When you wash your hands, are you cleaning them or purifying them, and what’s the difference? And who said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness?” Paul F. Boller terms it a “pseudo-Scriptural” quote originating with the 18th century founder of Methodism, John Wesley. In a sermon entitled, “On Dress,” Wesley said: “…slovenliness is no part of religion; that neither this nor any text of Scripture condemns neatness of apparel…Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.” Curiously, although Wesley clearly had physical cleanliness in mind, Boller believes that Wesley was quoting not the Bible, but R. Pinchas b. Yair in the Talmud!
Our Rabbis taught: The words, Be on guard against any evil thing (Deuteronomy 23:10), meaning that you should not think [of forbidden things] by day and become impure by night. From here, Pinchas b. Yair said: Torah [study] instills diligence, diligence leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to self-denial, self-denial leads to purity, purity leads to piety, piety leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to holiness, holiness leads to divine inspiration, divine inspiration leads to resurrection of the dead.
R. Pinchas ben Yair uses the term “cleanliness” (nikiyut), which may have connoted physical hygiene, but given the context—the other attributes in the cluster are diligence, self-denial, purity, piety, humility, fear of sin, holiness, divine inspiration—it is far more likely and logical that he intended nikiyut to connote a character attribute: ethical cleanliness or, as Rashi tells us, being free from sin.
Perhaps the confusion arose because Bible translations use “clean” and “pure” interchangeably. Living after the Destruction of the Second Temple, R. Pinchas is translating ritual purity and purification into a program for spiritual purity and purification for people who can no longer bring sacrifices to the Temple.
R. Pinchas b. Yair is not the only one to “update” the washing ritual. But first, let’s take a look at what Torah tells us about ritual of washing. In parshat Ki Tissa, God instructs Moses to make a copper laver, a basin for the priests to wash their hands and feet prior to their service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: make a laver of copper and stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar. Put water in it, and let Aaron and his sons wash their hands and feet in it. When they enter the Tent of Meeting they shall wash with water, that they may no die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to the Lord; they shall wash their hands and feet, that they may not die… (Exodus 30:17-21)
The warning that the priests might die if they don’t wash when entering the Tent of Meeting and prior to offering sacrifices makes no sense if we’re talking about physical hygiene. This is about ritual purity, not physical cleanliness.
Just as R. Pinchas b. Yair reinterpreted ritual purity practices to speak to spiritual purity for his post-Temple generation, the hasidic Ishbitzer rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854), in Mei ha-Shiloach, connects the priests’ hand-washing in the Tabernacle with one’s spiritual state of mind. His sincere concern with the “cleanliness” or “purity” of the soul in connection with performance of ritual has something valuable to offer us.
The act of the priests washing from the laver signifies the removal of affliction, for washing teaches of this, as mentioned in the passage of the eglah arufah (the heifer whose neck is broken), and the elders of the city shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi (Deuteronomy 21:6). With this they are saying that they have no affliction [in connection with the incident] and are clean regarding it.
The Ishbitzer’s point of departure is a bizarre ceremony of expiation described in Torah, which is to be undertaken if a body is discovered in a field far from any town and the murderer cannot be discerned (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). Priests and elders from the nearest town assemble and break the neck of a heifer as expiation to atone for the murder committed. The priests recite a blessing and the elders wash their hands over a heifer. The Ishbitzer rebbe understands the elders’ hand-washing to be a ritual of spiritual cleansing from guilt associated with the murder and their inability to either have prevented it or after-the-fact find the culprit: nothing that happened in the wadi was the elders’ will; hence it must be God’s will (please see addendum below).
So too, the priest who serves needs to wash, meaning that he removes any affliction, nullifying his own mind and will before the will of the blessed God. This means that all his service is only what the blessed God desires.
So, too, he tells us, the priest in the Temple preparing to offer a sacrifice washes his hands in order to “cleanse” his soul of all desires that don’t align with God’s will, and thereby culpability for wrongdoing he cannot prevent. The priest is an agent or implement of God, doing only God’s will when he offers the sacrifice. After the Temple was destroyed, the Rabbis ordained that the hand-washing ritual be incorporated into people’s homes and daily lives, to be performed upon awaking and prior to eating bread (bread being an acknowledged substitute for sacrifices in the Temple).
So it is with how we are commanded to wash in the morning and before a meal, for before one begins to fulfill the needs of the body he must pray to the blessed God. As his dealings in the world may result in his doing something contrary to the will of the blessed God, here he asks the blessed God to remove any desire he has from this action, even from something permitted to us that contains both good and its opposite. For if one were to eat in a way permitted to him and then go on and use the energy from this to transgress the Torah, then it is made clear that this person received no good energy from this action…
When we perform the ritual hand washing, the Ishbitzer tells us, we can understand it as a mechanism for emptying ourselves of our unreliable will and problematic desires so that our lives proceed according to the will of God. It would appear that our hands symbolize our deeds and power, influence in and effect on the world.
From this, two insights emerge. First, the Ishbitzer's comments reveal a keen insight into the human psyche. Sometimes there is a disconnect between our ritual actions and our ethical behavior. We do what is ritually required or expected, but our inner desires and intentions do not align with what we know to be the proper path: we wash our hands but then use them in ways that cause others harm. We eat kosher food and allow it to fuel inappropriate and hurtful behavior. The first insight is the connectedness of all things in our lives: physical, emotional, and spiritual. The Ishbitzer encourages us to keep them closely connected, lest our lives become fractured reflections of hypocrisy.
The second insight concerns rituals, in general. When we perform them for their own sake—an act in response to “commandment” rather than a meaningful ritual, we nullifying our own will—including the will to do good. The ritual of hand washing permits us a tangible, physical ritual to remind ourselves and push ourselves to be God’s agents in the world in a way that is not mindless or amoral, but quite the opposite. For us, mindfulness and morality are paramount. Imagine washing your hands and saying the berakhah, Barukh Ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam (or: makor ha-chaim) asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivu al netilat yadayim / “Blessed are You, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe (or: source of life) who makes us holy with mitzvot and has given us the mitzvah of washing our hands” — and then you stop and think: now what, exactly, am I going to do with these hands, and what can I do with them, and what difference will I make?
Maybe cleanliness is next to godliness.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
I don’t often quote the Ishbitzer rebbe, because I find his orthodox determinism deeply problematic. He was a proponent of hashgachat pratit, the doctrine that all events and actions, including sins, are committed in accordance with God’s will. Viewing the Ishbitzer’s commentary from our perch in the 21st century, there may be several points of discomfort. The first concerns the notion of “doing the will of God” in the context of “nullifying our own mind and will before the will of the blessed God.” We live in a world inhabited by people who kill viciously and maim brutally, claiming their deeds are the will of God. How do we know the will of God? Even within the Jewish community, there is fierce disagreement concerning what God wants us to do; the struggles between liberal Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and between Israel and the extremist settlers (especially the “Hilltop Youth”) are prime examples. This conundrum leads to a second problem. If “nullifying his own mind and will before the will of the blessed God” doesn’t evoke images of dangerous brainwashing, then it suggests a failure or refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions: “This was God’s will, not mine; I was just following orders.” Here is another possibility: The Ishbitzer is a hasidic rebbe, and hence his thinking is built on a foundation of Kabbalistic mystical thinking anchored in pantheism, according to which everything is contained within God because God is the totally of everything there is and existence itself. Given that, when the Ishbitzer says that all actions are under God’s control and occur in accord with God’s will, one can understand this to mean that everything happens within God—by definition. Yet moral accountability still hangs in the air.