Sunday, 22 April 2018


Mishna Berurah by R. Yisrael Meir haCohen of Radin, also known as the Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933).


R. Yisrael Meir haCohen of Radin (1838-1933) also known as the Chafetz Chaim, wrote a commentary on the Orach Chaim (daily conduct) section of the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo. He called his commentary the ‘Mishna Berura’.

Since then, the Mishna Berura has been hailed, in many circles, as the ‘final word’ on Halachic practices for the modern era.


Professor Benjamin Brown, in his post-doctoral studies at Harvard University, has done extensive research into the Mishna Berura, and I have drawn from much of his vast knowledge on the subject[1]:

While the Mishna Berura is often regarded as one of the stricter of the more recent Halachic works, he points out that this characterization may not be not entirely correct.

The Mishna Berurah generally gives various interpretations of a law, often progressing from relatively lenient to stricter readings of a ruling. Although it is true that the Mishna Berura does frequently say that the ‘stricter ruling is preferable’, it is important to note that the student is not necessarily expected to always follow the stricter ruling.


Professor Brown coined the phrase ‘soft stringency’ to emphasize that the author was only encouraging the student to follow the stricter approach but was not prescribing it. He also calls it the ‘democratization of Halacha’ because the student is free to choose where in the spectrum between extreme stringency and moderate leniency he wants to place himself.


His research analysed and compared the number of times the Mishna Berura used expressions of encouragement towards ‘soft stringency’ as opposed to the number of times the other codifiers used similar expressions (all within the same Orach Chaim section):

Table showing how frequently the different codifiers used expressions encouraging stringencies.

As can be seen from the Table, the use of expressions such as ‘it is appropriate to adopt the stringent opinion’ is far greater in the Mishna Berura than in any of the earlier Halachic codifiers. He uses these expressions up to 21 times more frequently than the other writers.

While on the surface, this may seem to imply that the Chafetz Chaim was, therefore, stricter than all his predecessors - however, on a deeper level it shows how open he was for the individual to choose his position from within the ‘leniency-stringency spectrum’.


Thus, the rather unique pedagogical style of the Mishna Berura was to enumerate the views of the main Halachic authorities from the most lenient to the strictest – and then to suggest the student follow the stricter view. However, because the ruling was not conclusively decided, it is clear that the student was still free to ‘choose’ another ruling more appropriate to his circumstances and personality if he so wished and he would not be considered to have broken the law.

Professor Brown writes that the Mishna Berura: “...actually offers the reader an array of conduct options from which he may pick the one that seems right for him. 

This choice is not altogether free, since the Hafetz Hayim shows a clear indication to one side of the spectrum - the stringent – and encourages the reader to follow it, but still, the soft language of the ruling suggests that if one follows the other side of the spectrum, the lenient, he will not sin, since there are trustworthy authorities that may back his choice...

It breaks the normal dichotomy’t do, and establishes a norm of desirable behaviour – ‘one should do...’ The that there are preferred behaviours that are not complete duties and therefore cannot be imposed on an entire community...Those who do not aspire to this level or cannot achieve it can opt to reject the soft stringency. 

Thus the soft stringency...ironically often creates an opening for leniency.


The abovementioned thesis is actually supported by the Mishna Berura’s son, R. Arye Leib, who wrote:

Many good people might think that my father of blessed memory ruled stringently in every matter in order to comply with all opinions...In reality, this was not the case. My father was stringent only for himself, but for others he was not stringent. He thoroughly researched every law, brought a variety of opinions...all in order to be lenient.”[2]

This makes the Mishna Berura rather unique compared to the other codes because instead of focusing on arriving at a definitive conclusion, it was often prepared to give the student some degree of autonomy.


While the earlier codifiers were generally writing their law for judges and scholars, the Mishna Berura was a bold attempt to present Halacha to the student. This is borne out by the Introduction to the Mishna Berura which clearly states that this work was written for “a common Jew who needs to know a particular law...”.  

