Sunday 8 April 2018



It is generally assumed that the reason why we wash our hands in the morning is to remove ‘evil spirits’ which descended upon us during the night.
We will explore whether or not this is the view held by all the major Halachic authorities.


According to the Shulchan Aruch[1] of R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575), one must wash one’s hands in the morning, because a Ruach Ra’a (or evil spirit) rests upon the body:

One must be particular to pour water over (the hands) three times in order to remove the evil spirit which rests on them.”


R. Karo in his Shulchan Aruch bases himself on an earlier ruling of Tur[2] compiled by R. Yakov ben Asher (1270-1340):

The Tur writes:

One must be particular to pour water over them (the hands) three times because an evil spirit rests upon them until they are washed -  and does not depart until water is poured three times.


This, in turn, is based on a statement in the Talmud[3] dealing with the washing of the hands in the morning:

According to the Talmud:

R. Natan (or possibly R. Yossi) says: This evil spirit remains (on the hands) until one washes them three times.


Rashi (1040-1105) interprets this Talmudic statement to mean that the reason why we wash our hands in the morning is to remove the Ruach Ra’a which descended upon us during the process of sleep. The way we do this is to pour water over our hands three times.

However, according to a slightly earlier authority, Rabbeinu Chananel (990-1053, who is known to have based himself on older traditions going back to the Gaonim and even earlier), the Ruach Ra’a (or bat Melech) remains on the eyelids and not on the hands. According to him, it is the eyes and the face[4] which have to be washed three times, not the hands!


The Talmudic statement which was used as a source for the notion of evil spirits is of disputed authorship. Sometimes it is ascribed to R. Yossi and other times to R. Natan - depending on the version of the text. If the author of the statement was R. Natan (also known as Natan haBavli, the Babylonian) - it supports the notion that evil spirits invade the body during sleep, because that was a common Babylonian belief.

Babylon was known to have been the originator of many such (what some would call) folk or superstitious beliefs. The Babylonian culture was steeped in occult practices and angelology – something which was noticeably absent from the belief and practices of Jews living in Israel at the same time. This is why there are many references to demons and evil spirits in the Babylonian Talmud, and hardly any in the Talmud Yerushalmi.

If, however, the statement was made instead by R. Yossi, then obviously this argument would fall away.


It is interesting to note that the Tur chose only one of the two explanations which were offered by the Talmudic commentaries. He chose Rashi (dealing with the hands) over Rabbeinu Chananel (dealing with the eyes). Whereas, in fact, it does seem that the Talmud itself favoured the view of the ‘eyes’ over the ‘hands’, because immediately afterwards it suggests applying some type of paste on the eyelids an antidote to the Ruach Ra’a resting on the eyelids.


 According to another interpretation, this entire Talmudic section actually has nothing to do with evil spirits in an esoteric sense, but rather a form of ‘evil infection’ in a medical sense. If one looks at the context of this text, it is speaking about what was then understood to be medical information.
The section is introduced by Shmuel, a second-third century physician and contains many such medical remedies, not esoteric practices.

This position is further supported by Rabbeinu Chananel who, as mentioned above, makes no reference to the washing of the hands but instead refers to the eyes.

Dr Gordon writes quite poignantly that according to this approach: “there is, ontologically, no nightly crisis, no precarious state of lifelessness. The experience of awakening each morning – the restoration each morning of consciousness – simply anticipates in psychologically suggestive terms the phenomenon of future resurrection. [5]


We must remember that there are two other Talmudic sources which deal with the washing of the hands in the morning and they make no mention of evil spirits:

 The Talmud in Berachot 15a states that the order of the morning is “ wash the hands and then put on Tefillin and say Shema...and if one does so it is as if he offered a sacrifice

Furthermore, “...a Torah scholar who came from Israel (instead of Babylon) said that one who has no water to wash the hands, should wipe his hands with either earth, a stone or a piece of wood.”

This Talmudic source makes no reference to evil spirits as the reason for washing the hands in the morning. It simply suggests that the washing of the hands is a preparation for the morning prayers and that it is not even imperative to use water.


