The Enactment of Washing One’s Hands for a Bread Meal
There is a rabbinic enactment to wash one’s hands before sitting down to eat a bread meal. The Mishnah in Masechet Eduyot (Chapter 5) relates that Rabbi Eliezer ben Chanoch was excommunicated for having raised doubts about the necessity to purify one’s hands. Although he raised doubts about this rabbinic enactment as a result of certain questions he had about the enactment, he was nevertheless excommunicated because there is a Mitzvah to heed the words of our Sages.
The First Reason for this Enactment: “As a Result of Terumah”
There are several reasons for the enactment requiring one to wash his hands prior to a bread meal.
Let us first preface this discussion by stating the obvious fact that nowadays we are all impure as a result of coming in contact with corpses, for every single one of us has either been in the same room as a corpse or at least touched someone else who has been sometime during his lifetime. However, during the times when the ashes of the Red Heifer were accessible to the Jewish nation and it was therefore still possible to purify one’s self from the impurity of corpses, a large part of the Jewish nation would be careful to always keep their vessels and foods pure. This was especially true regarding the Kohanim who were meticulous that all of their foods stay pure and that no impurity come in contact with them, for the Kohanim would eat Terumah and it is well-known that impure Terumah may not be consumed.
Now, let us return to our discussion about the reasons for washing one’s hands before a bread meal. The first reason for this enactment is “as a result of Terumah,” meaning that since one’s hands are constantly in motion and they touch many objects, before the Kohanim would sit down to eat a meal (during the times when they were careful with the laws of purity and impurity, as we have explained above), they were required to wash their hands so as not to cause impurity to the Terumah by touching it. In order for the Kohanim to become accustomed to this enactment, our Sages decreed on the rest of the Jewish nation (who also tried to always eat their food amid purity) that whoever eats bread must wash his hands first. Even nowadays when Kohanim no longer eat Terumah, this enactment is nevertheless still in effect so that when the Third Bet Hamikdash is rebuilt, may this be speedily in our days, the Jewish nation will be accustomed to eating amid purity.
The Second Reason: Cleanliness
An additional reason for washing one’s hands is because Hashem wants us to conduct ourselves with cleanliness, for cleanliness results in purity and purity results in abstinence and sanctity. Thus, our Sages instituted that one wash one’s hands before a bread meal to conduct one’s self with cleanliness and not to eat when one’s hands are soiled.
The Definition of the Term “Netilat Yadayim”
There are several explanations regarding the origin of the word “Netila.” The Rashba (Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Aderet, one of the great Rishonim) writes in one of his responses that the word “Netila” is a derivative of the word “Antal,” which is the name of the vessel which holds a Revi’it (81 cc or approximately 2.7 fluid oz.) of water, which is the amount of water prescribed for Netilat Yadayim. The author of the Tosafot Yom Tov (Hagaon Harav Yom Tov Lipman Ha’Levi Heller), however, writes that “Netila” is another term for “taking,” i.e. taking the water, just as we bless “Al Netilat Lulav” (“The Taking of the Lulav”). (See Yalkut Yosef, Volume 3)