The Priests, upon building the Mishkan or movable Sanctuary, were commanded regularly to wash their hands as a preparation for various rituals. Handwashing was a biblical commandment to ready themselves for worship. Over time, Rabbinic tradition expanded the commandment for the Cohainim to wash to be a broader commandment. All Jews, now, are to wash before eating and praying.
Like so much of Biblical and Rabbinic wisdom, this simple mitzvah functions on multiple levels all at once. On one level, handwashing became such a universal Jewish practice that Jewish communities in the Middle Ages were often afflicted less by plague and disease because they were washing their hands on a regular basis. Thus, this mitzvah filled a medical physical role in keeping Jewish communities healthier.
Yet is also functions on a level of spiritual preparation. In addition to the physical, this ritual invites a spiritual level into eating. Before eating, we wash our hands because we are commanded to do so. We rinse our hands with water from a vessel, say a blessing, and lift them up. That lifting identifies the potential of sacredness to enter into and be expressed by our body. Mystics imagine a flow of blessing coming into the world. Food symbolizing that more significant life force of which we become aware when we say a blessing. Handwashing reminds us of gratitude for our lives. The ritual washing goes beyond the physical to the spiritual and reminds us of the life force flowing from God that sustains all life.
Jewish tradition further invites washing before any moment of prayer or spiritual living. I have the practice of washing when I wake up in the morning. Among the first things I do, the washing and blessing are a chance to invite meaning and purpose into my day as it starts. I wash; I take a breath. I imagine divine energy flowing into my body. It helps me set an intention for the day as it begins.
I went on rounds with Bruce Feldstein, the Jewish Chaplain at Stanford Hospital. He is an MD by training and so very in the habit of washing his hands before seeing a patient. He has added to the ritual, however. Before he enters a patient unit he washes his hands, and then lifts his hands as he takes a breath. The biblical commandment informs his spiritual preparation before seeing a patient. He orients himself towards the sacred task of bringing comfort into a hospital room. This enables him to become an incredibly comforting presence. The ritual cleans his hands to keep illness out, but also functions as a moment to cleanse his soul, to orient him towards the kind of intention he wants to bring into that place of pain and illness.
I invite you to incorporate hand washing with a blessing into your practice as a centering ritual. It cleans the body, but also readies the soul and self for focus. For me, it is a daily reminder to be grateful for my life, and to be present and focused in all the work that I do.
Rabbi David Booth