08 – Washing One’s Hands in the Morning

01 – Morning Washing

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.[1]


[1]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 yadayimberachah 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.

02 – Hand Washing Concerning One Who Did Not Sleep All Night

Based on what we have learned in the previous halachah (according to the Mishnah Berurah), in the Rashba’s opinion, even a person who did not sleep at night must wash his hands with a berachah in order to sanctify himself so that he may thank Hashem for a new day. In the Rosh’s opinion, however, because he did not sleep, there is no concern that he unintentionally touched the parts of his body that are normally covered and therefore it is unnecessary to wash his hands before praying.

Hence, the Shulchan Aruch rules (4:13) that a person who remains awake all night must wash his hands without a berachah. He must wash his hands, according to the opinion of the Rashba, however he does not make a blessing on that washing, so as not to recite a berachah in vain, consistent with the opinion of the Rosh.

The Mishnah Berurah writes (4:30) that a person who did not sleep all night should relieve himself before Shacharit. After his hands touch the parts of his body that are normally covered, then even according to the Rosh, he must wash his hands with a berachah. He can therefore wash his hands with a berachah according to all opinions. This is the Ashkenazic custom for those who stay awake all night on Shavuot.

The minhag of the Sephardim is that before praying, even a person who touched the normally covered parts of his body washes his hands without a berachah. This is because we take into consideration the opinion stating that the Chachamim instituted washing with a berachah only for a person who slept at night. But a person who dirtied his hands and did not sleep is the same as one whose hands were dirty before Minchah and Ma’ariv – he washes his hands without a berachah. The sole advice for someone who was awake all night and wants to fulfill the obligation according to all opinions is to hear the berachah recited by another person and have in mind to fulfill his obligation by hearing it (Kaf HaChaim 4:49). (See further in this book 8:5; 9:5-6, for the law regarding someone who remains awake all night, or who wakes up in the middle of the night, concerning the recital of Birkot HaShachar and Al netilat yadayim.)

03 – Ruach Ra’ah (Evil Spirit)

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

The essence of the morning washing is to prepare and sanctify oneself for praying Shacharit and for the service of a new day. For that reason, the Chachamim instituted reciting Al netilat yadayim. Nevertheless, we are also careful about the ruach ra’ah, and in order to remove it, we must be strict in washing our hands three times alternately from a vessel. This means that we first wash the right hand, then the left, then again the right and left, and another time right and left, which comes out to be three times, each hand alternately.

Prior to washing, one must take care not to touch those organs that have openings toward the inside of the body – such as the mouth, nose, ears, and eyes (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 4:3-4; Mishnah Berurah 13). Similarly, one must be cautious not to touch food or drink before washing (Mishnah Berurah 4:14).

The Kabbalah teaches (see Zohar, part 1, 184:2) that at night, when a person falls asleep and remains inanimate, without thought and action, he experiences a taste of death and a spirit of impurity (ruach ra’ah) rests upon him. This is in line with Chazal’s statement (Berachot 57b) that sleep is one-sixtieth of death. The essence of human virtue lies in one’s 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, a person loses, to a certain extent, the image of God (Tzelem Elokim) within him, and the ruach ra’ah rests upon him. When he awakens from his sleep and his consciousness returns, the ruach ra’ah disappears, remaining solely on the extremities of his hands. By washing one’s hands three times alternately, the ruach ra’ah is removed. In order to completely nullify it, one must begin washing his right hand, which symbolizes the attribute of chesed. Therefore, one should take the washing cup initially in his right hand and pass it over to his left, so that he pours the water over the right hand first and then the left, continuing this way until he has washed each hand three times (see Kaf HaChaim 4:12). In this way, the stern judgments associated with the attribute of gevurah (represented by the left hand) are made subservient to the attribute of chesed (represented by the right hand).

Some explain that the main damage caused by the ruach ra’ah is spiritual; if he were to touch his eyes or ears before washing, his internal senses of sight and hearing would be adversely affected, and on that day he would be like a blind and deaf person concerning matters of Torah and faith. Similarly, if he were to touch his mouth or nose, the ruach ra’ah would harm his spiritual senses of eating and smelling (Kaf HaChaim 4:19, based on Solet Belulah).

04 – Ruach Ra’ah Today

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.

