and sanctify oneself for praying Shaĥarit and for the service of a new day, and it is for this reason that the Sages instituted the berakha of al netilat yadayim, we are also careful about the ru’aĥ ra’ah and therefore take care to wash our hands three times alternately. This means that we first wash the right hand, then the left, then again the right and left, and again right and left.

Prior to washing, one must take care not to touch those organs that open towards the inside of the body – such as the mouth, nose, ears, and eyes (SA 4:3-4; MB 13). Similarly, one must be careful not to touch food or drink before washing (MB 4:14).

The Kabbala teaches (see Zohar 1:184b) that at night, when one falls asleep and remains inanimate, without thought or action, she experiences a taste of death and a spirit of impurity (ru’aĥ tum’a) rests upon her. This is in line with the Sages’ statement (Berakhot 57b), that sleep is one-sixtieth of death. The essence of human grandeur lies in the ability to think, feel, and engage in activities leading to the rectification of the world (tikun olam). During sleep, when dormancy spreads throughout the body, one loses, to a certain extent, the image of God (Tzelem Elokim) within her, and ru’aĥ ra’ah rests upon her. When she awakens from her sleep and her consciousness returns, the ru’aĥ ra’ah disappears, remaining solely on the extremities of her hands. By washing one’s hands three times alternately, the spirit of impurity is removed.

In order to completely eradicate the ru’aĥ ra’ah, one must begin washing her right hand, which symbolizes the attribute of ĥesed. Therefore, one should take the washing cup initially in her right hand and pass it over to her left, so that she pours the water over the right hand first and then the left, continuing this way until she has washed each hand three times (see Kaf Ha-ĥayim 4:12). 

Some explain that the main damage caused by the ru’aĥ ra’ah is spiritual; if one were to touch her eyes or ears before washing, her inner sense of vision and understanding would be adversely affected, and on that day she would be like a blind and deaf person concerning matters of Torah and faith. Similarly, if she were to touch her mouth or nose, the ru’aĥ ra’ah would harm her spiritual senses of eating and smelling (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 4:19, based on Solet Belula). 

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.

04. The Time to Recite Al Netilat Yadayim

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

05. One Who Did Not Sleep All Night

The poskim disagree about the status of one who stayed up all night. In practice, SA 4:13 states that such a person must wash her hands before prayer without a berakha. That way, on one hand, she fulfills her obligation according to the opinion that she must wash her hands, but on the other hand, she avoids possibility of having recited a berakha le-vatala.

According to MB 4:30, it is best for one who did not sleep all night to use the bathroom before prayer. After touching body parts that are normally covered, she can wash her hands with a berakha according to all opinions. This is the Ashkenazic custom.

In sum, according to Ashkenazic custom, one who did not sleep all night but is preparing to pray the Amida of Shaĥarit must use the bathroom before praying and subsequently wash netilat yadayim with a berakha. According to the Sephardic practice, even in this situation a woman does not recite the blessing after washing her hands (Kaf Ha-ĥayim 4:49; see below, 6:7 and 7:7, for the laws regarding Birkhot Ha-shaĥar and Birkhot Ha-Torah).

06. Hand Washing Three Times after Daytime Sleep

Why exactly does the ru’aĥ ra’ah linger specifically on one’s hands? Is it the mere state of sleep, when one’s consciousness abandons her and she is left without the ability to function? If so, even one who sleeps during the day would be required to wash her hands three times upon awakening. Or does the night, when the whole world ceases its activities, cause ru’aĥ ra’ah, in which case even one who was awake all night must wash her hands three times?

In practice, when both factors converge and one sleeps a regular slumber (at least half an hour), the ru’aĥ ra’ah rests upon her in full force. In such a case, immediately upon rising one must hurry to wash her hands three times and refrain from touching her bodily orifices or food prior before washing.

