Washing After Visiting the Cemetery

As is well known, one is required to wash one’s hands immediately upon leaving a cemetery or after otherwise being in the presence of the dead. A number of reasons are given for this washing. According to one explanation, it is because water symbolizes the creation of man and perhaps by extension, the mortality of man, something that is often contemplated when visiting a cemetery. Others say that it is simply a washing for cleanliness. The more well known and more commonly cited explanation is that the washing is due to the “impure spirits” that are found in a cemetery and that remain with a person until he washes his hands. Some also wash their face after leaving a cemetery and some even make an effort to immerse in a mikva. There are also those who wash their hands before entering a cemetery, as well. 

While it is best to wash one’s hands three times each -- in the same manner as is done when waking up in the morning -- it seems that according to the letter of the law, one is only truly required to wash each hand once. So too, even among those who require washing one’s hands three times, it is unclear if a washing cup is truly necessary for the post cemetery washing. In any event, common custom is to indeed wash each hand three times by means of a washing cup.

There is a widespread custom not to dry one’s hands with a towel after washing them when having visited a cemetery. Rather, one should allow them to air dry on their own. However, this custom should not be observed if it is very cold outside and not drying one’s hands would cause them to become chapped or frostbitten. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is reported to have said that the custom of not drying one’s hands with a towel only applies after attending a funeral and not after having simply visited a cemetery. On a similar note, some say that if one merely attended a funeral but did not carry the casket, come close to the deceased, or stand under the same roof as the deceased, then one is not required to wash one’s hands at all. Common custom is not like this view.

It is best to wash one’s hands outside the cemetery, but it is permitted to wash one’s hands inside the cemetery as long as one does so at a distance from any grave (and one is careful not to once again get close to a grave after this washing). It is especially important to wash one’s hands before entering a home. It is permitted, however, to enter a public place, such as a synagogue, if need be, before washing one’s hands. It is customary to place the washing cup upside down after washing one’s hands. According to the Zohar one should not study Torah or recite any prayer or blessings before washing one’s hands though this is not halachically binding.[1]

Some say that one is not required to wash one’s hands after visiting the grave of a tzaddik. While it is best to wash one’s hands even in this instance, the issue is usually a non-starter anyways, since one almost always has to pass other graves in order to reach the grave of a tzaddik.

[1] Mishna Berura 4:61.