Compare that, by way of contradistinction, to R. Yosef Karo who wrote in his Introduction to his Beit Yosef that “the value of the work for scholars is clear.[3]

In fact, the Mishna Berura’s son, R. Arye Leib wrote: “The Orach Chaim section of the Shulchan Aruch is not addressed to the legal authorities...this section of the Shulchan Aruch belongs to the common people.”[4]

It must be pointed out the Mishna Berura was not side-stepping the scholars who obviously would always have to be consulted in difficult cases.


Although scholars would obviously have to be consulted in difficult cases, the Chafetz Chaim was, nevertheless, very in tune with the common people and the realities of his day. He wrote other works also specifically aimed at ordinary Jews who found themselves in changing circumstances. These included Machanei Yisrael for Jews who found themselves drafted into the Russian army – and Nidachei Yisrael for Jews who were emigrating to America. 

Originally, he did not want to publish the latter book in Europe because “the leniencies that we permit for the wanderers are not appropriate for those who dwell in the security of their locations (in Europe).”[5]

All the above indicates quite strongly that the Mishna Berura was conscious of the need for leniencies in various circumstances and that he did not intend a ‘one size fits all’ approach towards Halacha.


It is important to note, however, that this is not the way much of the Chareidi or ultra-Orthodox community view the Mishna Berura

(Note: Reference to Chareidim is here intended to refer to the more extreme adherents of the movement.)

Most people are unaware that today, the Chareidim represent the largest segment of the religious population and are growing rapidly. Recently, for the first time, the numbers of ultra-Orthodox have exceeded the numbers of the more centrist Orthodox community. Those familiar with this community will know that they clearly lean to the side of stringencies in all areas of Jewish law.

The irony, though, is that as a general rule, they claim their adherence to stringencies as a direct result of the influence from the Mishna Berura.

Anecdotally, some months ago I was giving a Halacha class to my congregants and was using, as a source text, the Peninei Halacha of R. Eliezer Melamed. A young (as it happens moderately) Chareidi teenager, who was visiting from abroad, got up, walked to the bookshelf and took out a Mishna Berura and dramatically placed it in front of me in the middle of the shiur and informed me, in no uncertain terms, that: “This is the only proper Halacha!

Incidentally, a common Chareidi response for not celebrating Israel’s Independence Day is that they follow the Mishna Berura (d. 1933!) and he did not mandate its commemoration!


The Chareidi movement, relies heavily on the notion of Da’at Torah: - where the autonomy of the individual and his thinking have no inherent value in and of themselves; – where the Rebbe or Gadol makes decisions on all areas of life even and sometimes particularly outside of Torah matters such as relationships, finances, health matters and work (often prohibiting the latter). See Contemporary Daas Torah.

Within the more extreme segments of the Chareidi movement, there is absolutely no room for an individual to exercise his choice on Halachic matters - in the way the Mishna Berura appears to have intended it - particularly if they want to still be considered part of the group.

Professor Brown, who grew up in Bnei Brak, writes that the bookstores of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem are teeming with thick books expounding on the minutia of Halacha. Not just details but unprecedented details within details.

He writes: “While one might think that such works are designed to empower the individual to make decisions without posing halachic questions to rabbis, the books themselves prove the opposite. Almost every introduction to these works includes a conventional warning that one should never use the book to decide practical halachic questions by himself, but rather should ask a halachic authority about any question that arises.”

Obviously, difficult questions do need consultation but not every minutia does. In the more extreme ultra-Orthodox circles, the individual, who may sometimes even be a scholar, is rendered totally powerless.

How then can the same movement largely define itself as adhering to the ethos of the Chafetz Chaim and his Mishna Berura, who clearly empowered the student to choose from within an acceptable Halachic Spectrum?

The answer may be that the Chareidi movement has opted to re-interpret the writing style of the Mishna Berura - and that they read the phrase “it is best to follow the stricter opinion” as meaning that “there is only the stricter opinion”.

