Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 3 November 2012 / 17 Heshvan 5773

Mayim Acharonim, Chova?

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

In Parshas Lech Lecha, we are introduced to an interesting personality named Bera, Melech S’dom, the King of S’dom. While he was certainly not known for his morality and impeccable character, nonetheless, his title seemingly references a catalyst to a Mitzvah that many are wholly unfamiliar with: its homonym, ‘Melach S’dom’ or S’dom Salt. The Mitzva I am referring to is Mayim Acharonim, the handwashing before Birchas HaMazon[1].


I am sure that many readers are shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering how I can call this known chumra a Mitzva. This common, but slightly mistaken, belief was made evident to this author when a neighborhood housewife recently asked an interesting sheilah. Apparently, after hosting several friends and relatives for a Shabbos Seudah, she washed Mayim Acharonim along with the men, earning her much scorn and ridicule. The incredulous men commented that their washing Mayim Acharonim was only a chumra, and there obviously was no basis for a woman to do it as well. Our distraught domestic denizen wanted to know who acted correctly, and was astounded when I replied that technically speaking they both were.

A Bit of Background

Mayim Acharonim has an interesting background, as it actually has two entirely different sources and rationales mandating it. The first, in Gemara Brachos[2], discussing the source for ritual handwashing, explains that one cannot make a bracha with dirty hands, and cites the pasuk in Parshas Kedoshim[3]V’hiskadeeshtem, V’heyisem Kedoshim”, “And you shall sanctify yourselves, and be holy”. The Gemara clarifies that “And you shall sanctify yourselves” refers to washing the hands before the meal, Mayim Rishonim, and “and be holy” refers to washing the hands after the meal, Mayim Acharonim. In other words, by washing our hands before making a bracha (in this case before Bentching), we are properly sanctifying ourselves.

The second source, Gemara Chullin[4], on the other hand, refers to Mayim Acharonim as a “chova”, an outright obligation. The Gemara elucidates that there is a certain type of salt in the world called ‘Melach S’domis’, that is so caustic, that if it gets into a person’s eyes, it can cause blindness r”l. Since one is supposed to have salt at every meal[5], Chazal were worried that this specific type of salt may have found its way onto our tables and consequently could cause someone to become blind if he rubs his eyes after eating. Therefore, as a way to mitigate this salt’s potentially devastating effects, they mandated handwashing after eating, known colloquially as Mayim Acharonim.

In fact, the Gemara’s words are codified as halacha by the Tur and Shulchan Aruch[6], stating simply “Mayim Acharonim Chova”. The Ben Ish Chai[7] posits that when eating, one should say this three word formula, and that way fulfill the halacha of speaking Divrei Torah at a meal[8].


Well, if the Gemara, and even the Shulchan Aruch, consider washing Mayim Acharonim an actual obligation, then why do many treat it as a mere stringency? Furthermore, there are those (many of Germanic origin) who claim that their custom is not to wash Mayim Acharonim! Additionally, if it is a binding halacha, why don’t women generally wash?

The answer lies in the commentary of the Ba’alei Tosafos to both aforementioned Gemaros[9]. Tosafos’ comments that ‘nowadays, that ‘Melach S’domis’ is no longer found amongst us, we no longer are accustomed to washing Mayim Acharonim, and one may Bentch without first washing his hands’. In other words, Tosafos maintains that although washing Mayim Acharonim used to be an obligation, since the problematic S’dom Salt was no longer prevalent already in their days, one is no longer required to wash Mayim Acharonim. Not washing for Mayim Acharonim is cited as the common minhag by several Ashkenazic Rishonim, as well as the Levush and the Rema[10].

An additional rationale for leniency is put forward by the famed Rav Yaakov Emden[11]. He points out that ever since the advent of cutlery, most civilized people do not do the bulk of their eating with their hands, rather with a fork and spoon. Therefore, he explains, one who eats with silverware (or even plasticware) and did not actually touch his food, has no need to wash Mayim Acharonim.

Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch[12] cites Tosafos’ lenient view as well, at the end of the very same siman where he rules that “Mayim Acharonim Chova”! Several authorities explain his seemingly contradictory intent that indeed nowadays one is no longer mandated to wash Mayim Acharonim. Yet, the Shulchan Aruch is telling us that, nevertheless, we still should strive to do this important Mitzvah[13].