05 – The Time to Recite Al Netilat Yadayim

The correct time to recite the “Al netilat yadayimberachah is immediately after washing and before drying one’s hands. However, the general rule regarding all berachot recited upon the performance of mitzvot, is to recite the berachah first and then perform the mitzvah. Hence, we make a berachah on the wrapping of tefillin before binding them on our arms, and we make a berachah on the mezuzah before affixing it to the doorpost. Yet, regarding Al netilat yadayim the law is different. Since it is inappropriate to recite the berachah while one’s hands are unclean, its recital is delayed until after the washing. Still, we may not separate the berachah from the act of the mitzvah and therefore, immediately after washing, before drying one’s hands, the berachah must be recited.

In actuality, the berachah 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 berachah while having to tend to one’s bodily needs. Furthermore, according to the Rosh, the washing was instituted to prepare the person for prayer; therefore, one is obligated to recite a berachah on the washing before praying. Hence, after relieving oneself in the morning, one washes his hands again and recites the berachah before drying them. One who does not need to relieve himself in the morning should recite the berachah on the first washing immediately upon waking up (Shulchan Aruch 6:2; Mishnah Berurah 4:4).[2]

Regarding one who rises from his sleep long before he intends to pray, and knows for certain that prior to praying he will need to defecate, there is uncertainty concerning when it is proper to recite Al netilat yadayim. According to the Rashba, who maintains that one washes in honor of the new day, it is proper that he recite the berachah immediately upon waking up. According to the Rosh, who maintains that the washing was instituted as preparation for prayer, he should recite the berachah on the washing right before prayer. In this case, it is advisable to recite Birkot HaShachar immediately following the washing performed upon rising, and then, to a certain extent, Birkot HaShachar will be considered the beginning of prayer and the washing a preparation for them. That way, even according to the Rosh one may recite Al netilat yadayim immediately upon waking up.

Therefore, whoever wakes up after chatzot (halachic midnight) must wash his hands, recite Al netilat yadayim, and say all of Birkot HaShachar. However, if, after remaining awake for a few hours, he intends to go back to sleep until the time to pray arrives, after waking up the first time he must wash his hands without a berachah, and after the second time he must wash with a berachah, for that is the waking closest to prayer. (Regarding Birkot HaShachar see further in this book 9:5, where it is explained that it is preferable to recite them after the main waking, provided that it is after chatzot.)[3]


[2]. The Mishnah Berurah 4:4, based on the Magen Avraham, writes that one who wakes up and needs to relieve himself, before doing so must wash his hands three times without a berachah in order to remove the ruach ra’ah from upon them. After relieving himself, he must wash his hands and recite the berachah because according to the Rosh, the morning washing with a berachah was instituted as preparation for prayer. However, Rav Ovadyah Yosef (Halachah Berurah 4:4; Beirur Halachah 4:4) rules that one should first relieve himself in the bathroom and then wash his hands three times so that the berachah will be on the first washing of the day, for that is the more correct way according to the Rashba. Furthermore, if a person has a great need to relieve himself, to the point where if he abstained he would be transgressing the prohibition, “Do not abominate oneself,” the law is that one must relieve himself first and only after that wash his hands. It is possible to retort to this argument that there is no issue of “abominating oneself” in such a case since washing one’s hands takes so little time. The practical custom follows the opinion of the Mishnah Berurah and the kabbalists, in order to quickly purify oneself from the ruach ra’ah. Regarding the berachah being recited before drying one’s hands, see Kaf HaChaim 4:8. However, according to the Ashkenazic minhag, one may delay reciting the berachah and combine it with Birkot HaShachar. Nevertheless, it is best to recite it immediately following the performance of the mitzvah, as the Mishnah Berurah writes in 6:9.
[3]However, the Mishnah Berurah (Bei’ur Halachah 4:1 s.v. “V’Afilu”) rules like the Chayei Adam, maintaining that if one wakes up much earlier than the time to pray and he knows that he will need to relieve himself again before praying, he should recite a berachah on the washing closest to praying, for that is how he fulfills the obligation l’chatchilah according to the Rosh. Even in the opinion of the Rashba one may delay reciting the berachah on washing and recite it immediately before praying. That is what the Or L’Tzion, part 2, 1:6, and Halichot Shlomo 2:23 write as well.
Still, many Acharonim write that it is preferable to recite the blessing on the washing closer to one’s waking for that is the correct way according to the Rashba. Even according to the Rosh, if he recites Birkot HaShachar immediately after the first washing, it is possible that they will be considered the beginning of prayer, as write the Shlah, Graz (in his siddur, p. 1), Sha’arei Teshuvah, Derech HaChaim, and Aruch HaShulchan 4:5. The Aruch HaShulchan explains further that even according to the Rosh, the washing of one’s hands and the recital of the berachah were instituted to be performed adjacent to one’s waking, just like the other Birkot HaShachar. Even according to the Mishnah Berurah 6:9, it is possible to rely on those poskim. The Kaf HaChaim 4:52 writes as well that one must recite Al netilat yadayim immediately upon getting up. Additionally, he brings a dispute of the Acharonim as follows: there are those who say that one may recite Al netilat yadayim even before chatzot, which is the custom of the kabbalists (Ben Ish Chai, Toldot 13). However, the Graz and others write that one must recite Al netilat yadayim only after chatzot. I wrote that one should recite it only after chatzot in order to avoid uncertainty. If he intends to go back to sleep (when he woke up after chatzot), indeed according to the Ben Ish Chai, Kaf HaChaim 46:49, based on the Kabbalah, and the Graz, he should recite Al netilat yadayim after his first waking. In any case, in this situation, it seems better to practice according to the Mishnah Berurah, Chayei Adam, and the Gra, as I have written.