In other words, they have taken the gentle encouragement of the ‘soft stringency’ and turned it into an imperative and a ‘hard stringency’. In this way, the original multifacetedness of the Mishna Berura may have been lost by the very people who hold him up as one of their founding fathers.


One very fascinating point needs to be made:

Although the writer of the Mishna Berura enjoys almost universal acclaim as the ‘Posek Acharon’ or final decisor of Halacha for our generation – surprisingly, it appears that he did not author the entire work as we know it today!

According to the Kol Kitvei Chafetz Chaim haShalem[6] collated by the Chafetz Chaim’s son, R. Aryeh Leib, he writes that his father did not write the entire Mishna Berura. Instead, many sections of the book were written by his son!

He writes, for example, that most of Hilchot Shabbat was written by his father – implying that his father was particularly active regarding the section of Hilchot Shabbat but not necessarily regarding all the other sections of Mishna Berura. And R. Arye Leib clearly states that he wrote many of the other sections himself. 

To what extent is unknown, but it may have been quite considerable. This shows that the common perception that Mishna Berura was authored exclusively by the Chafetz Chaim is untrue.

Furthermore (in vol. 3 p. 43) R. Arye Leib points out what appears to be a contradiction between Chapter 318 and Chapter 328. He then explains that the explanation is simple: - Chapter 318 was written by his father while Chapter 328 was written by him.

This shows that father and son - even though they worked together - were not always in concert with each other regarding their Halachic positions. And that it is not always clear who exactly wrote what. This again undermines the notion that all of Mishna Berura was written by one man - the Chafetz Chaim - the Posek Acharon!


This fascinating biographical account of the sometimes conflicting dual authorship of Mishna Berura was pointed out by R. David Bar-Hayim who also recalls hearing from R. Benzion Wosner (son of R. Shmuel Wosner) who said in the name of his father that we cannot always rely on the perception that the Chafetz Chaim wrote everything recorded in the Mishna Berura. And that the difficulty is that we do not always know who wrote what!


If what we have said is correct: 

- If it is true that the Chafetz Chaim wrote a ‘peoples book’ in which he gave a degree autonomy to the students who would consult his Halachic texts;

– And if it is true that he never authored the entire work by himself; 

– And if it is true that many misread his text  only as a ‘strict’ text;

– Then would it not be refreshing to re-adjust our paradigm and study the Mishna Berura in the way he evidently intended it to be understood?

[1] See: ‘Soft Stringency in the Mishna Berura’: Jurisprudential, Social and Ideological Aspects of a Halachic Formulation, by Benjamin Brown.
[2] Kitzur Toldot Hayav, p.75.
[3] Introduction to Beit Yosef on the Tur.  (R. Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch was later based on his earlier Beit Yosef commentary on the Tur.)
[4] Kitzur Toldot Hayav, p. 15.
[5] Kitzur Toldot hayav, p. 49.
[6] Volume 3, Michtavei heChafetz Chaim, p. 42,43.

Sunday, 15 April 2018


A rare edition of Arpilei Tohar – a book cancelled in the middle of its printing!
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak haCohen Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He is often described as one of the founders and ideologues of religious Zionism. But he was so much more than that.

Although part of his legacy is indeed religious Zionism, according to R. David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo, his teachings on Zionism only account for about 10 to 15% of his general writings. Most of his other teachings are relevant to all the other areas of life such as psychology, human relationships, art, history, the association between Torah and Science, as well as to a particularly sophisticated understanding of mysticism.

One the reasons why we generally only see Rav Kook through the prism of religious Zionism, is because his son R. Tzvi Yehudah - who in many ways became a conduit for his teachings - was far more conservative than his father. 
He was wary of his father’s radical universalist writings and apparently wanted to present a particular brand of his father’s teachings and through it, create a populist (and political) movement of religious Zionism in the new state.


Rav Kook’s son, R. Tzvi Yehudah was an interesting man and very accomplished in his own right. Although the Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz haRav Yeshiva, he very rarely gave lectures on Halacha and Gemara. A student of his once asked him to give a Gemara lesson and he replied that he would not because he believed that his main mission was to teach Emunah (theology).

