Natilat Yadayim and Mayim Achronim Hand Washing Rituals

Netilat Yadayim and Mayim Achronim are two very similar rituals in Judaism of Hand-washing. But, there is a slight difference between the two that lies in the time of fulfilling and action, after which we perform Mayim Achronim.

The ritual of hand-washing In Yiddish-speaking communities, is known as  negel vasser , which means "nail water." Washing after eating bread and before Birkat Hamazon is known as  mayim achronim, which means "after waters”, to be holy.

The origin of hand washing in Judaism is in book of Exodus 17-21, Temple service and sacrifices:

 “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "You shall also make a basin of bronze, and its pedestal also of bronze, to wash with; and you shall put it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it. For Aaron and his sons shall wash there their hands and their feet. When they go into the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire to the Lord. So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not; and it shall be a statute forever to them, to him and to his seed throughout their generations."

It is derived from this section that hand washing is to purify ourselves and remove evil spirits from our fingers, before prayer and elevating our hands ‘Netilat Yadayim’ spiritually, as the High priests did in the Temple of Jerusalem.

There are several times where Jewish law requires hand washing, including:

  • after sleeping or napping
  • after going to the bathroom
  • after leaving a cemetery
  • before a meal, if bread is involved
  • after a meal, if the "salt of Sodom" was used

Steps to washing hands:

  • Do this only before eating a meal with bread or matzah (halachah also requires washing before cake, if it is eaten as a full meal). Bread is considered the staple food of all foods. Potatoes just missed the boat.
  • This may sound strange, but before washing your hands, be sure that they are clean and free of anything that will obstruct the waters from reaching the entire surface of your hands. This is a spiritual experience, you recall. Beyond Pasteur.
  • This is a spiritual experience, you recall. Beyond Pasteur . . .Remove your rings—unless you never remove them, in which case they are considered “part of your hand.

Fill a cup with water and pour twice on your right hand. Repeat on the left. (Lefties: reverse the order.) Chabad custom is to pour three times on each hand. Make sure the water covers your entire hand until the wrist bone with each pour. Separate your fingers 

  • slightly to allow the water in between them. After washing, lift your hands chest-high and say the following blessing:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.

(Baruch atah A-donay, Elo-heinu Melech Ha'Olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al netilat yadayim.)
[Say this blessing only if you intend to eat more than two ounces of bread.]

  • Rub your hands together and then dry them. Be careful not to speak or get involved in anything else until you’ve recited the blessing on your bread and swallowed some too.
  • If you take a washroom break during your meal, or otherwise soil your hands, you need to wash again—this time, without a blessing.

Mayim achronim has its own "how to," which is less involved than regular hand washing. For most types of hand washing, including before a meal where you'll be eating bread, you should follow the following steps.

  1. Make sure your hands are clean. This seems counterproductive, but remember that netilyat yadayim (hand washing) is not about cleanliness, but about ritual. 
  2. Fill a washing cup with enough water for both of your hands. If you are left -handed, begin with your left hand. If you are right handed, start with your right hand. 
  3. Pour the water twice on your dominant hand and then twice on your other hand. Some pour three times. Make sure the water covers your entire hand up to the wrist with each pour and separate your fingers so the water touches the whole of your hand. 
  4. After washing, grab a towel and as you dry your hands recite the bracha (blessing): Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech Ha'Olam, asher kideshanu b'mitzvotav, vetzivanu al netilat yadayim. This blessing means, in English, Blessed are you Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding the washing of the hands. 

The Hand-Washing rituals do not focus on cleaniness, but rather on making one more holy and purified. These special rituals are to be performed a number of times a day and are a significant part of Jewish traditions, sepearting the earthly from the sacred with a washing cup and water. It is your decision of the number of times and occasions you wish to perform Netilat Yadayim and Mayim Achronim.

Discover more on the beautiful Jewish traditions in our blog; read our article about Tzitzit and Techelet or Havdalah.