I’ve always wondered why we do the special hand washing before eating bread, and why we are not allowed to speak from when we wash our hands until we eat bread. It can’t just be about hygiene, so what’s it really about?
When somebody offers a far-fetched explanation for their behavior, they’re likely hiding something. The reason the Talmud gives for washing hands is a clear example of this.
In Temple times, the priests lived off donations of produce from farmers, called terumah. Farmers were required to separate this portion, and it could only be eaten by a kohen, and only in a state of ritual purity. So the priests made sure to always wash their hands ritually before eating to ensure that they were pure. The custom was then adopted by non-priests in deference to the kohanim who were obligated to do so. And even though we no longer have those foods that need to be eaten in purity, we continue to wash our hands before bread.1
Really? Two millennia ago people started washing their hands because the priests washed theirs, that’s why we, today, wash our hands every time we eat bread? There must be more to it…
The bread we eat is the end product of a long process. Think about the myriad steps that it takes to get bread on the table. We work and toil, create and invent, cook and bake, and finally we eat.
So our hands represent human ingenuity, the work we do. Bread represents human achievement, the food we eat. After all, we work hard to make the dough.
But we need to remember that the work of our hands alone does not give us bread. It is G‑d‘s blessing that feeds us. We should not think, „It is my own strength and the power of my hands that has made me this wealth.”2 Our work is a vessel, a receptacle, a container, but an empty container until G‑d fills it with His blessing. „The smartest people don’t necessarily have bread.”3 Our success is not dependent on our own talents, but on G‑d’s blessing.
That’s why we wash our hands before eating bread. We are cleansing ourselves of any sense of entitlement, arrogance, or complacency. We have bread on the table, but it is G‑d’s blessing that brought it to us. We should be humbled and grateful for the dough He provides.
For this reason we don’t interrupt between washing our hands and eating the bread. We create a direct connection between recognizing the true source of the bread and enjoying it. As soon as we have cleansed our hands of arrogance, we can eat. Nothing should distract us in between.
This is why our sages said that we should wash our hands the same way the priests did. The kohanim did not work in the fields. They worked in the Temple, and relied on the tithes people donated for their upkeep. A kohen couldn’t fool himself and think that he had worked for his bread. It was clear that he was being fed by the kindness of others. We should all feel that way. It is not our own work and effort; it is all a gift from G‑d.4