While he wrote that the first Rebbe of Chabad, known as the Baal haTanya, was a ‘great man’, he added that the Vilna Gaon ‘even greater’.[1]

Although staunchly Zionistic, he had a measured approach towards Arabs. In 1947 he wrote a letter to the principal of a Jewish school in Jerusalem after he witnessed a group of students physically and verbally harassing two Arab street vendors.

He wrote:
 "I was deeply pained and ashamed at what I saw. This incident, which pained and embarrassed me, requires me to inform you of the need for particular attention to educate against such actions. Students must be taught that such behaviour is prohibited - both due to the essential teachings of Torah, Judaism, and morality, and also due to the practical value for the Jewish community and maintaining peaceful relations with neighbours."[2]

Originally, R. Tzvi Yehudah had been a staunch supporter of the National Religious Party (Mafdal - Miflaga Datit Leumit - established in 1956) but he was later to break with them in 1974 after they joined the Rabin government. 

He also served as leader of the Gush Emunim, or Settler Movement.
It is against this largely political background, that we must view R. Tvi Yehuda as the custodian of his father Rav Kook’s teachings:

In 1924, Rav Kook handed eight journals, known as the Shemona Kevatzim, to his student R. David Cohen haNazir, for editing and publication. Tellingly, he did not give them to his own son, R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook, because he knew that his son did not want them to be published.

For years, R. David Cohen haNazir, worked on various sections of the manuscripts of these Journals and eventually, on Rav Kook’s deathbed, his student presented him with the first pages of what was to become four volumes of the work which was later published under the title Orot haKodesh.

Later on, Rav Kook’s son R. Tzvi Yehudah - in keeping with his vision to build a strong religious Zionist ideology, collated those writings of his father which dealt particularly with the return to the Land of Israel and the building of a nation – and these were published under the simple title Orot.

The son then encouraged all his followers to specifically read the Orot. A framed letter from R. Tzvi Yehudah was placed on the door of the study hall of the Merkaz haRav Yeshivah, encouraging all the students to read Orot (implying that they should not read the broader Orot haKodesh which, as mentioned, was published by Rav Kook’s student, R. David Cohen haNazir.) 

As early as 1914, Rav Kook himself had decided to publish the second of the Eight Journals, known as Arpilei Tohar (Mists of Purity) as a separate book.
In that same year, Rabbi Kook, in a letter to his son concerning the printing of this book and its contents, wrote:

"…I was overtaken by a yearning to print some of my writings, as they are, and I have begun to print ...Arpilei Tohar…I hope that the thoughts will be blessed as they are without arrangement (i.e. unedited[3]), perhaps their success will stand out precisely because of the lack of arrangement…".[4]

Rav Kook was known to prefer to publish his ‘first drafts’ as he felt they were more sincere and true than the more ‘edited’ versions[5].

However, his son was opposed to the publication of Arpilei Tohar, as it was deemed by him to be too radical. He continued to voice his opposition until his father got so fatigued that in desperation he told his son to do as he saw fit. Immediately R. Tzvi Yehudah went to the printers, who had already started working on the printing process and were up to page 80 - and he physically turned off the electricity running the presses.

Interestingly, R. Bar-Hayim describes how he still has a set of those first eighty pages in his personal library.

Years later, in 1983 (a year after R. Tzvi Yehudah had passed away), Arpilei Tohar was finally published - but with six missing sections!

Then some years later, the original manuscripts of Arpilei Tohar were ‘obtained by interesting manners’ (as is often the case when Rav Kook’s previously censored writings begin to slowly appear) - and the Shemona Kevatzim was eventually published.

(Sadly, even R. David Cohen haNazir had censored some of his teacher’s writings on a number of occasions, although not nearly to the extent of R. Tzvi Yehudah.)

According to a letter from former Chief Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz haRav, R. Avraham Shapira, altogether 100 000 pages of unpublished manuscripts have been kept from us!

