Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 14 November 2020 / 27 Heshvan 5781

Hand-Washing Upon Rising

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

"Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding washing the hands."

Blessings usually begin with a standard formula: Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe…. Rabbi Shimon Schwab, in his seminal work titled Iyun Tefillah, proposes a novel and insightful understanding to the classic and timeless opening words of the blessings. Rabbi Schwab suggests that, in addition to the simple understanding of the first word, “blessed” can also be understood to mean “increase.” The Hebrew word “baruch” is derived from the word “ribui,” which means “more.” “Baruch Atah Hashem… Melech HaOlam” can now be understood as a declaration that G-d’s grandeur in the world should be increased. This means that the introductory words to a blessing are a form of a prayer that G-d’s Majesty should be recognized and accepted by more and more people in the world.

“Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding washing the hands.”

The function of washing our hands in the morning (as well as before any other spiritual undertaking) is the onset of preparing ourselves spiritually for the forthcoming day. In the same way that we must physically prepare ourselves for each day, so too must we begin the process of preparing to include a clearly discernable spiritual dimension throughout our daily lives. This is why we wash our hands at the beginning of the day. To emphasize that although there is a mundane nature to our daily life, we are nevertheless embarking on something that transcends the physical.

But why is this being done through the medium of washing our hands? Our hands symbolize our physical actions. Hashem has elevated the Jewish People to the status of His chosen nation. This means that every physical act we do in this world can be uplifted and turned into a corresponding spiritual deed. Therefore, the words of the blessing that we recite can be read as G-d commanding us to uplift our hands (see Isaiah 63:9 for the context of the word “netilah” as meaning to raise up).

Interestingly enough, the authorities in Jewish Law write that even if an abundance of water was used to wash one’s hands and there is therefore absolutely no concern that any part of the hand might not have come into contact with the water, it is nevertheless always correct to raise one’s hands immediately after washing them while they are still wet. It as if Hashem is exhorting us to raise ourselves above our physical existence and to emboss a spiritual hallmark on all that we do, through our actions here in this physical world.

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