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From where do we learn that one must wash one's hands before eating bread? What does washing one's hands before bread symbolize? Why is ritual hand washing required for bread, but not other foods?

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Technically, you are supposed to wash for other foods, fruits and vegetables, to be specific, when they have been deliberately washed, dipped or soaked in one of the 7 liquids that transfer Tumah, at least according to everyone but the Magen Avraham. Hence the washing before Karpas at the Pesah Seder (note that the thing that sets it apart from the rest of the year is not the washing but the superfluous dipping). –  Seth J Jun 17 '11 at 16:14
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@Seth J, your point is a machlokes rishonim. The minhag of most is not to wash, though many b'nai torah who are particular about mitzvos are careful to do so. –  YDK Jun 17 '11 at 18:15
    
@SethJ, and it's not just fruits and vegetables: see e.g. bit.ly/oTtYy7 (currently down, but should be up in a day or two). –  msh210 Oct 9 '11 at 3:49
    
I should have said "produce", to distinguish it from animal products. The link is still stale. –  Seth J Oct 11 '11 at 16:42

3 Answers 3

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From here:

The primary reason for requiring this washing is that in times of old (and again shortly when Mashiach arrives) before Kohanim were allowed to partake of Terumah they had to wash their hands to ensure they weren't impure. In order for them to get in the habit of doing so, the Chazal instituted this washing for all of Klal Yisroel, not just for Kohanim.

Another source states that Kohanim would wash their hands before performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash. Our sages say that our table is comparable to the Altar, and our bread like the offering brought on the Altar. Therefore we wash our hands before eating bread.

Furthermore, Qitzur Shulhhan Arukh (Yalqut Yosef) Siman 158, Se'if 1 states (Lee's translation):

It is a mitzwah from Divrei Sofrim to ritually wash one's hands before a meal with bread [...]. And they based this on the pasuq, "And you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy" (WaYiqra 20:7). "And you shall sanctify yourselves" refers to ritually washing one's hands before eating bread (literally: first waters) [Berakhot 53B; Hebrew, English].

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The Aruch haShulchan 158:1-2 brings the 2 main reasons:

  1. To protect against defiling Teruma (on a rabbinical level), we are careful to wash for regular food as well.

  2. Cleanliness leads a person to purity and holiness. Based on where the Torah says "v'hiskadishchem"- sanctify yourselves (Vayikra 11:44), we wash our hands and dry them prior to eating.

There is an argument as to which is the main reason. The Aruch haShulchan (158:4) says that according to Tosafos on Pesachim 115, the main reason for Netilas Yadayim is cleanliness, with the Trumah protection idea being secondary. (Based on the Tos. that we don't have a mitzva to wash on wet foods.)

Accordingly, the reason we only wash on bread is because the rabbinical mitvah of washing was only mandated where cleanliness was noticeable (Aruch haShulchan 158:3). That is by a bread which is not done with a quick bracha-eat-bracha, but is done as a meal with a long bentching. (The idea of cleanliness always applies, but without a specific mitzva.)

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H'oulin Daf 105a

אמר רב אידי בר אבין אמר רב יצחק בר אשיין מים ראשונים מצוה ואחרונים חובה מיתיבי מים ראשונים ואחרונים חובה אמצעיים רשות מצוה לגבי רשות חובה קרי לה גופא מים ראשונים ואחרונים חובה אמצעיים רשות ראשונים נוטלין בין בכלי בין על גבי קרקע אחרונים אין נוטלין אלא בכלי ואמרי לה אין נוטלין על גבי קרקע מאי בינייהו איכא בינייהו קינסא מים ראשונים נוטלין בין בחמין בין בצונן אחרונים אין נוטלין אלא בצונן מפני שחמין מפעפעין את הידים ואין מעבירין את הזוהמא:

Soncino English Translation (page 346):

R. Idi b. Abin said in the name of R. Isaac b. Ashian: The first washing [of the hands] is a meritorious act, the last washing is a bounden duty. An objection was raised from the following: The first and last washing [of the hands] are bounden duties, the middle washing is a matter of free choice. — A meritorious act as compared with a matter of free choice can well be termed a bounden duty. [To return to] the main text: ‘The first and last washing [of the hands] are bounden duties, the middle washing is a matter of free choice’. The first washing may be performed either over a vessel or over the ground; the last washing must be performed over a vessel. Others read: The last washing may not be performed over the ground. (What is the real difference between these [two versions]? There is a difference, [where one washes over] twigs.) The first washing may be With either hot or cold water; the last washing must be with cold water only, because hot water softens the hands and does not remove the grease.

In tossefot: מים ראשונים מצוה ואחרונים חובה כו'. בברכות בסוף פרק אלו דברים (דף נג: ושם) דריש תרווייהו מקרא מוהתקדשתם אלו מים ראשונים והייתם קדושים אלו מים אחרונים

http://hebrewbooks.org/shas.aspx?mesechta=31&daf=105&format=text

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A translation would help many readers. –  msh210 Jun 17 '11 at 16:38

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