This view is cited by many halachic decisors including the Chayei Adam, Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Aruch Hashulchan, and Mishna Berura, who relate that although Mayim Acharonim may no longer be obligated by the strict letter of the law, nonetheless, one still should be very stringent with its adherence[14]. Other authorities cite Kabalistic reasons to be strict with its observance[15].

Women’s Role

Yet, so far, none of this explains why women commonly do not wash Mayim Acharonim. This “custom” seems to be an anomaly,as technically, women and men share the same obligation in this Mitzvah, and we do not find a halachic codifier making such a distinction.

Several contemporary authorities, including Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner and Rav Moshe Sternbuch[16], offer a possible justification. They explain that although women and men were both equally obligated in this Mitzvah, nevertheless, since it is no longer mandated as a strict requirement due to the dearth of ‘Melach S’domis’, but rather as a proper “minhag”, it is entirely possible that women collectively never accepted this stringency upon themselves. Therefore, nowadays they are not required to wash Mayim Acharonim[17].

However, many other contemporary halachic decisors, including Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the Rivevos Efraim and the Shevet HaKehasi[18], all rule that regardless of the rationale, women still should be vigilant with washing Mayim Acharonim.

To Wash or Not to Wash?

Back to our dilemma. This background is why I told that harried housewife that technically speaking both she and her relatives were correct. She undeniably had what to rely upon not to wash Mayim Acharonim. Yet, she was definitely correct in making sure to do so anyway. As the Pele Yoetz[19] explains, even if there no longer is a danger posed from salt that blinds our eyes, nevertheless, we still have an obligation to listen to the words of our Chachamim, and not blind ourselves to their wisdom.

[1]While Bera’s connection to the Mitzva of Mayim Acharonim is tenuous at best, relying on homonyms and clever wordplay, interestingly, due to Avraham Avinu’s famous “thread and shoelace” rebuttal to him, he unwittingly became the catalyst for the Mitzvos of Tzitzis and Tefillin. See Gemara Sota 17a and Gemara Chullin 89a.

[2]Gemara Brachos 53b.

[3]Vayikra Chapter 20, verse 7.

[4]Gemara Chullin 105a-b and Gemara Euruvin 17b.

[5]See previous article titled “Salting With Sugar?!”.

[6]Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 181, 1), based on the Rif(Chullin 37b), Rosh (Brachos Ch.8, 6), Rambam (Hilchos Brachos Ch. 6, 3) and Tur (O.C. 181).

[7]Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Shlach 7), quoting his esteemed father and grandfather.

[8]See Pirkei Avos (Ch.3, Mishna 3).

[9]Tosafos (Brachos 53b s.v. v’heyisem; Chullin 105a s.v. mayim; Eruvin 17b s.v. Mayim Acharonim).

[10]Including the Ohr Zarua (vol. 1, 72), the Agur (235), the SMA”G (Positive Mitzva 27), the Levush (O.C. 181, 9) and the Rema in his Darchei Moshe glosses on the Tur (181, 2). See also Shu”t Hisorerus Teshuva (vol. 1, 63), who defends the “common custom” of not washing Mayim Acharonim.

[11]Mor U’Ketzia (end 181 s.v. daf). This is l’shitaso, as the Ya’avetz rules similarly by the handwashing requirements of a davar hateebulo b’mashkeh - see previous article titled ‘The Coffee Dipping Conundrum’. However, the Kaf Hachaim (ad loc. 27) cites several authorities who do not agree with the Ya’avetz’s leniency and concludes that even if one ate exclusively with utensils, he must still wash Mayim Acharonim. Similarly, regarding a different halacha related to handwashing, we find that although according to the letter of the law it need not be required, nevertheless, many authorities rule that one should still wash his hands, as hand washing does not usually entail too much effort - see previous article titled ‘The Halachic Power of a Diyuk.

[12]Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 181, 10).

[13]Shu”t Nechpeh B’Kessef (vol. 1, pg. 154, 4th column), Yalkut Yosef (vol. 8, 181, footnotes 1 and 2), Halichos Olam (Parshas Shlach, 1), Halacha Berura (vol. 8, O.C. 181, Birur Halacha 1 s.v. v’hinei).

