Washing Off Yesterday: Ritual Morning Handwashing | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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(Explanation of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.)

Siman/Chapter 2

For those not as familiar with traditional Jewish daily practice, the idea of washing your hands in the morning in a particular way may not make tons of sense. For years, it made absolutely no sense to me either. In fact, because of its lack of direct command in the Torah, I didn’t do it. It felt like a violation of “Do not add to the word which I command nor take away from it” in Deuteronomy 4. These days, I find the practice worthwhile enough to do as a morning ritual for a few different reasons.

What the heck am I talking about? The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch says as follows in siman/chapter 2:
“When he arises from his bed in the morning a person is considered as a newly created being, to serve the Creator, Blessed be His Name. He, therefore, must sanctify himself and wash his hands from a vessel, [just] as a Kohein washed his hands each day from the special basin [located in the Temple] prior to his service.”

This tradition goes as such: 

“Take the [filled] vessel in your right hand and then place it in your left hand, and then first pour on the right hand; and then take the vessel in your right hand and pour upon the left hand. This procedure is repeated three times.”

What reason does it give to wash your hands first thing in the morning like a Kohein — as the priests did in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem?

According to Talmud, there is an idea that sleep is 1/60 of death. Your consciousness is diminished. Your body is literally paralyzed while you sleep by two chemicals in the brain to keep you from acting out your dreams and thoughts. While your mind is active, it is, in a sense, disconnected from your body. To be on the safe side, Rabbinic Sages decided that this disconnection warranted a repurification — much like that which was commanded in Torah of priests before they assumed their duties in the Holy Temple. This is also why our prayer in the morning offers up thanks to the Creator for reconnecting our mind with the rest of our body — “I give thanks before you, Living and Eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion…”

Why else is this a good idea? To wash yesterday off of our hands in a deliberate fashion. 

In the Torah as well as many other secular sources, the hands are a symbol of responsibility. To “get your hands dirty” implies taking on a task. Allstate, car insurance company I use, has the motto “With Allstate, you’re in good hands.”

With this being said, we tend to let yesterday’s responsibilities occupy our headspace despite the fact that we’re not time travelers. We can’t go back and change what we’ve done or do what we did not. All we can do is dig our hands into today. Even if we continue to handle or change something from yesterday, the fact that it is a new day makes it a new responsibility. Even fixing yesterday’s problems is still a forward march.

Intentional handwashing is a ritual act of casting off the anxious impurities we still cling to about our past. Even if you screwed up yesterday, you have the opportunity to wash it off of your hands and start the day anew. 

“Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in His holy place?— He who has clean hands and a pure heart —” – Psalm 24:3-4

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