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Prayer Pings #1

We'll begin way at the beginning this year, with the brachot that we recite first thing in the morning.


Wash our hands first thing in the morning? Sure! Why? How? Well, about this we're not really so sure.


The debate over the purpose of this hand-washing begins in the Talmud, and persists well into the middle ages. One school of thought connects it to the tradition that links sleep and death, which suggests that the spiritual condition of a sleeper is ever so slightly comparable to that of a corpse, necessitating a purification ritual when we awake. The very unique requirement that each hand be washed three times derives from the assumption that it is a metaphysical something that is being washed away. Many have raised the question though, as to whether the Sages would have mandated the bracha of על נטילת ידים for so metaphysical a ritual.


Another school of thought, resorting to a much more practical concern, associates this washing with the cleaning of our hands that we're required to do any time that we are about to daven. It's simply proper etiquette for conversing with God. However, while it's more plausible that the Sages might have mandated a bracha for this sort of washing, the general rule is that it does not matter how we insure the cleanliness of our hands before we daven. Washing with water is merely one way to accomplish this goal. According to this school of thought then, why the specific insistence on washing in the morning?


For these reasons, the most compelling explanation for the ritual may be the one offered by the medieval sage Rashba. He posited that hand-washing in the morning is borrowed from a Temple ritual. The Torah commanded the kohanim to wash their hands (and feet) before beginning their service each morning (see Shmot 30:19 and 20). Not so much, I think, as a means of insuring cleanliness, as much as means of sanctifying themselves for the exalted task that lay ahead, that of serving God in His Temple. In Rashba's view, our Sages decided that if we are to take seriously the idea that we are a "kingdom of priests", and that the whole world is the Temple in which we serve God, than we should sanctify ourselves each morning as the kohanim do. And understand that God "has sanctified us with his mitzvoth and commanded us" to do this.


This then, is our first thought each morning. The world is God's Temple; We are kohanim; And we need to re-sanctify ourselves for the work.


--Rav Yosef

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780