Netilat Yadayim

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, July 16, 2009
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Before eating bread, we wash our hands and say the blessing al netilat yadayim, which literally means “on the taking of hands”. At first glance this does not have much to do with water.The other blessing that uses the term netilah, al netilat lulav, is said before shaking the lulav and the rest of the four species on Succot.

Professor E Y Kutscher, the Hebrew philologist, explains that although the Torah uses the word lakach to describe the mitzvah of taking the four species, by rabbinic times, that word meant “to buy”. A lulav need not be bought but can also be a gift. So the rabbis chose to use netilah, which refers only to the physical action of picking up or taking.

But what are we actually picking up when we wash our hands? The Hebrew language blog, Balashon, explains that the expression is elliptical. We are really making a blessing on the taking of water for our hands. Only the word water is missing. When washing our hands before eating (and first thing in the morning), we have to first place the water in a cup and then rinse our hands. The taking (netilah) of the water is part of the ritual.

    Last updated: 12:38pm, August 10 2009