Digital Hygiene: Washing Hands After Eating

Question

Hi Rabbi, what’s the source for pouring water on one’s fingers or hands after a meal before saying birkat hamazon (grace after meals)? I’ve seen many people who wash their hands before a meal but not afterwards. Would you please help me understand? Thanks!

, 10 months

Answers

  1. It would be my pleasure. This practice is known as “mayim achronim” (lit. “water afterwards”). The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states that washing one’s hands before birkat hamazon is an obligation. Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zatzal, once told me that women are included to the same degree as men in this obligation.

    There are two reasons given for this practice:

    One: Just as a soiled kohen is unfit to perform the Temple Service in the Beit Hamikdash, so too soiled hands make a person unfit to say a blessing.

    Two: To clean off any “melach sdomit” — “salt of Sodom” — that might be on the hands. Melach sdomit was a strong salt harmful to the eyes.

    Why have you seen people wash before the meal but not afterwards? Perhaps it is since some people actually have a valid custom to not wash mayim achronim. Melach sdomit is virtually non-existent today (I don’t know of any, do you?), and the concept of “cleanliness” is a relative matter, with most people not considering their hands “dirty” after a meal. Therefore, according to the custom of some people, washing their hands after a meal would not be necessary.

    I once heard a beautiful explanation of the symbolism of mayim achronim. This water washes off the “Salt of Sodom.” The people of Sodom were infamous for their stingy cold-heartedness, especially regarding hospitality towards strangers. For example, the people of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house and ordered him to send out the wayfarers he was hosting. After a meal, having eaten our fill, we might not empathize with a poor stranger knocking on our door asking for a little food. This quality of cold-heartedness is the antithesis of Judaism, and therefore we “wash it off” — saying: “We want no part of it!”

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team