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Washing one's face before prayer can shield us from worldly evils.

Facing Each Day

Facing Each Day

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Facing Each Day
Washing one's face before prayer can shield us from worldly evils.

Ki Tisa introduces the commandment:
Aaron and his sons should wash their hands and feet in it (the washstand) before they come to the tent of meeting (Ex. 30:19).

This washing had two purposes. First, cleanliness and purity is a prerequisite to priestly service. Second, by washing, the priest would come to a higher level of holiness. The Mishna calls this process, "sanctification of the hands and feet." (Yoma 28a)

Since the destruction of the Temples, it is impossible for us to serve the Almighty in totality. Notwithstanding, the spiritual imperative for the required service still exists today. The "priest" is every Jew, as the verse says, "You are a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation." Accordingly, it is appropriate even today for each of us to prepare ourselves for spiritual service by washing. The Rambam writes in his Laws of Prayer, "Before one prays the morning prayers, he should wash his face, hands and feet and only afterwards pray." His ruling is based on the Talmudic adage "The daily prayers are said in relation to the Temple offerings". Similarly, the washing we do today is representative of the purity and sanctification accomplished by the washing performed by the priest before his service.

What is the difference between our present era and Temple times…?

It might have slipped by you, but the Rambam added a detail not present in the commandment for the priests - the washing of the face. The Rambam was not trying to make our lives more complicated. The washing of the face has a special significance in these days of exile. What is the difference between our present era and Temple times?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that feet and hands, our means of interfacing with the world, represent the human capacity of action. On the other hand, the face connotes the subtler, inner strengths, our intellect, sight, hearing, speech, etc.. The mundane world is dealt with primarily via our feet and hands, as the verse says, "With the effort of your hands you should eat." (Psalms 128:2) This isn't an idle statement. King David is telling us that it is our hands that we should invest in the world. Your other, more inner strengths keep for the acknowledgement of and service of G‑d.

Today … a little extra purity and holiness is required…

From this point we can understand the difference between now and the period of the Temples. During the Temple eras, we were on a higher level. The "face" was automatically separated from the physical world. It was natural for a person to maintain an aloofness of the mind and its faculties from the mundane. Therefore, designating sanctification of the face was unnecessary. This is not true today. Today it is hard to remain aloof from the world. In addition, our higher qualities are very much under attack by the world we live in. Some extra protection, in the form of a little extra purity and holiness is required. This is the basis for the Rambam's addition, to wash our faces before we pray.

Someone may think that while the above is a nice idea, it is a bit superficial. Washing your face to remain aloof from an aggressive world? And according to some major Jewish authorities, to think so is correct; they do not require such action, for a Jewish person innately has the strength not to be swept away by the world. Other rabbis say that even the subtlest effort at the start of our day, such as the saying of the "Modeh ani" prayer, is enough to put us in control and connected to our spiritual source, the Holy One blessed be He. Overt action is not required, they say. The inner dimension of every Jew is always available to serve the Almighty and is out of reach of the world and its negative effects.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul


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Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter is a co-founder, executive director and featured teacher of Ascent-of-Safed.
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