R. Bar-Hayim makes the point that these hidden texts would be particularly pertinent to people today - even more so than to the generation in which they were first written. He says that many young religious nationalists are today joining other movements such as Breslov and Chabad because they feel that their own Dati Leumi ideology has nothing deep or meaningful to offer them anymore.

To this day, people are still withholding and trying to prevent many of the teachings of Rav Kook from being disseminated, and some of his original writing is beginning to fade away due to age.

He makes the point that:  “We must demand from those who have control over the manuscripts of Rav Kook, that these writings be released for the benefit of Klal Yisrael...One can only wonder what treasures of Torah thought remain for the Jewish People to discover.”


What was written in Arpilei Tohar that made it so contentious? I cannot say with any degree of authority exactly what it was that made R. Tzvi Yehudah so uncomfortable - to the extent that he turned off the power to the printing presses - but the following extracts from the book may give some indication of the issues that were covered in the work:


Rav Kook was daring enough to criticise Rambam for attempting to provide reasons for some of the commandments.[6]


Rav Kook said that all of mankind derived from one source. This may have been seen as somewhat contradicting the notion of only the Jewish people being a ‘chelek Eloka mima’al (mamash)’ – (Truly) a part of G-d Himself.

He wrote:

Messiah will interpret the Torah of Moses, by revealing in the world how all the peoples and divisions of mankind derive their spiritual nourishment from the one fundamental source, while the content conforms to the spirit of each nation according to its history and all its distinctive features...Nevertheless, all will bond together and derive nourishment from one source, with a supernal friendship and a strong inner assurance.”[7]

While some systems within Judaism were emphasizing the idea of Emunah Peshuta – a simple (non-intellectually based) belief in G-d, Rav Kook was writing:

אמונה שאין השכל מסכים להמעוררת היא קצף ואכזריותמפני שהצד היותר עליון שבאדםשהוא השכלנעשה עלוב מחמתה.

Faith with which the mind does not agree arouses anger and cruelty because the human being's higher aspect, the mind, becomes frustrated with it.”[8]


Rav Kook seems to go against the popular teaching that there is always a righteous man in every generation who is there to lead the way:

"Sometimes, when there is a need to go beyond the words of the Torah, and there is no one in the generation who can show the way, the matter comes about by a sudden bursting forth..."


It is surprising to see that Rav Kook makes open reference to previous false Messiahs and writes that their ‘sparks’ will ultimately be incorporated, after undergoing a ‘rectification’, within Mashiach ben David:

“... the foetuses who stood to be Messiahs but fell, were trapped and broken. Their sparks were scattered and seek a living, enduring correction (tikkun) in the foundation of David, King of Israel, “... the anointed (Mashiach) of God.”[9]

Commenting on this passage, R. Betzalel Naor writes that, remarkably, according to Rav Kook; “There is a poetic justice here. None of the unsuccessful Messiahs’ attempts at redemption were in vain; all contribute in some way to the final Redemption.”[10]

Now that’s rather controversial. But that was Rav Kook! Imagine how many more surprises may be waiting for us to discover?


Let us conclude with one of the most well-known extracts from Arpilei Tohar - one which no one can really take any umbrage to:

The purest tzaddikim do not complain about evil;
Rather they increase justice. 

They do not complain about godlessness,
But increase faith. 

They do not complain about ignorance, 
But increase wisdom


[1] Mitoch Hatorah HaGo’elet.
[2] Miskin, Maayana (March 7, 2013).
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Igrot HaRa'ayah, Vol. 2, Jerusalem 1946, pp. 292-293, Siman 687.

[5] From a lecture on Rav Kook, by Dr. Henry Abramsom.
[6] Arpilei Tohar, 22.
[7] Arpilei Tohar, 62-63.
[8] Arpilei Tohar, 105.
[9] Arpilei Tohar, 18.
[10] Post Sabbatian Sabbatianism, by Betzalel Naor.

[11] Arpilei Tohar, 39.

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