Jewish Customs

Minhagim have become incorporated into daily practice, like law.

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Another universally adopted custom is to wash the hands ritually when rising from sleep, by pouring water over them from a glass. Two reasons are given. One is that just as the priests in Temple times washed their hands from the hand-basin before beginning their service, so, too, a Jew should wash his hands as he rises to serve his Maker. The other reason is that a "spirit of impurity" rests on the finger-nails during sleep and this has to be removed by the pouring of pure water over the fingers. The ritual is, in fact, called in Yiddish neggel wasser, or water of the nails. This too is evidently an attempt at providing a more respectable reason for a custom that probably had its origin in superstition, although here the "rational" and the "superstitious" reasons appear side by side.

It is obvious that in many of the instances cited the reasons are given post factum. It is not a case of the customs being based on the reasons but rather of reasons being given for customs that were, in any event, deeply rooted in the practices of the people. Reform Judaism tends to ignore customs which clearly have their origin in superstition. But Orthodox Judaism, even when it acknowledges the base origin of some of the customs, holds that these have become part of the Jewish lifestyle and act as a bulwark against assimilation.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.