Washing hands occupies an important place in the everyday life of highly observant traditional Jews. An authoritative 16th century law code lists some of the bodily acts that require washing: getting out of bed, leaving a lavatory or bathhouse, paring one’s nails, removing one’s shoes, touching one’s feet, engaging in sexual relations, etc. Though hand washing may seem trivial, it was seen as so important that this particular code includes a dire warning: “If someone performed one of these acts and did not wash his hands afterwards, then, if he is a Torah scholar he will forget his knowledge and if he is not a Torah scholar he will go out of his mind.”* Hands must also be washed before reciting particular daily prayers and before eating any meal that includes bread. In addition, some wash hands after a meal. All such ablutions are followed by the same blessing: “Blessed are You our God, Sovereign of the universe who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to wash hands.” For the second washing during the Seder we recite the same blessing.
Many of these customs derive from a larger set of ancient water rituals —ablutions — that were believed to restore the state of ritual purity required to enter the Temple.* To guard against impurity, priests in the Temple washed their hands and feet and on certain occasions completely immersed themselves in a mikveh, a pool filled with “living waters” from a freshly flowing stream. After the Temple had been destroyed, prayer developed as a substitute for animal sacrifices. It thus became customary to wash before prayer just as priests had washed before offering up sacrifices. Given the prominence of ablutions in Temple ritual, it’s not surprising that the only priestly rite surviving from that time — the Priestly Blessing — includes ritual washing. Members of the congregation who are descendants of the priestly tribe Kohanim remove their shoes. Levites, descendants of the tribe of Levy, then pour water over the hands of the Kohanim.* The Kohanim raise their hands in a special position and bless the congregation: “May God bless you and keep you. May God make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God lift up His countenance upon you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
Traditional Jews still use a mikveh. Women immerse at the end of their monthly menstrual cycle and after the birth of a child. Men do so on the day of their wedding and prior to a son’s circumcision. In some communities men and women use the mikveh before holidays and the Sabbath. Conversion to Judaism also requires immersion, signifying the convert’s spiritual rebirth.
Prior to ritual immersion the body must be completely clean. Likewise hands must be clean before ritual washing. This highlights the fact that the primary purpose of these water rituals is spiritual, not physical. Although the ancient laws of ritual impurity did not equate impurity with immorality, certain biblical sources did draw these connections. Thus we wash not just to ready ourselves to serve God, but to symbolically cleanse ourselves of wrong-doing. “Your hands are stained with crime. Wash yourselves clean. Put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil . . .” (Isaiah 15-16). And we wash to dignify the body God has entrusted to us.
The spiritual purpose of immersion becomes readily apparent once you know that “mikveh” can also mean “hope” and that Jeremiah (17:13) calls God, mikveh Yisrael, “hope of Israel.” Immersion in the mikveh symbolizes bathing in hope, allowing God to completely envelop you, emerging re-born from living waters. Likewise, a detail associated with hand washing reveals its spiritual purpose. After washing, you raise your hands, fingers pointed upward. “Lift your hands to the sanctuary,” says the psalmist, “and bless the Lord.”*
As ritual washing occupies a prominent place in the life of a Jew, it plays a special role in the rituals associated with death. After leaving a cemetery, Jews customarily wash hands because of ancient beliefs that the dead impart impurity. And the dead also undergo an ablution called taharah, ‘cleansing,’ or ‘purification’. First the body is carefully washed, then it is held upright and 24 quarts of water are poured over the head.* As this purification proceeds, members of the burial society or chevra kadishah (literally, “holy society”) recite a verse from the Bible: “Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean. From all your uncleanness and from all your idols will I cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25).* When we leave this world to return to God our body and soul should be as pure as when we entered it. “As he came out of his mother’s womb, so must he depart . . .” (Ecclesiastes 5:15).
It may well be the case that Jesus underwent the ritual cleansing of the mikveh. Yet the New Testament is silent about this; it speaks only of a related but different sort of ritual cleansing done once: baptism. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus came from Nazareth to undergo baptism from John the Baptist in the Jordan River (1:5-11). The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus instructing his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19). While some in the past have used this text to rationalize forcible baptism—a practice inimical to the Way of Jesus—it does show how central baptism had become to the followers of Jesus by around 85 C.E., when many scholars think Matthew was written.
Many churches understand baptism as the rite of initiation into Christianity—Christians are “made, not born,” as Tertullian famously put it in the third century. Although baptismal formulas differ, in many rites the person undergoing baptism promises to reject sin and evil, to live a life patterned on Christ, and to become part of the Christian community. The drama of baptism is variously enacted, from the sprinkling of water on the forehead to plunging beneath water.
Many Christians re-enact the foot-washing scene from the Gospel of John (13: 1-17) on Holy Thursday, the feast commemorating the Last Supper. A prayer of Søren Kierkegaard (1815-1835) captures the spirit of this ritual:
O Lord Jesus Christ, thou didst not come into the world to be served, but also surely not to be admired or in that sense to be worshiped.… Arouse us therefore if we have dozed away into this delusion, save us from the error of wishing to admire thee instead of being willing to follow thee and to resemble thee.*
Washing in Islam is also practiced by Jews and Christians as heirs of the same Abrahamic tradition. Muslims wash their hands before and after meals, not only to clean them from external impurities, but also to purify them before invoking the blessing of God. Muslims are required to have ablution before standing five times each day for worship. A ritual bath is recommended every Friday before noon for the congregational worship. A ritual bath is required after sexual relations for both men and women, or at the end of a woman’s menstrual period, or at the completion of the prescribed period after the birth of a child. It does not mean that a woman cannot bathe in the interim. Muslims take a ritual bath when they leave for Hajj – the pilgrimage trip to Mecca (Makkah), or before going to the congregational worship on Eid al fitr (the Feast of the Breaking Fast at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting) or Eid al Adha (the Abrahamic Feast of Sacrifice on the 10th day of the Hajj). A ritual bath is also required for a deceased person before the person is prayed over. Those who take part in the funeral services should pray with ablution. Besides washing oneself before worship, a person’s clothes must also be free from stains and the place of worship must be clean and pure.. The Ka`ba (House of God at Makkah) is washed yearly before the Hajj season.
Washing is a source of life and purification in Islam. It is a gift of God to humanity. Islam forbids misuse or excessive use of water or polluting it. The prophet Muhammad used it as a medicine in many cases. He recommended drinking water when one is angry and washing one’s face when drowsy. He recommended drinking some water after each ablution from the pot used for it and glorifying God at the end.
Water in Islam is meant for both physical and spiritual cleaning and the word Taharah (purification) is used in the Qur’an for this purpose. Muslims’ commitment to Taharah is to obtain the blessing and the pleasure of God. Washing in Islam is to get one into the close circle of God Almighty.