In continuing its description of the artifacts that were to be placed in the mishkan, the Torah informs us regarding the kiyor – the type of laver or fountain that was installed in the courtyard of the mishkan and later the Temple in Jerusalem. This kiyor was used by the kohanim – the priestly descendants of Aharon – to wash their hands and feet before entering the mishkan or Temple to begin their daily service to God and to Israel. This washing of hands and feet was not only a matter of cleanliness but it was also a symbolic ritual of preparation for holy service. The washing of the hands of the kohanim remains a ritual till today, when their hands are washed in water before they ascend the podium to bless the congregation.
In fact, washing one’s hands in a ritual fashion no matter how clean or sterile they are remains a daily part of Jewish life for us all. Before we eat bread we must wash our hands. The washing of our hands is part of the order of the Seder service on Pesach night. When we arise in the morning, we wash our hands. Before prayer services we are also bidden to wash our hands. And when we have completed dealing with our bodily functions we are also instructed to wash our hands. Again, these are not only matters of cleanliness, though cleanliness is a prime virtue in Jewish life, but there is a ritual, spiritual and holy attachment to the washing of hands.
There is an important message implied in this hand-washing regimen of Judaism. It is to impress upon the person the holiness of everything in life and that all that we do is really in service of God. The phrase that was used throughout the Jewish world by the “wakers” in the early morning was “Arise to the service of God.” But the service of God requires an appreciation and understanding that we are in fact serving God in our daily lives. Otherwise, without that realization, everything in life becomes prosaic and mundane, habitual rote and sometimes even meaningless. The fact that we are bidden to wash our hands before or after performing many of the most mundane things in life – eating, awaking, dealing with our bodily functions, etc. – reminds us that nothing in life is ordinary, profane or mundane.
Everything is important. Everything is part of the service that we owe to our Creator. Everything therefore requires a sense of purpose and dedication, an understanding of the challenges that life puts before us and that we are commanded to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Washing one’s hands is a reminder of this challenge and obligation. Just as the kohain in the Temple had to remind himself daily of the holiness inherent in the performance of his tasks in the Temple by washing his hands and feet before entering upon his daily regimen of work in the Temple, so too are we bidden by the ritual of washing our hands numerous times during the day to remember our duties and challenges to create holiness and spirituality in our everyday lives and affairs. Thus the kiyor and its message survive amongst all of us even today.
Rabbi Berel Wein Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org