Hand-washing is currently a hot topic due to COVID-19. Since Jewish law emphasizes cleanliness and promotes guarding one’s health, Judaism has always been ahead of the game when it comes to hygiene issues.

It should be noted, that the Jewish customs of frequent hand-washing and the high value placed on personal cleanliness may actually have had an impact on world history. In the Middle Ages, when entire villages were at times decimated by the Black Plague, Jews had a significantly lower rate of infection. Unfortunately, many peasants assumed that this was because the Jews were spreading the disease or poisoning the wells, and many Jewish lives were lost as a result.

If only they had known that the plague was spread by fleas on rats, and that the Jewish populace was far less affected because of the natural hygiene built into Jewish observance.

Jewish law strongly recommends washing one’s hands after using the facilities and before eating (especially when eating bread). Hygienic? Certainly. But, in this case, water is used to remove “spiritual impurities” that come upon the hands from touching certain body parts or due to general contact with a not-so-clean, physical world (a Kabbalistic idea).

Jews are charged by the Torah to strive for a level of holiness (Leviticus 19:2), which is accomplished through preparing for, and participating in, holy activities. Washing one’s hands before eating turns eating into a holy act (“We eat to live!” – Proverbs 13:25). Washing after leaving the restroom enables one to properly participate in a holy act. Many people also wash their hands before prayer. The significance is obvious.

In the first two examples we’ve cited, washing of hands is followed immediately by the recitation of a blessing. The washing and the blessing help us recognize that food is a gift of God and enables us to acknowledge God’s role in allowing our bodies to function properly.

This Treat was originally posted on August 1, 2008.

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