Washing hands can be more than soap and water

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By Rabbi Jennifer Weiner

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1-18:30.


During this time of COVID-19, we are spending an inordinate amount of time each day washing our hands. For many of us, our hands have become raw. But it is the best means of protecting ourselves against the coronavirus.

In a way, the washing of hands has become ritualized in many households: We take a walk around the block and then upon reentering the house we wash our hands. We go to buy food and immediately use hand sanitizer and/or come home and wash our hands. Yet,hand washing as a ritual is nothing new to Judaism.

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This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, which means “After Death.” The name of the portion takes on profound meaning after two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, die in the process of offering an unsummoned sacrifice to God. After the death of Nadav and Abihu, there is more of an emphasis on ritual and ritualized behavior in Torah.

Following that scene, there is a discussion of the ritual for offering the scape goat. Sages differ on what that ritual may have been. Yet, rituals along with offerings to God began with cleansing one’s body and garments. Once that was done, the priest would don the priestly garments and begin the ascribed ritual.


Part of the cleansing ritual was to wash one’s hands. For that reason, when we wash our hands in our family during this time of COVID-19, we speak about what it means to do the action of hand washing. By doing so, not only do we take away the stigma of having to wash our hands and the uncertainty of the pandemic, we do a mitzvah (commandment). The mitzvah we are practicing is pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Literally, it means opening up a soul. By taking this proactive stance along with other cautionary measures, we are protecting not only ourselves but also others we may encounter. In this manner, we open up our souls to our world and do the mitzvah of saving a life.

Today, prayers take the place of physical offerings to God. As we wash our hands at the kitchen sink, instead of singing “Happy Birthday” twice to ourselves, we sing or recite our favorite prayer.

We also make up prayers. One time we said, “Thank you, God for allowing us to have enough water and soap to wash our hands. Please take care of those in our world infected with COVID-19.”

For our 7 year old, this prayer connected the action to the reason for the action and made prayer relevant. Most importantly, the focus of the hand washing became a means of praising God and giving thanks for our lives and our health. The physical act of hand washing was transformed into a spiritual action.

Even when the danger of this pandemic is over and we have emerged from quarantine, hand washing and other ordinary actions do not need to be seen as mundane. Judaism sanctions taking what may seem like every day acts and changing them into mitzvot through acting with intention.

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner is director of congregational education at Bethesda Jewish Congregation and the rabbi at Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg, Va.

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