06 – Hand Washing Following Daytime Sleep

There is uncertainty regarding what precisely causes the ruach ra’ah to linger on one’s hands. Is it the mere state of sleep, when a person’s consciousness abandons him and he is left without the ability to function, requiring even one who sleeps during the day to wash his hands three times upon awakening to remove the ruach ra’ah. Or, is it brought about by the night, when the entire world ceases its activities, and therefore even a person who was awake all night must wash his hands three times?

In practice, when both causes intertwine and someone sleeps at night a regular sleep (approximately half an hour), the ruach ra’ah rests upon him in full force. In such a case, immediately upon rising one must hurry to wash his hands three times and refrain from touching his bodily orifices or food prior to that washing. (Still, the berachah on this washing is only recited before Shacharit, as explained in halachah 5.)

It is proper for one who slept a regular sleep during the day to be stringent and wash his hands three times alternately, but it is unnecessary for him to rush to do so. Also, there is no prohibition forbidding him from touching his bodily orifices before he washes.[4]

Additionally, it is best that one who remained awake all night wash his hands three times at alot hashachar. Likewise, it is proper for a person who arose in the middle of the night and already washed his hands three times when he woke up to wash his hands alternately again when alot hashachar arrives, for perhaps the night itself and its cessation induce the ruach ra’ah.[5]


[4]The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 4:14-15, mentions this uncertainty and rules to wash three times, but without a berachah because of doubt. The Eshel Avraham 4:1 writes in the name of his father-in-law that being careful not to walk four amot and not to touch bodily orifices only apply when one wakes up for Shacharit from a nighttime sleep and does not intend to go back to sleep. However, one who wakes up in the middle of the night for a few minutes and intends to return to sleep need not be cautious to refrain from walking four amot without washing his hands or touching his bodily orifices, just as a person sometimes touches his bodily orifices while sleeping. Only after the final waking from his nighttime sleep must one be strict about these things. He writes further that this lends credence to the many who are lenient regarding this. Concerning waking up from a daytime sleep, he writes that it is obvious that one need not be careful to refrain from touching bodily orifices, and he himself acted that way. The Kaf HaChaim 4:52 writes in the name of the kabbalists, based on the Arizal, that the ruach ra’ah only rests upon one who sleeps through chatzot, but if he did not sleep through chatzot, even if he slept a regular sleep on his bed, the ruach ra’ah does not exist, and therefore it is not necessary to wash three times. However, the Ben Ish Chai, Toldot 15, writes that one needs to wash his hands three times after every regular sleep, even during the day; though if that sleep did not continue through chatzot, it is not necessary to be strict in refraining from touching bodily orifices or in taking any other precautions. The Sha’arei Teshuvah 4:1 cites an opinion that even a person who slept during the day needs to be careful not to touch his bodily orifices or food. Some act this way l’chatchilah.
For the amount of sleep necessary to be considered a regular sleep, see Bei’ur Halachah 4:16 and Kaf HaChaim 4:55. Some say it is three hours and some say it is three minutes, though the average amount of time accepted by the majority of poskim is approximately half an hour, as I have written.