The abovementioned Gemara was later adopted by Rashba as the reason for the washing of the hands in the morning: It is a hygienic ablution to prepare for Tefillin and Shema and is reminiscent of the Temple service (where the Cohen also poured water over his hands as a preparation for his daily service).


The other Talmudic source which also makes no reference to evil spirits is Berachot 60b:

Here the Gemara lists various activities which are performed in the morning (such as the wearing of a belt, and putting on shoes) and the corresponding blessing to be recited on each occasion. It mentions, in passing, the blessing “al netilat yadayim” to be recited on washing the hands.

This Gemara also seems to imply that the washing of the hands is a simple, common and mundane morning activity, a routine ablution, with no reference to evil spirits.


This Gemara was later adopted by Rosh as the reason for the washing of the hand in the morning: It is a routine morning ablution (and a means of cleaning the hands after they may have, during the process of sleep, contacted a part of the body that is usually covered).[6]

Thus, according to Rosh, the washing of the hands is a preparation for prayer, while according to Rashba it constitutes a preparation for prayer and the service of G-d throughout the rest of the day – but neither makes any reference to evil spirits!

And, amazingly, the Rosh makes the point that in this Talmudic section, the blessing over washing the hands features towards the end of the list of early morning activities – implying that there is no urgency to wash the hand immediately in the morning. One may even recite the other blessings prior to washing the hands, as long as they are eventually washed before the main section of prayer.[7]


We have seen that there are three sources in the Talmud for the morning washing of the hands. Two are rather mundane:

(1) Rashba: - reminiscent of the Cohen at the start of a brand new day.
(2) Rosh: - to clean the hands after a lengthy period of unconscious inactivity.

(3) It is only the third source that seems to provide an esoteric reason involving evil spirits. Yet that source was selected as the main originator for the morning hand-washing ritual, by the Tur and Shulchan Aruch.


It must also be pointed out that none of the Gaonim (the authorities spanning 589-1038) regarded the esoteric Talmudic statement as having any bearing on practical Halacha.

And although some Rishonim (spanning 1038-1500) did read a Halachic imperative into it, it was not universally taken as such by other Rishonim such as and Rif (R. Yitzchak Alfasi 1013-1103), Rambam (1135-1204), Rashba (R. Sholomo ben Aderet 1235-1310) and Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel 1250-1327). None of these Rishonim even mention that particular esoteric Talmudic statement nor do they connect the morning ablution as having to do with any Ruach Ra’a or evil spirits.

Rambam, for example, prescribes washing the hands in the morning before prayer but does not relate it to removing evil spirits. He simply regards it as a basic hygienic ablution. And he does not specify pouring water over the hands three times but one singular pouring would suffice.


This ‘evil spirits’ reason is mirrored in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch of R. Shlomo Gantzfried (1802-1886):

After explaining that man is a new creation every morning and is compared to the Cohen in the Temple who washed his hands at the start of each new day, he gives another reason for washing the hands: 

During sleep, when a person’s holy soul has (partially) left him, an impure spirit comes and rests upon his body. When he wakes up (in the morning), the impure spirit departs from all the body except for the fingers and does not leave until one pours water over the three times alternately.”

It’s interesting, however, to see that the ‘evil spirits’ is mentioned as the secondary reason and not the primary one, which is similar to the reason put forth by Rashba.

Also, one notices there is no reference to Ruach Ra’a (evil spirit), but rather to a possible more benign usage of Ruach haTumah (spirit of impurity).


The Halachic codification of the Talmudic texts was spearheaded by Rishonim like the Tur. This was when what was previously multifaceted Talmudic discussion became written into more one-dimensional law.

Bear in mind that the Tur (1270-1340) was born about a hundred years after the Zohar - which became widespread at the end of the 1100’s - was already well known.[8] He lived in Spain which was where the Zohar had become very popular.

It is possible that he may have been influenced by some Zoharic thought.

We know that R. Yosef Karo, who based himself on the Tur when it came to the reasons for washing hands, was also very influenced by Kabbalistic thought and was even said to have been taught by a mystical Maggid. (See A Mystical Side to R. Yosef Karo.)

