Posted on October 28, 2010 by Mosheh
It’s been recently pointed out to me that there is a tradition of doing netilat yadayim (ritual hand washing and blessing) before prayer, just as we do before eating bread. Apparently, it is not so common for people to follow this custom, which is why I hadn’t noticed it before, but it does exist. Moreover, it may be even more integral to do before prayer. After all, our prayers were developed as a substitute for the temple korbanot (ritual slaughter of animals so as to point out to us the gravity of our errors in the ‘sin’ offerings, or the immensity of the gratitude for the life we have in ‘peace’ and ‘thankfulness’ offerings). The ritual hand washing is taken from the very same place; it was done before the offering of korbanot.
So, why is it less common for people to add the hand washing ritual before prayer than before eating? Why do we do this before eating and before prayer? How are eating and prayer connected, and how is this applicable today?
In temple times the connection was temporal and direct. Offer korban and (in most cases) sit down to eat once it’s slaughtered and roasted.
My friend Jonathan recently quoted a beautiful teaching from, I think, the Kotzker Rebbe. It said something along the lines of G-d giving us life filled with desire, so that we can become empathic to how all people have the very same desires we face, and thus more empathic and connected to the individuals and communities we find ourselves in.
Perhaps in eating we are guided by tradition to become aware of our most basic desires, yearnings, lacks, and to understand how all our fellow human beings are filled and wrestle with the very same. Perhaps prayer is a similar time, we are guided to recite the same formula which have been recited for centuries and the deepest desires of our hearts by Jews from all corners of the world, and thus sensitizing us to how we can all relate (instead of bicker, argue, or fight).
Also, in both situations we are instructed to create a safe and holy space for this kind of sensitivity and connection. We do this by purifying our hands, and lifting them up in order to prepare for holy work. Thus, being aware of and asking for what you really really need and want is holy work.
May we all be blessed with increasing awareness, the risk of asking for help, and the clarity and ability to direct our hands to act wisely with our needs, and the sensitivity to the needs of others.