[5]. This is how the Shulchan Aruch 4:14 rules based on what he wrote in the Beit Yosef in the name of Orchot Chaim. According to this, presumably there is a need to be stringent not to touch one’s bodily orifices after alot hashachar until he washes his hands. (See also Hagahot of Rabbi Akiva Eiger 4:1, where it is implied that from the time he wakes up at night and washes his hands three times, he should not touch his bodily orifices until he washes his hands again three times after alot hashachar.) However, the opinion of the majority of poskim and kabbalists is that there is no lingering of the ruach ra’ah at the end of the night, and therefore, although we take into consideration the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch, and the minhag is that one who is up at night, or who wakes up before alot hashachar, goes back and washes his hands again three times after alot hashachar, nonetheless, we are not very strict about this. That is what the Eshel Avraham writes in 4:1, as well as Da’at Torah. Especially someone who is engrossed in Torah need not stop his learning in order to wash his hands. As it seems, regarding this law, we are even more lenient than we are about the ruling concerning one who sleeps during the day, as implied from Shulchan Aruch HaRav 4:13. In practice, after alot hashachar it is customary to wash again three times, but one need not be careful not to touch his bodily orifices, nor rush to wash at the moment alot hashachar arrives. In addition, there is doubt as to when exactly alot hashachar is (see further in this book 11:1). Therefore, after alot hashachar according to all opinions, he should wash his hands three times. One who is engrossed in Torah study should first finish the subject he is learning and then go wash his hands.

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

Parents who wake up in the middle of the night in order to cover their children or give them a pacifier, in principle need not wash their hands because covering a child or putting a pacifier in his mouth does not require touching the child’s mouth or any other bodily orifice.

However, if one wakes up to prepare food for the child or change the child’s diaper, it is proper to wash one’s hands prior to that, in order not to touch food or one of the child’s bodily 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 the lenient opinions that do not obligate one who awakens in the middle of the night to wash his or her hands (Eshel Avraham Butshatsh 4:1; see also halachah 4 which mentions that some say that nowadays the ruach ra’ah does not exist). In any case, according to all opinions, no berachah is recited on washing performed in the middle of the night because the Chachamim instituted a berachah only on the morning washing, which prepares us for prayer and the new day.

L’chatchilah it is proper that a person who wakes up in the middle of the night to drink wash his hands three times before reciting Shehakol. Similarly, it is proper that one who wakes up in the middle of the night to relieve himself wash his hands three times so that he can touch his bodily orifices without concern. After relieving himself, he must wash his hands so that he may recite Asher Yatzar. If he wishes, he may refrain from washing his hands prior to relieving himself in the middle of the night, by relying on the opinion of those poskim who maintain that a person only needs to wash his hands three times after rising in the morning. However, after relieving himself, he must wash his hands in order to recite Asher Yatzar. If he does not have water, he must clean his hands, for example by rubbing them on his shirt, and then recite Asher Yatzar (Shulchan Aruch 4:22).[6]


[6]. The Shulchan Aruch 4:14-15 maintains that every regular sleep at night brings the ruach ra’ah and one must wash his hands three times alternately. Even so, in the cases above, I wrote “it is proper” because the Eshel Avraham writes in the name of his father-in-law (as brought in note 4) that the ruach ra’ah exists only after waking up in the morning. Many who have become accustomed not to wash their hands when they arise in the middle of the night rely on this. The basis for Eshel Avraham’s words is found in the Beit Yosef (4:14-15) who writes that there is concern that at alot hashachar the ruach ra’ah may rest even upon those who were awake all night. The opinion of most kabbalists, according to the Ari, is that the ruach ra’ah only lingers after a person sleeps through chatzot, but if one went to sleep after chatzot, the ruach ra’ah does not rest upon his hands. Moreover, even if a person who slept through chatzot already woke up once after chatzot and washed his hands three times, the ruach ra’ah does not rest upon his hands a second time. Hence, according to this, it is not necessary to wash one’s hands three times upon every waking at night. In addition to this, there are those who say that nowadays the ruach ra’ah does not exist. Therefore, only one who wakes up in the morning must be careful to wash his 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 practice according to Kabbalah must ensure that the first time they wake up after chatzot they wash three times. Also from the standpoint of Birkat Shehakol, it is proper to wash one’s hands, but it is not an obligation, as explained in the Shulchan Aruch 4:23. Even if he touched normally covered parts of his body, he can suffice with rubbing his hands on a cloth of some sort, as clarified in the Mishnah Berurah 4:61. Similarly, before relieving oneself, it is advisable to wash one’s hands because of the ruach ra’ah, but it is not an obligation, as clarified above. Additionally, see the opinion of Rav Ovadyah Yosef in note 2.

