Halacha for Wednesday 26 Av 5781 August 4 2021

Eating without First Washing One’s Hands

In the previous Halacha, we have explained that one may not be lenient and nullify the edict of washing one’s hands prior to eating bread; even if one does not touch the bread with one’s hands directly and merely holds it with gloves or a napkin, one may still not defy this edict. If one does so, one is nullifying the enactment of washing one’s hands. However, we did conclude by saying that there still is one situation where one may act leniently and eat bread with the use of a napkin, as we shall now explain.

The Gemara in Masechet Pesachim (46a) discusses a situation where one is travelling and has no water to wash one’s hands for bread. How far must such a person travel in order to obtain water? The Gemara states: “For washing one’s hands (meaning that if one has no water to wash one’s hands and would like to eat bread, the distance which one must travel in order to obtain water is) four Mil (which is equivalent to eight-thousand Amot, approximately four kilometers or 2.5 miles) and this distance is before him (i.e. when one is travelling, our Sages required one to postpone one’s meal and continue traveling forward another four Mil in order for one to be able to wash one’s hands). However, behind him, they did not even trouble him one Mil (meaning that there is no water obtainable on one’s journey forward even within a distance of four Mil, but if one would turn around and travel in the direction one had just come from, one would be able to find water, one need not travel back such a great distance; rather, he would only need to travel back less than one Mil which is less than one kilometer).” However, if one is unable to obtain water even by travelling these distances (which is sometimes the case when one is on a trip), one may eat the bread without washing one’s hands by wrapping one’s hands well in a cloth or napkin or by wearing gloves so that one does not mistakenly touch the bread with his hands and it will then be permissible to eat in this way.

Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 163) rules in accordance with this Gemara. Some rule even more leniently and allow one to eat bread without washing one’s hands by wearing gloves and the like even when it is doubtful whether or not one will be able to find water.

Regarding the above law that in order to search for water for washing one’s hands one must travel four Mil forward and up to a Mil behind him, this must be calculated by the “time it takes to walk” these distances. The time it takes to walk four Mil is seventy-two minutes and the time it takes to walk just under a Mil is eighteen minutes. Thus, if water is available very far away and one is able to get to it by driving there with a car, if one is able to get there within a seventy-two-minute journey on one’s way forward or within an eighteen-minute journey of travelling in the opposite direction, one must do so.

Summary: If one is travelling and is in a situation where one has no water for washing one’s hands, as long as one knows that he will be able to obtain water for washing his hands upon continuing on his journey within seventy-two minutes of either walking or driving (depending on how one is travelling), one must postpone one’s meal and wait until one arrives at the place where the water is located so that one may wash his hands in accordance with Halacha. Similarly, if one needs to turn around and travel in the opposite direction in order to obtain water, as long as one knows that one will be able to obtain water for washing within eighteen minutes, one must turn around and travel there in order to wash one’s hands as prescribed by Halacha. However, if one is unable to obtain water even within these distances, one may eat without first washing one’s hands by wrapping one’s hands with a napkin or gloves and the like.

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