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According to the Shulchan Aruch, we wash our hands right-left-right-left-right-left (with a cli). We wash our hands in the morning for three reasons: B'ria Chadasha (a new creation, because it's like we are reborn when we wake up); Ruach Ra'a (the 'bad spirits', or germs because way back when they didn't understand them (this is why we have to pour three times, to remove this)), and Niki'ut (cleanliness).

But why do we have to wash our hands b'seirugin (right-left-right etc.)?

  • By bread you can also wash b'seirugin, but in the morning It is the only way the ruach Ra goes away – hazoriz Jun 29 '16 at 12:39
  • Note that given that as the answer states, the alternating washing is only to dispel the evil spirits, one who does not believe in them need not do so. – mevaqesh Sep 27 '16 at 14:51
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The מגן אברהם quotes the שער הכוונות that the ruach tum'ah (impure spirit) of the morning jumps back and forth from one hand to the other until the washing is finished.

כי ע"י כן רוח הטומאה הנקראת שיבת"א (חולין ק"ו ע"ב ושבת ק"ט ע"א) בת מלך היא ומקפדת ודולגת וקופצת עד שנעתקת לגמרי משם ואם לאו אינה נעתקת. וכן נמצא בזוהר בכ"י

The בן איש חי in his ספר בן יהוידע on שבת קט:‏ offers three possible reasons for the three times.

  1. The ספר עץ חיים which states that the main grasp of the קליפות are on the last three ספירות. So the the רוח הטומאה isn't removed until you wash your hands three times.
  2. Based on ספר עץ חיים which says that there are three main קליפות and for those three, we wash three times.
  3. There are three parts to the fingers (the main part of washing is the fingers as by Yom Kippur). With each washing, the טומאה is removed from another part of the fingers (from the section by the palm and upward).
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    What does that mean? When you wash the right hand it jumps to the left hand and vice-versa? Then how come the third time it doesn't keep jumping? – Double AA Jun 27 '16 at 16:44
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    @DoubleAA Apparently, the ruach hatum'ah drowns after the 3rd time. Since the quote refers to the Zohar, maybe we need to look there? – DanF Jun 27 '16 at 17:08
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    @DanF Maybe. I doubt I'll understand anything there. Does it just get tired after so much jumping? – Double AA Jun 27 '16 at 17:09
  • @DoubleAA I found three reasons. Which doesn't mean I understand them. But I'll add them to the post, since I'm not sure it will fit here. – Y K Jun 27 '16 at 17:15
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    @YK None of those reasons address the alternation, which is the essential part of this question as I see it. – Double AA Jun 27 '16 at 17:33

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