Question: I was recently at a wedding where I saw someone taste some bread with salad without washing his hands (Netilat Yadayim) before the Chuppah; he said he was acting in accordance with Halacha. Is this indeed the law?
Answer: There is a rabbinic commandment to wash one’s hands before partaking of a bread meal. Indeed, the Mishnah (Eduyot, Chapter 5) states that Rabbi Eliezer ben Chanoch was excommunicated because he casted doubts about the enactment of washing one’s hands for bread. Although he did so because of questions he had about the reasons for this enactment, he was nevertheless excommunicated since it is a Mitzvah to heed the words of the Sages.
The obligation to wash one’s hands applies only when one wishes to partake of a bread meal (or something dipped in liquid) as delineated by the Rambam (Chapter 6 of Hilchot Berachot, Halacha 1) and the Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 158).
Maran Ha’Bet Yosef quotes the Sefer Ha’Roke’ach who writes that one need not wash his hands when eating less than a Kezayit (twenty-seven grams) of bread. He supports this with proofs from the Talmud.
Maran quotes the Roke’ach’s opinion in his Shulchan Aruch (ibid, Section 3) as follows: “If one eats less than a Kezayit (of bread), ‘there is someone who says’ that one need not wash his hands.”
Although Maran introduces this opinion by saying that “there is someone who says,” this does not mean that he does not agree with the opinion of the Sefer Ha’Roke’ach; rather, this is the way of Maran in his Shulchan Aruch that when only one Posek writes this law and none others, Maran will quote this law as “there is someone who says.”
Thus, according to Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch, one who will be eating less than twenty-seven grams of bread need not wash his hands.
Although there are Acharonim who question the opinion of Maran Ha’Bet Yosef and rule that one must wash his hands even for less than a Kezayit of bread, nevertheless, the Birkei Yosef (ibid, Subsection 4) quotes the Rashbetz who rules precisely like the Roke’ach and writes that one who eats less than a Kezayit of bread need not wash his hands at all. The Birkei Yosef then proceeds to rebuff all of the questions some Acharonim posed on the position of the Bet Yosef.
Thus, halachically speaking, one who eats less than a Kezayit (twenty-seven grams) of bread need not wash his hands. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules likewise in his Halichot Olam (Volume 1, page 316).