Gem of the Week from Rav Hirsch zt”l: Netilas Yadayim – It’s Purpose and Meaning


“Isha ki sazria v’yalda zachar, v’tamah…”

These parshiyos deal with the halachos of tumah and tahara. True, they are only obligatory when it comes to the mikdash—a non-kohen may come in contact with tumah, and it is permitted to be metamei ordinary food. Nevertheless, all of klal Yisrael sets aside bikurim, maser, terumah and challah, all of which must be kept tahor. Moreover, each person is obligated to be metaher in preparation for aliyah l’regel. Three times a year, the foundation was laid for national tahara awareness. Everything had to be kept safe from tumah for its sake.

Picturing the full life of the people—their leisure and work, their national life and their home life—we see that everything falls under the umbrella of tumah and tahara, and we can begin to appreciate the influence these laws had.

Under the laws of tumah and tahara, holiness extended to everything he created. All his work was dedicated to becoming close to God. Hammers and needles, looms and stoves—all of them were directed by the law. The lowliest working people, men and women, were uplifted by the awareness that their labor was holy, shaped by the spirit of the Torah. Under the rule of tahara, vulgarity disappeared, self-deprecation vanished. Everyone stood tall, knowing they were a goy kadosh – a holy nation of holy people.

In the time of Shaul and David, we are told that even common soldiers observed the laws of tahara in their everyday lives. These spiritual giants lived all their lives in compliance with tumah and tahara laws prescribed only to the Sanctuary: hayu ochlim chuleihen b’tahara, they ate their ordinary food in purity. They lived their lives, even the mundane, as though they were in the presence of the Sanctuary. At every moment, it was a living reminder of man’s calling.

Though we do not have a mikdash any longer, achilas chulin b’tahara has remained a regular practice among the Jewish people, and is still the mark of an observant Jew—netilas yadayim, washing hands before meals. Rising to the heights of tahara depends on netilas yadayim, for it lends the aspiring metaher wings. The very term netilas yadayim is indicative of an uplifting: natal is the Aramaic equivalent of nasa. The literal meaning of netilas yadayim is “lifting the hands.” The vessel used for it is even called a natla, which literally means “lifting.” Netilas yadayim l’seudah elevates our meal from the realm of bodily gratification and makes it a human, holy act. Indeed, the sanctification of physical acts is the first prerequisite for the sanctification of Jewish life.

Have a wonderful Shabbos,

Moshe Pogrow, Director, Ani Maamin Foundation

Please note: The “Gem of the Week,” is based on excerpts from Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l’s commentary on Chumash, with permission from the publisher.