08 – Food Touched by Unwashed Hands

We learned (in halachah 3) that because the ruach ra’ah rests upon one’s hands in the morning, one must not touch food or drink before washing his hands. Regarding a Jew who touched items of food without washing his hands, the ruling is as follows: if it is a dry food, like fruit, that can be washed, he should rinse it under water three times. Just as the washing of each hand three times purifies them, so will this washing purify the fruit. However, if he mistakenly touched drinks or food that will become ruined when washed, although there are those who are stringent to dispose of them for fear that the ruach ra’ah rests upon them (Od Yosef Chai, Toldot 6), according to most poskim, even those foods that cannot be washed are permitted to be eaten.

There are two reasons for this: first, because according to the majority of poskim, the ruach ra’ah on one’s hands does not have the ability to render food unfit for eating (Chayei Adam 2:2; Mishnah Berurah 4:14; Aruch HaShulchan 4:15). Although, regarding an alcoholic beverage, such as liquor, there are poskim who are stringent. In any case, it is agreed among most poskim that all other foods do not become invalidated by the touch of unwashed hands (Bei’ur Halachah 4:5 s.v. “Lo”). Furthermore, there are those who maintain that the ruach ra’ah has been nullified from this world (as brought in halachah 4) and there is no need to fear its damage. Therefore, one should not discard or waste foods that were touched by unwashed hands.

Similarly it is permissible l’chatchilah to buy bread or other food that is sitting on 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 the Arizal (Od Yosef Chai, Toldot 8), that even washing one’s hands once is useful in weakening the power of the ruach ra’ah.

09 – Minors

A number of eminent Acharonim write that it is important to ensure that even small children, who have not yet reached the age of understanding (gil chinuch), wash their hands in the morning. The reason for this is that if they don’t wash their hands, the food they touch will become ruined by the ruach ra’ah that is upon them (Chida; Pri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 4:7; Mishnah Berurah 4:10). Additionally, there are those who abide by the extra pious act of washing a newborn baby’s hands, as the Ben Ish Chai (Toldot 10) writes, for by doing so, the children are raised with purity and sanctity.

However, in practice, many people are not strict about the washing of their children’s hands three times after they wake up, because according to some prominent Acharonim, the ruach ra’ah only lingers on the hands of one who is at least thirteen years of age. The more a person can connect to holiness and act to repair the world, the more the evil spirit contrastingly strives to make him impure. Hence, the ruach ra’ah does not rest on the hands of gentiles, for they are not obligated to perform mitzvot. Similarly, concerning children, the ruach ra’ah does not rest upon them in its full force until they are sanctified in the obligation of performing the mitzvot. Still, we are commanded to educate minors to perform the mitzvot, and once they start observing the holy commandments, the ruach ra’ah slightly lingers upon them as well. Therefore, from the time they reach the age of understanding and are capable of comprehending how to wash their hands, one is obligated to educate them and accustom them to washing (based on Shulchan Aruch HaRav Tinyana Edition 4:2; Eshel Avraham Butshatsh 4:3; Tzitz Eliezer, part 7, 2:4).

In conclusion, it is a mitzvah to accustom children from the time they reach the age of understanding to wash their hands three times after sleeping, and it is an obligation to wash their hands starting from the age of mitzvot, meaning thirteen years old for a male and twelve for a female. There are those who are stringent to wash their bab‎y’s hands from the time he can touch food (Mishnah Berurah 4:10). Additionally, there are individuals who enhance the mitzvah by washing their baby’s hands starting from the time of his brit milah, or even from birth, for even then Israel’s unique holiness begins to appear (as brought in parenthesis in Shulchan Aruch HaRav there; see Kaf HaChaim 4:22 as well).