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On washing hands

My late mother was no doubt not the only parent who impressed upon her children, “cleanliness is second only to godliness”. As with much of her parental wisdom, it was experienced at the time with the fierceness of “she who must be obeyed”, and only later would I start to understand the twinkle in her eye that would accompany such a maxim. Yet meals at home were announced with the cry of “hand-washing time”, and woe betide me or my sister should we neglect the imperative of this ablution and not attend to it lickety-split. As basic hygiene it was simple common sense, becoming an ingrained and life-long habit.

Its origins are to be found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. Aaron and his sons are instructed to wash their hands and their feet before they enter into the Tent of Meeting to perform a sacrifice, so that they may not die (Exodus 30.19-21). As Rashi comments, this is intended to declare that any priest who sets to work at the altar without washing his hands is subject to the death penalty.

The punishment is capital and it is not clear if its severity stems from an underlying fear of the spreading of disease and plague or from the disrespecting of the ritual. Certainly the rabbis develop the ideas of ritualized washing, using minimal amounts of water (a quarter log – in modern terms about 100ml) which may be sufficient for ritual rather than for hygiene. A whole tractate of the Mishnah – Yadayim – concerns itself with the nitty-gritty of the details surrounding the washing of hands, and it is from this that our modern ritual of “netilat yadayim” - Jewish hand-washing before eating - was developed.

What about those who shirk this ritual? The Babylonian Talmud gives an example about which I would have blushed, should my mother have shared it with me: “Anyone who neglected to wash their hands, it is as if they had sex with a prostitute.” (bSotah 4b). This is derived from a verse from Proverbs (6.26): “For on account of a harlot, a man is brought to a loaf of bread.” This interpretation is challenged, with another Talmudic rabbi claiming this phrase is back to front: “On account of a loaf of bread, a man is brought to a harlot”. For anyone who engages with a prostitute is eventually reduced to begging for a loaf of bread.

Doubtless this is wisdom too, and it is not the only sage advice that comes out of this humble act of hand-washing. For Mishnah Yadayim also covers things that make your hands dirty, including potentially the erotica of the Song of Songs from the Holy Bible itself! Thankfully a debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (mYadayim 4.6) makes clear that the whole Holy Bible has the power to dirty one’s hands in a way that even the works of Homer cannot. This is, as the Mishnah infers, akin to being permitted to make spoons out of asses, but not out of your parents’ bones. We wash our hands of such advice at our peril.

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