If one slept a regular slumber during the day, it is proper to be stringent and wash her hands three times alternately, but it is unnecessary for her to rush to do so since the ru’aĥ ra’ah is not in full force. Also, there is no prohibition on touching bodily orifices before washing.

If one remained awake all night, it is best for her to wash netilat yadayim three times after dawn, as there are those who maintain that the night itself, or its end, causes ru’aĥ ra’ah to descend upon the hands. Likewise, it is proper for one who arose in the middle of the night and already washed her hands three times when she woke up to wash her hands again at dawn, (Peninei Halakha: Prayer, ch. 8 nn. 4-5).

07. Waking in the Middle of the Night to Tend to a Baby or for Any Other Reason

A woman who wakes up in the middle of the night in order to cover her child or give him a pacifier need not, technically speaking, wash her hands before doing so, although she must be careful not to touch her child’s mouth or any other bodily orifice.

However, if she wakes up to prepare food for the child or change the child’s diaper, it is proper for her to wash her hands beforehand, so that she does not touch food or one of her child’s orifices with unwashed hands. Likewise, it is proper that a woman who wakes up in the middle of the night to nurse her child wash her hands before starting. However, if it is very difficult for her to go wash her hands, she may rely on lenient opinions that do not netilat yadayim of those who wake up in the middle of the night (Eshel Avraham [Buczacz] 4:1; see also section 3, which mentions that some say that nowadays the ru’aĥ ra’ah does not exist). In any case, according to all opinions, no berakha is recited on netilat yadayim performed in the middle of the night, because the Sages instituted a berakha only on the morning washing, which prepares us for prayer and the new day.

Le-khatĥila, one wakes up in the middle of the night to drink something should preferably wash her hands three times without a berakha before reciting She-hakol. Similarly, one who wakes up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom should preferably wash her hands three times so that she can touch her bodily orifices without concern. After relieving herself, she must wash her hands so that she may recite Asher Yatzar. If she wishes, she need not wash her hands prior to using the bathroom in the middle of the night, relying on the opinion that one only needs to wash her hands three times after rising in the morning. However, after relieving herself, she must wash her hands in order to recite Asher Yatzar. If she does not have water, she must clean her hands by rubbing them on her shirt and then recite Asher Yatzar (SA 4:22). 1

  1. SA 4:14-15 maintains that every regular sleep at night causes ru’aĥ ra’ah, and in order to remove it, one must wash her hands three times alternately. Even so, in the cases above, I wrote “should preferably” because the author of Eshel Avraham (Buczacz) states in the name of his father-in-law that ru’aĥ ra’ah is present only after waking up in the morning. Many who do not wash their hands when they arise in the middle of the night rely on this. The opinion of most kabbalists, according to Arizal, is that ru’aĥ ra’ah only lingers after one sleeps through ĥatzot, but if one went to sleep after ĥatzot, the ru’aĥ ra’ah does not rest upon her hands. Moreover, even if one who slept through ĥatzot already woke up once after ĥatzot and washed her hands three times, the ru’aĥ ra’ah does not rest upon her hands a second time. Hence, according to this, it is not necessary to wash one’s hands three times every time one awakens at night. Additionally, there are those who say that nowadays ru’aĥ ra’ah does not exist. Therefore, only one who wakes up in the morning must be careful to wash her hands three times because the source for this stems from the Talmud. However, beyond that, concerning waking up in the middle of the night, it is not an obligation to wash one’s hands, though it is proper to do so. Those who follow kabbalistic practices must ensure that the first time they wake up after ĥatzot they wash three times. It is also preferable but not obligatory for one to wash her hands before reciting She-hakol, as explained in SA 4:23. Even if she touched normally covered parts of her body, it is sufficient for her to rub her hands on a cloth of some sort, as clarified in MB 4:61. Similarly, before using the bathroom, it is advisable to wash one’s hands because of the ru’aĥ ra’ah, but it is not an obligation, as clarified above. Additionally, see the opinion of R. Ovadia Yosef in n. 2. An elaboration of these issues appears in Peninei Halakha: Prayer 8:6-7. 