Therefore it is not difficult to speculate that the reason why the more esoteric aspects of hand washing in the morning, involving evil spirits, was emphasized by both codifiers.

It is also interesting that R. Yosef Karo is usually known to have followed the majority opinion of (the three “R’s”)  Rif, Rambam and Rosh – yet in our case he seems to have avoided all of them!
Tellingly, in his original Beit Yosef on the Tur which preceded his Shulchan Aruch, he writes that ‘The Zohar contains some chiddushim (novel ideas) not found in the (writings of the) Halachic decisors.”

Let’s see what the Zohar actually says:


The Zohar[9] says:

Every man has a foretaste of death during the night, because the holy soul then leaves him, and the unclean spirit rests upon the body and makes it unclean. When, however, the soul returns to the body, the pollution disappears, save from the man’s hands...Hence a man should not pass his hands over his eyes before washing them.

When he has washed them, however, he becomes sanctified and is called holy.

For this sanctification, two vessels are required, one held above and the other placed beneath, so that he may be sanctified by the water poured on his hands from the vessel above.

The lower vessel, then, is the vessel of uncleanness, receiving as it does the water of contamination, whilst the upper vessel is a medium of sanctification. The upper one is referred to as ‘blessed’, the lower one as ‘cursed’.

Further, the water of contamination should not be emptied in the house, in order that no one may come near it; for it forms a gathering-place for the elements of the unclean side, and so that no one may receive injury from the unclean water.

Neither may pronounce a benediction before the pollution is removed from his hands...Nor is it permitted to put the polluted water to any use, or even to let it stay overnight in the house, but it must be emptied in a spot where people do not pass, as it is liable to cause harm through the unclean spirit that clings to it.

It is permissible, however, to let it flow down a slope into the earth. It must not be given to witches, as by means of it they can do harm to people.

One should, then, avoid this water, since it is water of curse...


The prescription to pour water over the hands three times has Kabbalistic implications: According to Kaff haChaim[10], the right hand signifies Chessed or kindness while the left hand represents Gevurah or severity (or evil). By beginning the pouring from the right to left hand, one symbolises that the harsh judgements and evil of the left side are made subservient to the Chessed of the right side.


It is well known that Rambam was very outspoken about the fact that he did not believe in evil spirits. It is also known that Rosh and Rif were not so vocal about their beliefs on this matter. 

R. David Bar-Hayim suggests an interesting alternative possible explanation for Rosh and Rif omitting our esoteric Talmudic statement: It could be that they regarded the morning washing of the hands as an ‘optional extra’ or Middat Chassidut (a pious but not obligatory practice). In other words, they may have held a belief in evil spirits but were not prepared to impose that belief on the people in terms of a Halachic obligation (as did the Tur and Shulchan Aruch).

To support this position, even the great Kabbalist, the Ramak (R. Moshe Cordovero 1522-1570), writes in his commentary on the Zohar (Or Yakar[11]) that the washing of the hands in the morning is Midat Chassidut and not obligatory in a Halachic sense.

This in stark contrast to the Tur and Shulchan Aruch who prescribed the washing of the hands in the morning as having Halachic implications in terms of removing evil spirits.


The Mishna Berura[12] (by R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chafetz Chaim; 1838-1933) first published in 1904 writes:

 “While while we do take into account the reason of evil spirits when it comes to washing the hands, nevertheless that is not the main reason why we wash the hands. The Sages would never have instituted the requirement of reciting a blessing, were that to have been the only reason. Therefore we must take into consideration the additional reasons given (by the Rosh and Rashba etc).”


At about the same time as the Zohar was popularised, the Tosafists (1100’s – mid-1400’s) were making very interesting statements like “This evil spirit has been nullified from the world and is no longer found in places like Germany[13].


