Shabbat-Table Talks: Ki Tissa

To read last year's Table Talk  click here.



By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <>


Value: Washing hands at the beginning of the day and before meals. Over the last century, this idea has become required practice, with our modern understanding of how disease is passed. The Torah mentions the requirement of the Kohanim (priests) washing hands before any holy service. Over the years, our sages expanded this idea to include everyone washing hands before eating bread. Our morning washing is also symbolic of the fact that our day is filled with service to God, and therefore should begin with ritual washing (in addition to hygienic washing, of course.)


Background: The beginning of our perasha continues the Torah’s description of the construction of the Mishkan. One of the essential items for the service at the Mishkan was the bronze washbasin and its stand. Although water was not abundant in the wilderness, washing hands and feet before the Temple service was an absolute requirement for the Kohanim.


Text: Shemot 30: 17-21

Now Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: You are to make a basin of bronze, its pedestal of bronze, for washing, and you are to put it between the Tent of the Appointment (the Mishkan) and the slaughter-site; you are to put water therein, that Aharon and his sons may wash with it their hands and their feet. When they come into the Tent of the Appointment, they are to wash with water so that they do not die, or when they send up fire-offerings in smoke for Hashem, they are to wash their hands and their feet, so that they do not die. It is to be for them a law for the ages, for him and for his sons, throughout their generations.


Analysis and discussion of text: We see how the Torah took washing very seriously. Not only was there a special requirement to build the washbasin and its pedestal, but also the penalty for not washing hands and feet before serving in the temple was death!


Why do you think that it was so important for the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before serving in the Mishkan? (It is not respectful to serve Hashem with dirty hands and feet. It also shows that the service that you are involved in is special and cannot be done in the same way that the rest of your activities are done. Rather, you must sanctify yourself by washing before serving Hashem.)


Our sages, through the halakha, have taught us that there are other occasions where we must wash. What are the other times that we must wash? (When we wake from a long sleep, before we pray and before we eat bread.) Why do we wash at these times? The washing before praying is easiest to explain by analogy to the Mishkan service. Just as the Kohanim washed before serving in the Mishkan, we must wash before we begin to serve Hashem through our prayers. This washing is not washing for cleanliness reasons. Of course, we should do that as well, especially before eating and upon waking. It is washing to raise our spiritual level in order to enter into the service of Hashem.


Using the same idea, why do we wash hands when we awake? One answer is that after we awake we usually begin our prayers. Another answer is that we recognize that our daily activities are a means of serving Hashem. We wash in order to raise up our hands and their work to the level of it being a true service of Hashem, no matter how “this-worldly” our activities are. When we think that in every waking moment we have an opportunity to sanctify God’s name by the way we talk and act towards one another and by the way we strive to perfect our character and our spirits through learning Torah.


We also wash hands before eating bread. The technical reason for this is that in the time of the Temple, the Kohanim would have to eat the Teruma, specially offered flour, in a state of ritual purity. Since we can never remember all the things that our hands have touched since the last washing, the Kohanim would wash them just to be sure that they were ritually pure. The sages adopted these practices for all our people, as we are all considered “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”


The idea is that the very mundane and “this world” act of eating could be sanctified as a kind of service of Hashem. We eat in order to have strength to serve Hashem, by doing his misvot. We signify the importance and sanctity of eating by washing before eating bread. (Of course, we must also wash with soap and water in order to be clean. This is also an act that shows regard for ourselves and the people around us. The washing we are talking about in this article is of a spiritual nature.)


Washing before eating bread is very important and people went to great sacrifice to perform it. It also can identify one as a member of the people of Israel. These are two stories that illustrate these points:


a.)      When R. ‘Aqiba was in prison (this was in the time of the Romans, when anyone who was caught teaching Torah was imprisoned) and R. Yehoshua Hagarsi was his aide, R. Yehoshua would bring him his daily ration of water. One day the cruel Roman prison guard commented to R. Yehoshua, “you have too much water today. Do you intend to clean the whole prison, that you bring your master so much water”? He spilled half of the water, and gave R. Yehoshua half the water to bring to R. ‘Aqiba. When he reached R. ‘Aqiba the great sage told him, “Yehoshua, don’t you know that I am very old and that my life depends on you.” R. Yehoshua explained to R. ‘Aqiba what had happened. R. ‘Aqiba said: “give me the water so that I may wash my hands.” R. Yehoshua said: There is barely enough water for you to drink, and you think there is enough to wash your hands?” R. ‘Aqiba responded: “What can I do. [Eating without washing] is punishable by death,” (earlier the Talmud quoted that violating the sages’ laws is punishable by death). “It is better that I should die of my own decision than that I should violate the words of my colleagues.” It is reported that he did not taste anything until he washed. When the sages heard this they said: “If he did it in his old-age, he definitely did it when he was young. If he did it when he was in prison, he definitely did it when he was free.” (Erubin 21b)


Thank God, we are able to do this simple to perform, but very significant act of washing our hands before meals.

b.)      Our rabbis have taught that washing hands before meals [can prevent] eating pig (Yoma 83b). This is the story:

It was the time of the oppressive Roman decrees against the Jews. A restaurant owner would sell both pork and kosher meat. This way the Romans would not be able to tell that he was Jewish. He would sell his Jewish customers kosher meat and his non-Jewish customers the pig. How did he know who was Jewish? Whoever would wash his hands and bless he would know was Jewish and serve him the kosher meat. To whoever did not do this, the storekeeper would serve pig. One time a Jewish person walked in and did not wash his hands and did not bless. Thinking he was a pagan, the storekeeper served him pork. He ate and did not bless after he finished. He came to pay for the bread and meat that he ate. The storekeeper told him, “You owe me such and such for the meat which you ate that costs ten shekel per portion.” “What, ten shekel,” cried the customer, “the other day I ate the same thing for eight shekel, and now you want to take ten shekel from me.” “No sir,” replied the storekeeper, “you ate pig meat today [and it is very expensive.]” When the storekeeper said the word “pig meat” the customer’s hair stood on edge. He was shocked and told him privately, “but I am a Jew, and you gave me pig’s meat to eat?” “May you lose your breath” (an oath), when I saw that you ate (bread) without washing your hands and without reciting a blessing I thought that you were a pagan, so I served you pig’s meat.” From here our sages taught that that washing hands before meals [can prevent] eating pig’s meat. (Numbers Rabba 20:21)

To read last year's Table Talk click here.


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