08. Food Touched by Unwashed Hands

We learned (section 2 above) that because ru’aĥ ra’ah rests upon one’s hands in the morning, one must not touch food or drink before netilat yadayim. If a Jew touched food without washing her hands, the ruling is as follows: If it is a dry, washable food, like fruit, she should rinse it under water three times. Just as the washing of each hand three times purifies them, so too it will cleanse the fruit. However, if she mistakenly touched drinks or food that will become ruined when washed, some rule stringently that the food must be discarded out of fear that ru’aĥ ra’ah rests upon them (Od Yosef Ĥai, Toldot 6), but according to most poskim, even those foods that cannot be washed may be eaten.

There are two reasons for this: first, according to most poskim, the ru’aĥ ra’ah on one’s hands does not have the ability to render food unfit for eating (Ĥayei Adam 2:2; MB 4:14; AHS 4:15). Regarding alcoholic beverages, there are poskim who are stringent, but it is the consensus of most poskim that all other foods do not become invalidated by the touch of unwashed hands (BHL 4:5 s.v. “Lo”). Furthermore, as we have seen (section 3 above), some maintain that ru’aĥ ra’ah has been eradicated from this world and thus need not be feared. Therefore, one should not discard or waste food touched by unwashed hands.

Similarly, it is permissible le-khatĥila to buy bread or other food from off a store shelf, even though there is concern that it was touched by Jews who did not wash their hands in the morning. This is because, as we have already learned, according to most poskim, food is not invalidated by the touch of unwashed hands. Additionally, there is doubt as to whether these foods were actually touched by someone who did not wash his hands in the morning. Moreover, almost all people usually wash their hands in the morning, and it is said in the name of Arizal (Od Yosef Ĥai, Toldot 8), that even washing one’s hands once effectively weakens the power of ru’aĥ ra’ah.

09. Minors

Several major Aĥaronim write that it is important to ensure that even small children wash their hands in the morning. Even though they have not yet reached school age (gil ĥinukh), since they touch food, their hands must be washed so that the food is not damaged by the ru’aĥ ra’ah on their hands (Ĥida; Pri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 4:7; MB 4:10). Additionally, there are some who practice the extra-pious custom of washing even a newborn’s hands (Ben Ish Ĥai, Toldot 10), for by doing so, the children are raised in purity and sanctity.

However, in practice, most people are not strict about washing their children’s hands three times after they wake up, because according to some prominent Aĥaronim, ru’aĥ ra’ah only lingers on the hands of girls who are at least twelve years old and boys who are at least thirteen. This is because the spirit of impurity affects those who can connect to holiness and act to repair the world. Hence, the ru’aĥ ra’ah does not rest on the hands of gentiles, for they are not obligated to perform mitzvot. Similarly, ru’aĥ ra’ah does not rest in full force on the hands of children who have not been initiated into the duties of mitzvot. Still, there is a mitzva educate minors in mitzva observance, and once they start connecting to mitzvot, ru’aĥ ra’ah lingers upon them a bit as well. Therefore, from the time they reach the age of education and are capable of comprehending how to wash their hands, one is obligated to educate them and accustom them to washing (based on SAH 2:4:2; Eshel Avraham [Buczacz] 4:3; Tzitz Eliezer 7:2:4). 

In conclusion, there is a mitzva to habituate children in netilat yadayim from the time they reach the age of education, and it is an obligation to wash their hands starting from the age of mitzvot, meaning twelve years old for a girl and thirteen for a boy. Some are strict and wash their baby’s hands from the time he touches food (MB 4:10). Additionally, there are individuals who enhance the mitzva by washing their baby’s hands from the time of his brit mila or even from birth, for even then Israel’s unique holiness begins to appear (cited parenthetically in SAH ad loc.; see also Kaf Ha-ĥayim 4:22).