Question: On leaving a Jewish cemetery, I saw a notice instructing me to wash my hands on leaving and was told it was to wash away evil spirits. I can’t believe this could be true, but if it is, what are the evil spirits?(Question)
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
The sages of the Talmud clearly believed in evil spirits and demons and so to did many leading rabbis of the Middle Ages, particularly the German pietists known as the Chasidei Ashkenaz (12th -13th centuries) as well as the Kabbalists. This resulted in a whole range of practices to be avoided and rituals to be enacted in the hope of avoiding these dark spirits and the harm they were believed to bring about.
Such practices include not consuming beverages, shelled eggs, peeled onions and garlic that have been left overnight: being careful not to eat or drink an even number of the same food item or beverage in any one meal: as well as various incantations and practices particularly around childbirth.
Many, but not all of these customs have fallen out of practice today and the reason for this is often ascribed to the assertion of Tosafot (Yoma 77b) that evil spirits are no longer prevalent in our societies. Tosafot upholds the integrity of the talmudic sages, on the one hand, by tacitly acknowledging that such forces did once exist, while at the same time freeing future generations from having to accept such notions that clearly conflict with our perception of reality.
Maimonides, however, is more strident in his objections to superstitions. He contends that Judaism stands in opposition to such thinking and that any belief in evil spirits or magic is nothing less than idolatry.
Yet despite Tosafot and Maimonides, there are still many superstitious practices prevalent in certain Jewish circles today, many of which are imports from other cultures and belief systems such as the red string and the hand shaped hamsa amulet.
In terms of washing hands after a funeral, there are those who would interpret this practice as banishing evil spirits and yet there are others who would simply see it as a life-affirming ritual after an encounter with death. Some even have the custom of washing their face as well and reciting the verse from Isaiah 25:8, “He will destroy death forever and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” Then there is the custom, not widely practiced in this country, of not drying one’s hands afterwards. For by drying them, one figuratively wipes away all traces of the funeral ceremony and the memory of the deceased which ought to linger even as life moves on.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
This is an example of a noble idea that has become sullied by superstitious nonsense.
One of the key principles of Judaism is that it celebrates life from several different viewpoints: first, life is good and should be lived to the full; second, we have no real knowledge of what comes afterwards and should not waste too much time speculating about it; third, life is of value in itself, not merely a forerunner of something better to come, and so we should concentrate on the here and now.
For all these reasons, Judaism has maintained a carefully structured approach to death. The emotions involved in a bereavement are given expression through the funeral and mourning rituals, and the sense of grief is allowed to vent itself fully.
However, the grief is also limited. The intensity of the shivah is curtailed to a week only and the month of sheloshim takes over, followed by a year’s worth of do’s and don’ts, and then an annual yarzheit. It is a fast-moving escalator out of loss and back into life.
That is one of the reasons why a Jewish cemetery is located away from a synagogue — whereas Christian ones were placed around the Church itself — to give the message that death has to be acknowledged, but should not envelop everyday living.
The custom of washing hands on leaving a cemetery carries that same thought, and is a personal act by which the person attending the grounds marks the transition from departing the place of death to entering that of life; it is also an attempt mentally to leave behind the realm of the past and re-embrace the present.
Unfortunately, this powerful ritual has become associated with the idea of using water to prevent the spirits of the dead following you from the cemetery. It assumes the existence of dead spirits, reckons they are malign and are frightened away by water; it comes from the same fairy-tale world that helped Dorothy defeat the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz.
Similar examples of meaningful Jewish rituals being tarnished by crass re-interpretation might include covering mirrors in the house of mourning lest the dead spirit be reflected in them, or breaking a glass at a wedding to shoo away devils.
So carry on washing your hands as you depart the cemetery, but for the real reasons, not the folk fears