Salt-free, Safety and Sanctity
The Mishna teaches, “Soldiers going to war are exempt from four things… from washing their hands….”
The Sage Abayei qualifies this halacha in the gemara as referring to an exemption from mayim rishonim, what we call netilat yadaim — hand-washing before eating a meal. That mitzvah may be waived in a situation of war. The obligation of mayim achronim, however, washing one’s hands after a meal before saying birkat hamazon, remains obligatory even during war.
I’d like to share with you a question I received from a reader regarding the practice of mayim achronim, along with my response. I hope you find both the question and the response informative and enjoyable.
Question: Dear Rabbi, As a newly religious, single person, I am often a guest at different people's homes for Shabbat meals. Regarding the washing after the meal and before birkat hamazon, I have noticed different customs which I don't quite understand. Some families do it while others do not. Why is this so? Also, why in some families do the men do it but the women do not? Thanks!
Response: I am happy that you have become inspired by Judaism and have become observant. May Hashem always guide you in the correct way and help you find your soulmate at the right time, to build a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael where you can share your inspiration with guests of your own.
The source for the washing you mention, which is called mayim achronim in Hebrew, is based on the verse, "You shall sanctify yourselves and be sanctified" (Lev. 20). Our Sages (Berachot 53b) explain that this double mention of “sanctity” refers to washing the hands both before and after meals. Two reasons are given by our halachic authorities for the need to wash after the meal. One reason is that the hands must be cleansed of food before saying birkat hamazon in deference to the sanctity of the blessing. Another reason is that, as a result of the meal, one might have “salt from Sodom” remaining on his hands, a type of salt that can seriously damage one’s eyes if not washed away.
Since nowadays we usually eat with utensils and not with our hands, and since Sodom salt is unlikely to be found among us, some authorities are of the opinion that mayim achronim is no longer required. However, other halachic authorities disagree with this and argue that we still need to be careful to wash mayim achronim. Why? Sometimes we eat with our hands (think crisp French fries or juicy barbecue ribs), and the “Sodom salt” might still make it to the corn-on-the-cob. Further, they posit, even if Sodom salt is not around, regular salt in one’s eyes may not be the healthiest thing either. Therefore, they maintain that mayim achronim is required even nowadays.
Both of these opinions are cited in Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 181), and both rulings have become accepted — but depend on the custom of one’s family and community. This is why some people do it, and some people do not.
You also ask: Is there a reason why men should wash mayim achronim and women not? Aside from the “well-known fact” that women are often considered neater eaters than men (joke — no offense guys!), there is a possible halachic distinction or two that explain why only men need to wash before birkat hamazon.
It is true that birkat hamazon is indeed a mitzvah for women as well as for men. After all, it is a positive commandment that is not bound by time. For this reason, it is possible that the obligation of birkat hamazon for women is a Torah mitzvah. However, it is also possible that birkat hamazon for women is a rabbinical mitzvah and not a Torah one. Why? The Torah’s requirement for saying birkat hamazon after a meal is juxtaposed in the Torah with the laws regarding the inheritance of the Land of Israel — something that was applicable mainly for the male leaders of the nation (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 186). So, if birkat hamazon for women is a rabbinical but not a Torah mitzvah, there is a possible basis for ruling that mayin achronim would not be a strict obligation for women.
Halachic authorities add that there is an additional factor that might account for the leniency of women not washing mayim achronim. As explained above, it is not clear that there is an obligation for anyone nowadays — man or woman — to wash hands after a meal. Therefore, it is possible to combine the fact that birkat hamazon for women is not clearly a Torah mitzvah together with the ruling that neither gender is required to wash mayim achronim nowadays. Combining these two factors could explain why women are considered exempt from mayim achronim according to some halachic opinions.
Also, please keep in mind that, although you have seen households where only the men wash mayim achronim, it’s possible that the women also wash their hands while away from the table instead of at the table with the men. In any event, years ago I asked Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zatzal, if women need to wash mayim achronim, and he answered with a resounding “Yes, they have the exact same obligation as the men.”
That being said, it is worth mentioning that great halachic authorities have accepted the opinion of the Kabbalists that everyone should wash mayim achronim, based on additional reasons. Aside from the revealed reasons for a rabbinical enactment, it is taught in the name of the Gaon from Vilna that there are in fact seventy reasons for each new enactment. May Hashem help us all to sanctify ourselves and be sanctified!
- Eruvin 17