Netilas Yadayim in the Morning - Part 1

 Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah

Question: What is netilas yadayim?

Discussion: “Netilas yadayim” refers to ritual washing of the hands, such as in the morning, or before eating bread, or for other purposes mandated by halachah. This phrase means either “using the anatal/natla (the vessel typically used for washing) upon the hands”;1 or “raising of the hands,” 2 since halachah requires raising the hands after they are washed.3

Question: What is the purpose of netilas yadayim in the morning?

Discussion: This washing has a twofold purpose:

The Gemara4 teaches that washing the hands removes the ruach ra’ah (evil spirit) that rests on the hands after sleeping. Before removing this ruach ra’ah, it is dangerous (and thus forbidden) to touch any orifices of the body.

A Gemara elsewhere5 teaches that one recites a berachah upon washing the hands in the morning. Rosh and Rashba reason that if washing one’s hands were for the sole purpose of removing danger, it would surely not warrant a berachah.6 Therefore, they assert that the washing has a second purpose, but disagree as to what this second purpose is:

Rosh7 explains that the washing serves to cleanse the hands in preparation for the upcoming Shacharis prayer. This requirement applies before the other daily tefillos as well, but washing is particularly needed before Shacharis because one is presumed to have touched sweaty areas of the body during sleep.

Rashba8 disagrees with this reason and explains, instead, that when one awakes in the morning he is viewed as a renewed person, with a fresh beginning of his service of Hashem. This service commences with a ritual washing of the hands, just as a Kohen washes his hands before serving in the Beis Hamikdash.

Question: If someone slept wearing pajamas, is he required to perform netilas yadayim in the morning? And does he recite a berachah over this washing?

Discussion: To answer this question, let us first address a related question: What is the law for someone who slept with gloves on his hands? The ruach ra’ah rests on the hands, so one would surely have to wash them. Furthermore, according to Rashba – who maintains that the berachah is recited for washing in commencement of one’s daily service of Hashem – wearing gloves is irrelevant; a berachah would still be required. But according to Rosh, the berachah is recited because one is assumed to have touched sweaty areas of the body during sleep, and his hands must be washed in preparation for the upcoming tefillah. There is no such assumption for one who wore gloves. Therefore, he would not recite a berachah for washing his hands in the morning.9

The same would apply to one who slept wearing tight-fitting pajamas (including the neck area), or a crew-neck t-shirt tucked into his jogging pants, or his daytime attire. For, in all of these cases, we cannot assume that he touched an unclean area.10 In practice, then, for one to be certain that he can recite the berachah according to all opinions, he should touch a sweaty area of the body before washing his hands.11 However, if one slept wearing loose-fitting pajamas, or an untucked t-shirt, or other attire that allows fairly easy access to unclean areas of the body, then we can assume that one touched those areas during sleep, and one would recite a berachah according to all opinions.12

Question: What is the proper time for netilas yadayim in the morning?

Discussion: One should perform netilas yadayim immediately upon waking in the morning, because one should remove the ruach ra’ah as quickly as possible. Mishnah Berurah13 cites Tola’as Ya’akov, which quotes the Zohar, that one should not walk four amos14 before having done netilas yadayim15 – and if the water is further away, he should rush to the water and perform netilas yadayim. Therefore, meticulous people leave a cup full of water and a bowl next to their bed in order to avoid walking four amos before netilas yadayim.16 Indeed, the great Chassidic Rebbes went to great lengths to adhere to this practice.17

The Poskim do note, however, that many are not careful to avoid walking four amos before netilas yadayim. This leniency may be based on the halachic concept that an entire room is the equivalent of four amos,18 or based on a tradition that the power of the ruach ra’ah has been weakened in our times.19 Even if one follows this leniency, one may not touch food or any of the orifices of the body before netilas yadayim.20 Therefore, he should still be careful to perform netilas yadayim as soon as possible.

If one urgently needs to relieve himself immediately upon waking in the morning, and he has no water available for netilas yadayim, he should first relieve himself and only then look for water.21

Question: May one get dressed before netilas yadayim?

Discussion: Magen Avraham22 cites Seder Hayom that one should not touch one’s clothes before netilas yadayim, but adds that the Gemara implies the contrary. The implication of Magen Avraham’s words is that, in practice, this is of no concern.23 Nevertheless, the great Chassidic Rebbes,24 as well as other Poskim,25 maintained that one should be careful in this regard, provided that this is not at the expense of immodestly exposing the body.26 Additionally, one should put his yarmulke on his head before performing netilas yadayim.27

Question: When should one recite the berachah for washing the hands?

Discussion: Some Poskim28 maintain that the berachah of Al Netilas Yadayim should be recited together with the other birchos hashachar (morning blessings). In their opinion, this berachah was not instituted to be recited in conjunction with washing the hands, but as part of the tefillah service. Others, however, understand that the berachah should be recited when washing the hands, and Mishnah Berurah29 rules that one should follow this view.

Seemingly, according to the latter view, the berachah should be recited the first time that one performs netilas yadayim in the morning.30 However, in many instances one is not allowed to recite a berachah at that time, since he feels the urge to relieve himself.31 On the other hand, one should not postpone the netilas yadaim until after he has relieved himself, for the reasons mentioned above. Due to these considerations, some maintain that, optimally, one should perform netilas yadayim, relieve oneself, and then wash again – reciting the berachah only after this second washing.32

Additionally, there is often a delay between one’s second washing of the hands and the time at which one begins his tefillah and, this being so, it often happens that one must relieve himself again before tefillah. In this scenario, Mishnah Berurah33 rules that one should recite the berachah only after washing one’s hands before tefillah, and continue with the rest of birchos hashachar immediately after reciting the berachah for netilas yadayim. This is in deference to the above-mentioned opinion of the Rosh – that the berachah for netilas yadayim is recited for cleansing one’s hands before tefillah.34 Nevertheless, if a person awakens, washes his hands immediately (i.e., after leaving the restroom, as mentioned above), and then recites the berachah, he has authorities in support of his practice.35

Note that if a person wakes up early and washes his hands to remove ruach ra’ah, but prefers to recite the berachah immediately before tefillah, then he should ensure that his hands actually require a berachah even according to Rosh. Therefore, he should only recite the berachah if he touched sweaty parts of his body (which are normally covered) before the current netilas yadayim.36

Whenever one is reciting the berachah when washing (rather than when reciting the rest of birchos hashachar), it should be recited after the washing37 – whether before or after one dries his hands,38 but not while drying the hands.39