According to the Lechem Mishna, it is evident from the words of Rambam that he was not perturbed by references to evil spirits as found in the Talmud.[14]
In Rambam’s own words:

Amongst that which you should know is that the perfected philosophers do not believe in tzelamim, by which I mean talismanery, but scoff at them and at those who think that they possess efficacy... and I say this because I know that most people are seduced by this with great folly, and with similar things, and think that they are real—which is not so... and these are things that have received great publicity amongst the pagans...”[15]  


R. Shlomo Luria was known as Maharshal (1510—1573), one of the great Ashkenazi Halachic decisors, wrote that ‘evil spirits are not found among us’.[16]


In a fascinating account where the son of Count Pototzki converted secretly to Judaism and when he was caught and put to death for his actions, the Vilna Gaon declared the evil spirits to have been finally banished from the world.

Thereafter, the students of the Vilna Gaon were no longer particular about washing their hands in the morning before walking four cubits. (There is a view that the entire house is considered to be ‘within four cubits’ anyway.)

It must be said, however, that it is still wide practice today for many to keep two vessels next to the bed so as to perform Negel Wasser or nail water, immediately upon rising.


It is significant that our esoteric Talmudic statement about the Ruach Ra’a was actually made by the earlier and therefore more authoritative Tannaim (either R. Natan haBavli or R. Yossi from the Mishnaic Period 10-220 CE) and not by the later Amoraim (from the Gemora Period 220-500 CE).

This makes it even more unusual that no Gaonim nor Rif, Rambam, Rashba or Rosh mentioned the reference to the evil spirits as suggested in that Braita or Mishnaic text.

The aim of this article is not to prove which interpretation is the ‘correct’ one. It is simply to show just another example of how the mystics (who believed in evil spirits) were able to gain the upper hand over the more rational rabbis (who did not believe in evil spirits) – and how, in this case, the mystical view became the dominant Halachic position.

This creates a reality where, today, very few people are aware of fact that belief in spirits is not necessary a universal Jewish belief.




The Halachic implications from all the above become rather complicated in an instance where one remained awake the entire night (such as on Shavuot):

According to the Gemara, it is the passage of the night and not necessarily the process of sleep that brings the evil spirit. So the hands would still need to be washed.

According to the Zohar, however, it is the process of sleep that brings the evil spirits. If there was no sleep there would be no need to wash the hands.

The Rosh would agree that there is no need to wash the hands if one did not sleep, although for a different reason – the hands would not have unconsciously become requiring of a cleansing.


If one had slept during the day, the Rosh would require a hand washing.

The Gemara would not require a hand washing because there was no passage of night.

And according to the Zohar there would also be no requirement to wash the hands as the evil spirit does not enter the body during the day (although see Beit Yosef ch 4, who questions this).

Practically speaking, because of some of the uncertainty in these issues, the general practice is to wash the hands but not to say the blessing of ‘al netilat yadayim’.

[1] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 4:2. 
[2] Tur, Orach Chaim, 4.  R. Yaakov ben Asher (who was the son of the Rosh and usually defended the positions of his father) called his work Arba’ah Turim which means Four Rows (corresponding to the jewels on the breastplate of the High Priest). Two hundred years later, R. Yosef Karo wrote a commentary on the Tur, which was called Beit Yosef. Later, he transformed that commentary into an actual code which we know as the Shulchan Aruch. He retained the basic outlay and format of the Tur down to retaining the Four Sections and even the Chapters or Simanim.
[3] Shabbat 109a.
[4] Although the text states that the hands have to be washed three times. Perhaps Rabbeinu Chananel had a different version of the text as he makes no mention of hands in his commentary.
[5] See Netilat Yadayim Shel Shacharit by Dr Martin L. Gordon.
[6] Peninei Halacha, Tefilah, p.106, footnote 1.
[7] Rosh Berachot 9:23
[9] Zohar 1, 184:2.
[10] Kaff haChaim 4:12
[11] Or Yakar p. 123
[12] Mishna Berura 4:8.
[13] Yoma 77b.
[14] Shevitat Heasor 3,2.
[15] Rambam’s Commentary to the Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 4:7
[16] Yam Shel Shlomo on Chulin 8, 31

1 comment:

  1. See above under 'A Less Esoteric Interpretation' where it could be argued that the Talmudic context may have been medical as opposed to esoteric (as per Dr Gordon's suggestion).
    Obviously those who go with the esoteric view will dissagree.