Hand-washing has kept Jews safe for centuries

Dear Families,
So many are at home and either watching TV or reading blogs galore — hope you are connected to a few of the wonderful Jewish sources and have read this already, but it never hurts to be reminded of how to keep us safe. Plus, let’s remember how we, as a people, have kept safe over the centuries. Here are some thoughts from Rabbi Alex Kress, Reform senior Jewish educator at Hillel at UCLA:
“With coronavirus (COVID-19) containment in full swing, hand-washing has been front and center of preventative efforts, including the many songs you can sing (and even this prayer you can say) to make sure you’re scrubbing for enough time. Surprisingly though, the benefits of hand-washing were only discovered in 1846 and didn’t see wide implementation until well into the 20th century. In fact, hand-washing wasn’t a standardized element of American health care until the early 1980s.
“Though hand-washing in the medical realm is relatively modern, hand-washing in the religious world is decidedly ancient. In Judaism, we first see the practice in the Torah, when God commands Aaron and his sons to ‘wash their hands and feet’ before even stepping foot inside the Tent of Meeting, let alone making an offering. (Exodus 30:18) In this world, holiness centered on cleanliness and hygiene. After the destruction of Temple-centric Judaism in 70 CE, the early rabbis embedded the tradition of hand-washing in the Talmud, where we learn that ‘anyone who treats the ritual of washing hands with contempt is uprooted from the world’ (Sotah 4b). Though perhaps a little crude, the rabbis were onto something: Those who washed their hands lived longer.”
Now the CDC is telling us to do something we have always done. So let’s add a little holiness to it: If you have never done ritual hand-washing before, the process is to use a cup and pour the water over your hand, one at a time, three times and including the blessing. The ritual is for before eating and doesn’t involve soap but we can adapt to our hand-washing now and add the blessing which works by thanking God for reminding us to wash our hands!
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav Vitzivanu al Netilat Yadayim. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with mitzvot, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.
And here is a contemporary prayer perhaps to put above the sink to say for the 20 seconds of washing. The more reminders we have to do the right thing (a simple thing) the better and to add a touch of holiness reminds us that we are doing this for the world!

A 20-Second Prayer During hand-washing
By Rabbi Joseph Meszler
As I take up my hands
to wash them and
reassure my heart,
I pray for healing and wholeness
for the whole world.
I remember that every life
is unique and of infinite value:
from those living
on the most remote part of the globe
to those in our cities
to our neighbors and family members.
Let me use my hands for good
to help bring love
and compassion to others.
“Let us lift up
our hearts and hands
to the Eternal.” (Lam 3:41)

Laura Seymour is the director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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