[14]Chayei Adam (46, 1), Shulchan Aruch HaRav (O.C. 181, 9), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (44, 1), Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 181, 5), Mishna Berura (181, 22). Other poskim who rule this way include the Rashal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Chullin Ch.8, 10), Magen Avraham (O.C. 181, 10), Gr”a (O.C. 181, 12, who was extremely stringent with this halacha), Elyah Rabbah (O.C. 181, 9), Pri Megadim (O.C. 181, M.Z. 1, citing several reasons for stringency), Maharsham (Daas Torah O.C. 181, 10; quoting the Toras Chaim), Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Parshas Shlach 6), Shoneh Halachos (vol. 1, 181, 1), Shu”t Ohr L’Tzion (vol. 2, pg. 303), Yalkut Yosef (ibid.) and Halacha Berura (ibid.). Many of these authorities suspect that even though actual ‘Melach S’domis’ might no longer be prevalent, still other types of common salt that would be harmful if rubbed into eyes, nonetheless are. Additionally, even if salt was no longer an issue, still, one fulfills the Mitzvah of “V’heyisem Kedoshim” by washing Mayim Acharonim.

[15]The Kaf Hachaim (O.C. 181, 1) states that the words of Chazal are really “Sod” wrapped in “Pshat”. Therefore even if the “Pshat” is no longer relevant, the hidden meanings still are. He then cites that the Zohar (Parshas Terumah pg. 154b) and the Arizal (Shaar Hamitzvos, Parshas Eikev) write that one should be extremely vigilant with Mayim Acharonim due to Kabalistic reasons. This zehirus with Mayim Acharonim based on Kabalistic reasons is also cited by the Shlah (Shaar HaOsiyos, Os Kuf s.v. u’ksheim), the Chida (Birkei Yosef O.C. 181, 7), the Pele Yo’etz (Os Nun, Netilas Yadayim s.v. v’yeish), Shulchan HaTahor (181, 1 and footnote, who calls it a ‘chova gamur’), Rav Chaim Fala’ji (Kaf Hachaim 25, 2, 8 & 9, quoting the Yalkut Ruveini on Vayikra), the Matteh Moshe (vol. 2, 306), and in Shu”t Min Hashamayim (57). See Shmiras HaGuf VeHanefesh (vol. 1, Ch. 56) at length.

[16]Shu”t Shevet HaLevi (vol. 3, 23, 3 s.v. l’inyan) and Shu”t Teshuvos V’Hanhagos (vol. 1, 174). However, Rav Sternbuch concludes that nevertheless women still should wash Mayim Acharonim.

[17]There are several other possible justifications for women’s general lackadaisicalness with Mayim Acharonim: The Ya’avetz (Mor U’Ketziah ibid.) posits that since women are generally more rigorous regarding hygiene and cleanliness they certainly would make sure not to eat with their hands, and l’shitaso not be required in Mayim Acharonim [however, he concludes that barring that, women and men have equal obligation in this Mitzvah]. Others (see Yalkut Yosef ibid.) opine say that since men are only makpid due to Kabalistic reasons and not because of actual halachic concerns, women are not beholden to keep it.

[18]Rav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld (Shu”t Salmas Chaim new print, O.C. 174), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Halichos Bas Yisrael Ch. 3, footnote 11), Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Ha’aros B’Maseches Chullin 105b), Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg (cited by Rabbi Dovid Weinberger in the Siddur Ohel Sarah, endnote 105), Rav Ovadia Yosef (Halichos Olam vol. 2, Parshas Shlach 1), the Rivevos Efraim (Shu”t vol. 1, 140, 3), and the Shevet HaKehasi (Shu”t vol. 1, 94). Others contemporary sefarim who rule that women should wash Mayim Acharonim include Halichos Baysa (Ch. 12, 2), Yalkut Yosef (ibid. and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch O.C. 181, 2), and Halacha Berura (ibid.). In fact, the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 181, end 5) already mentioned that one should make sure that ‘kol bnei baiso’ wash Mayim Acharonim.

[19]Pele Yo’etz (Os Nun, Netilas Yadayim s.v. v’yeish).

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.

L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!

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