Question: May one wash one’s hands if one has dirt, paint, and the like on one’s hands?
Answer: One must take care not to have any external separations (“Chatzitza”) on one’s hands during Netilat Yadayim. Any external separations which are problematic while immersing in the Mikveh are problematic during Netilat Yadayim as well. This means that dirt and other substances stuck under one’s fingernails can sometimes be problematic during Netilat Yadayim and render one’s hand-washing invalid.
The Source of the Laws of External Separations during Netilat Yadayim
These laws are derived from the laws of external separations on one’s body as they relate to immersion in the Mikveh. The Gemara in Masechet Pesachim (109a) states, “‘And he shall wash his entire flesh in water’-We derive from here that there can be nothing separating between one’s skin and the water (of the Mikveh) in order for one to become purified.” (This means that since the verse states “his entire flesh,” this means that one’s entire body must be submerged in the water and there cannot be any surface area of one’s body that is covered by something separating between one’s body and the water.) The same law applies to Netilat Yadayim in that one’s entire hand must be uncovered for the water to make contact with it and there may be no separation between one’s hand and the water.
Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l (in his Derashot, page 27) uses this explain the words of Rabbi Akiva (quoted in the Mishnah in Yoma 85b), “Fortunate are you, Israel! Before whom are you becoming purified and who is purifying you? Your Father in Heaven, as the verse states, ‘And I shall sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean; from all of your impurities and from all your idols I shall clean you.’” This means that Hashem acts like a Mikveh for the Jewish nation and just like one must immerse in a Mikveh without any Chatzitza, so too, Hashem purifies the Jewish nation completely and they cleave to him completely and without any interruption. Thus, the Jewish nation must likewise protect themselves from any external influences and they must accept the Mitzvot upon themselves completely and not, G-d-forbid, downplay or forgo any one of the Mitzvot, so that they will be prepared to cleave to Hashem.
An External Separation Which One is or is not Careful to Remove
Nevertheless, there are some detailed laws regarding this matter. We shall only discuss what is relevant to this discussion. Any substance which only covers a minority of the hand’s surface area (not the majority) constitutes a separation only when one is generally careful to remove it, such as dirt on one’s hand which one is generally careful to remove. However, if a substance covers a minority of the hand’s surface area and people are not generally careful to remove it, such as a small amount of paint on the hand which is very difficult to remove, this does not constitute a separation regarding Netilat Yadayim, for since this substance is generally not removed, it is considered part of one’s body and does not constitute a separation.
In the following Halacha, we shall explain this idea further, G-d-willing.