Sanctifying our Deeds
Taste of Talmud
“In the beginning… of the day in the Bais Hamikdash, there was a race to the top of the Mizbaiach (altar) to determine who would merit to do the job of removing the excess deshen (ashes), from the top of the altar” (Mishna Yoma 2:1). Can you imagine a more menial job? Yet, if this was what needed to be done for the proper functioning of the house of G-d, then it was a Mitzvah worth competing for. This, the first service of the day, required that the designated Kohain wash his hands and feet from the Kiyor (wash basin). In Tractate Zevachim 19b, the following question is discussed: When a Kohain washes his hands before dawn to do the service of removing the ashes, does he need to wash his hands again after dawn in order to serve in the Temple later that day? There are two opinions: Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi is of the opinion that when the break of dawn comes, it requires the Kohain to wash again; while Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon is of the opinion that he need not wash again. The Rambam decides the Halacha in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda. The Minchas Chinuch points out that it is so important for the kohein to wash prior to doing any service that if he does not wash again, any service performed is considered invalid as his hands are still impure.
Taste of Halacha
“In the beginning… of the day a person must wash his hands three times; alternating from right to left. This is incumbent on men, woman, and children” (Shulcahn Aruch, Orach Chayim 4:2 and Mishna Berura ibid. 10). There are three reasons given for this Mitzvah. The Talmud in Shabbos 49a says: The impure spirit, which rests on the hands during the night, can only be removed by washing in this manner. The Rosh (a first century halachic commentary) writes that it was instituted by our sages as a way to cleanse our hands from the dirt and sweat that inevitably accumulates upon them during the night. The Rashba writes that we wash our hands upon awakening to serve G-d just as the Kohanim did before they began serving G-d in the Bais HaMikdash. Our avodas HaShem (service of G-d) is so special to Him that our sages instituted a special washing at the beginning of our day, reminiscent of the priestly washing in the Bais HaMikdash. It follows then, that if one washed prior to the crack of dawn, he should wash again after the day begins. This Halacha is recorded in Shulchan Aruch, OC 4:14 as discussed above. The Mishna Berura (ibid. 33) adds that a blessing is not recited on the second washing unless a person also relieved himself between the pre and post-dawn washings.
Taste of Parasha
“In the beginning… of the use of the Mishkan, Moshe was like Aharon and his sons and was required to wash his hands from the Kiyor (wash basin) prior to doing any service in the Mishkan” (Rashi, Parashas Pikudey 40:31). The Ramban asks: What is the reason that they were so punctilious about washing their hands in the Temple and why do we do so today before prayer? The Ramban has two explanations. He explains the first by means of a parable. Just as a king’s servant would not touch the food or bedding of the king with dirty, sweaty hands, as it is not befitting the king’s honor, we too, wash our hands before we begin our service of the King of all kings. The Ramban’s second explanation is based on “Derech Haemes” (The Path of Truth). He explains the kabbalistic significance and holiness that our hands represent. When outstretched, our hands are at the top of the body and the feet are at the bottom. By having ten digits, they represent our place, as people, between the 10 sefiros (G-dly emanations) in this world. In as much as our hands are representative of these holy emanations, it is only appropriate that we make sure that they are clean when we serve G-d. Although we have only a limited understanding of such concepts, the importance of this Mitzvah is illuminated through this kabalistic insight. Rabbi Avraham Kossman (Rosh Yeshiva in the Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak) recently told me another beautiful explanation. He explained that this world is the world of “assiyah” (doing) and the hands are our main mode of doing in this world. By washing our hands and purifying them, we indicate our desire that all of our actions and creative efforts be pure of any blemish or iniquity.