I know that the halakha requires n'ttilath yadhayim before the recitation of sh'ma, before t'phila, and before and after eating bread (cf. Hilkhoth B'rakhoth 6). And I also understand that n'ttilath yadhayim requires a k'li and koah nothen (and clean, unused water etc., ibid.), but my question is if clean hands is the goal, then why wouldn't washing one's hands under a faucet work? What is the point of all of the particulars listed in the halakha if not to ensure a useful amount of clean, flowing water that then ensures clean hands? Doesn't a modern faucet effect that in the same way as - and in many respects better than - n'ttilath yadhayim?

  • should showers replace mikvas? – Double AA Jun 9 '15 at 16:04
  • I don't think that it's the same at all. The aim is different. – user3342 Jun 9 '15 at 16:18
  • Regarding washing before eating bread, see judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/8319/…. It has nothing to do with cleanliness. – DanF Jun 9 '15 at 16:54
  • Actually, I can see a source for this question (Re. before eating bread). The original Gezeira on impure hands was to prevent Kohanim from eating Truma with unwashed hands, get disgusted with their now dirty truma bread and throw it out. The question is more on the Sanhedrin than on the Halacha, since we just follow their Takana. – Shmuel Brin Jun 9 '15 at 17:23
  • there are different reasons for different hand washings. waking from sleep, prior to prayer, prior to eating, post certain activities (e.g bathroom or checking for lice). See here for a partial discussion: dafyomi.co.il/berachos/halachah/br-hl-015.htm – Menachem Jun 9 '15 at 23:55

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (Reshimot Shiurim, Berakhot p. 202) suggests that whether one requires a vessel for hand washing prior to bread depends on a dispute between Rambam and Ra'avad in Hilchot She'ar Avot Ha-Tum'ot 8:8. Ra'avad there extends the law of washing hands for ritual purity to all hand washing, but Rambam implies that this reason extends only to terumah. Therefore, according to Ra'avad, one must use a vessel when washing for bread, because the reason is not just cleanliness, but removing ritual impurity of the hands. But according to Rambam, it seems that a vessel may not be necessary. Furthermore, Rambam in Hilchot Berachot 6:2 seems to equate hand washing prior to bread with hand washing for prayer; in this case, when one has no vessel one may use any substance that cleans (Berachot 15a).

  • I don't believe that Rabbi Soloveitchik would say such a thing, in light of Hilchot Berachos 6:6 – Yishai Jul 6 '15 at 16:40
  • @Yishai The Kesef Mishneh appears to hold like you (on avot hatumah) – wfb Jul 6 '15 at 16:48
  • If you want to say that the Ra'avid holds you have to wash twice on each hand for Chulin and the Rambam holds that only for Teruma, I could see that, or other such distinctions. No vessel? He explicitly requires one and lays out its characteristics! My impression is that Reshimot Shiurim was not edited by the Rav himself (but I may be wrong about that) so I suspect a student misunderstanding here. – Yishai Jul 6 '15 at 16:59

The Arukh Hashulhan discusses this issue in detail in Orah Haim 4. Your assumption is indeed correct; when clean hands are the only goal, such as when you scratch your head or the like, using a faucet or other flowing water would be fine, if not preferable to using a vessel. However, the netilah prior to eating bread and before shacharith involve other considerations. Washing before bread was originally instituted for kohanim only and was simply extended to others so as not to differentiate between people. Washing in the morning is due to cleanliness as well as to get rid of ruah ra and because we are considered new creations upon waking after a night's sleep. It is disputed amongst the Rishonim what exactly is required in these cases, and what suffices when one does not have access to the ideal resources.

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