Nitilat Ya’dayim: “Holy Vessel”
By Rabbi David Weizman
Before Air B ‘n B, we had a house guest who was a chaplain in the Israel Defense Forces. In the morning he was surprised and pleased to find a becher by the kitchen sink. That is Yiddish for the hand washing cup that has two handles.
In Hebrew, the word for this cup is nat’lah, and the blessing that we recite over the ritual washing of the hands is called nitielat ya’dayim. We usually associate this ritual practice as something which we do before we eat a meal that begins with bread and the blessing of Ha’motze. However, this ritual washing is done at other times as well, like when you leave the cemetery, or before the Kohanim bless the congregation during prayer. The words of the blessing, nitielat ya’dayim, literally mean to raise the hands; symbolically, to higher state of holiness. So why do we perform this ritual in the morning?
Our Talmud teacher, Rabbi Ed Girshfield who hailed from Winnipeg, explained it in the following way. During the night, our predecessors believed that we experience a sort of partial death. And because of that, the shadim, the shadowy spirits would come and cover you like a willowy shroud. But with the first bit of light from the dawn and a slight stirring of the body, they would make their escape by way of the extremities, the hands and the fingers being the points of last departure. They would however, leave a bit of residue on the fingernails. And so was conceived the practice of keeping neggel wasser at the bedside, to wash of the nails as soon as possible upon waking. Those more brave souls make a break for the kitchen sink before you can say the word, go. The cup is taken in the left hand and the water poured over the right, once on the top and then the palm, then the left hand. Some repeat this process three times. The hands are dried with a towel and the blessing is recited.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech Ha’olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al nitielat ya’dayim.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, instilling holiness within us through the performance of Your commandments, who has directed us to raise up our hands.
You may have noticed that the prayer, Modeh Ani, does not contain the name of God. Before we utter the Name, we make ourselves a holy vessel, and this is the real kavanah, the intention of the washing ritual. Through this purification, we become that cup, ready to be filled with the presence of God.
The Talmud teaches: kol berchah sh’ain bah hazkarat HaShem, ainah berchah (Berachot 12a). Every blessing must contain the Name of God. As we recite these blessings throughout the day, we bring the Presence into this world through our consciousness, so that everything we do is infused with holiness: my work I do in holiness, I talk to my friends b’kdushah, in holiness; I eat my food b’kedushah. Everything I do is meant to raise me up as an agent, and a conduit for the Divine Presence. Not only are we the vessel, but it’s as though we are the water as well.