“Wash your hands!” This universal cry of parents to children the world over is no doubt familiar to many of us. In my house growing up, this was inevitably followed by “With soap!” There’s good reason for this practice. Research suggests that on average, our hands carry approximately 3,200 different germs belonging to more than 150 species. Washing our hands even without soap can help to mitigate the spread of illness and disease.
Well before modern science proved its efficacy, Jewish tradition mandated ritual hand washing (and in some cases, immersing in a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath) in a number of circumstances. The mishnah at the top of today’s daf enumerates a number of categories of food that require hand washing before they can be eaten.
One must wash his hands before eating chullin (non-sacred food), and for tithes and for terumah; but for eating sacrificial food one must immerse one’s hands in purification waters.
According to the mishnah, normal food, plus food that was donated to the priests, required washing before it could be eaten. Food that comes from sacrifices carries an even more significant obligation, immersion in a mikveh, before it could be eaten.
Later on our daf, the Gemara records a possible conflict between this mishnah with another teaching, from a mishnah in Tractate Bikkurim, which suggests that hand washing is not required for tithing and non-sacred foods. In trying to sort out the different cases the two mishnahs are referring to, the Gemara states:
Here the mishnah is dealing with eating bread, which requires washing one’s hands whereas there, in Bikkurim, the mishnah is referring to eating non-sacred fruit, for which one need not wash his hands, for Rav Nahman said: Anyone who washes his hands for fruit is of the haughty of spirit.
Rav Nahman disparages hand washing for non-sacred fruit as being extra because it’s not required by the rabbis. But elsewhere the Gemara suggests that washing before bread is of crucial importance. In Tractate Sotah, we learn this:
Concerning anyone who eats bread without washing his hands, it is as if he engaged in sexual intercourse with a prostitute.
We’re left with an important question: Why is hand washing seen as so consequential as to be equated to fornication? Isn’t that itself a little extra?
This shocking comparison clues us into the fact that in the time of the Talmud, hand washing wasn’t just about cleanliness. It was also about godliness — namely, the removal of ritual impurities prior to eating food. As we have learned in many places during the past two years of our Daf Yomi cycle, ritual impurity can be transferred by a person to various objects, including food. And that ritual impurity can then be transferred to other people and objects, which in the time of the Temple would have prevented them from engaging in a number of ritual (and personal) practices.
Even today, when we have no Temple and everyone and everything are presumed to be in a general state of ritual impurity, and all of our food is non-sacred, we still practice ritual hand-washing before eating bread. The practice, known as Netilat Yadayim (literally, “raising hands”), is performed with a blessing before eating any food that requires the Hamotzi blessing.
Although the sages of the Talmud were unfamiliar with germ theory, they were cognizant of the invisible forces that resulted in ritual impurity. And at least one scholar has suggested that the ancients’ understanding of illness and ritual impurity may have similar roots.
Whatever the origin of impurity, sources across the generations agree with your mother: Wash your hands.
Read all of Chagigah 18 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 27th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.