Halacha Date: 25 Av 5781 August 3 2021
Answer: The Gemara in Masechet Chullin (107b) states: “The Sages permitted a cloth (i.e. they permitted eating bread without first washing one’s hands by wrapping one’s hands in a cloth) for those eating Terumah (meaning that during the time when the Bet Hamikdash still stood, before eating Terumah, the Kohanim were required to wash their hands first so as not to impurify the Terumah by touching it. Our Sages ruled leniently for them that, if they wished, they would not need to wash their hands; rather, they would be permitted to eat their Terumah in a way where they would not touch it directly, i.e. by wrapping their hands in a cloth or by wearing gloves and the like). However, they did not permit a cloth for those eating their food amid purity (for in the times of the Bet Hamikdash, there were pious non-Kohanim who would eat all of their foods amid purity so as not to impurify their foods. These individuals would also need to wash their hands before eating any food so as not to impurify the food by touching it. Our Sages did not provide the leniency of eating without washing one’s hands by using a cloth for such people).” Rashi there explains that the reason why our Sages were lenient regarding this matter only with regards to Kohanim eating their Terumah and not for any other people is because the Kohanim were quite accustomed to eating all of their foods amid purity all their lives (for with regards to them, this matter could sometimes border on an actual prohibition) and there is therefore no need to be concerned that they will mistakenly touch their food with their hands. Thus, our Sages were lenient and allowed them to eat without first washing their hands through the use of a cloth. On the other hand, regarding other people who were not as accustomed and careful to eat their food amid purity (for this matter never borders on an actual prohibition for them and they were therefore less meticulous in this regard), we must be concerned that they will mistakenly touch the food with their hands. Therefore, there is no room for leniency for them to eat with the use of a cloth without first washing their hands.
Based on this, many Rishonim deduce from here regarding the hand-washing we perform before eating bread that since we can certainly not be included in the category of the Kohanim who were especially careful to keep their foods pure, the rabbinic edict to wash one’s hands before eating a bread meal is applicable in any case and one may not act leniently by eating with the use of a napkin. If one does eat with the use of a napkin in order to circumvent the requirement to wash one’s hands, one has nullified an edict of our Sages. The Tur and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 163) rule likewise. All this applies to one who would like to eat a food dipped in liquid (which requires a hand-washing before) as well.
Summary: One may not act leniently and eat bread without first washing one’s hands even if one is not directly touching the bread with one’s hands, for instance, if one is eating with a napkin and the like; in any case, one is obligated to wash one’s hands. However, there is one situation where the Sages were lenient and permitted one to eat bread without first washing one’s hands. We shall discuss this further, G-d-willing, in the following Halacha.