Upon waking up in the morning, the halacha dictates that a person must wash his hands. Three different explanations are given in the halachic sources for this obligation. According to the Rosh, the reason is that one’s hands are “askaniyot” (they touch many things). Washing hands is therefore necessary to ensure they are clean in preparation for tefilla. The Rashba opines that handwashing is part of our thanks to Hashem for reviving us each morning and the beracha recited with it forms part of the Birkot HaShachar. The third reason mentioned is due to “ruach ra’a,” a type of impurity that needs to be removed from one’s hands in the morning after sleeping.
This essay focuses on the third reason of ruach ra’a and its halachic ramifications regarding food that has been handled by unwashed hands.
Let us begin by citing the Gemara in Masechet Shabbat, which states the following in the name of Rav Muna:
He would say: A hand that touches the eye should be severed because it harms the eye. A hand that touches the nose should be severed. A hand that touches the mouth should be severed. A hand that touches the ear should be severed. A hand that touches one’s wound should be severed. A hand that touches one’s member should be severed, lest one arouse himself. A hand that touches one’s anus should be severed, lest one make himself ill. A hand that is placed into a barrel of beer should be severed because the beer will not ferment. A hand that frequently touches the eye causes blindness. A hand that frequently touches the ear causes deafness. A hand that touches the nose or mouth causes polyps [polypus].
Rashi explains that Rav Muna’s statements refer to hands that touch the various surfaces mentioned before one performs netilat yadayim in the morning. This is due to the ruach ra’a that is present on one’s hands before they have been washed. Rashi suggests that this reason applies to six of the eight cases mentioned in the list, but touching concealed areas of the body (i.e., the member and anus) is problematic for other reasons. Rashi thus includes the problem of putting one’s hand in a barrel of beer as being due to ruach ra’a as well. It would seem, then, that the concern of ruach ra’a would apply to touching any food before performing netilat yadayim in the morning.
However, the Kitzur Piskei HaRosh only mentions the cases of touching various limbs of the body as being problematic due to ruach ra’a. The Korban Netanel explains that according to the Rosh, the cases of touching concealed areas of the body and putting one’s hand in a beer barrel would be problematic even after performing netilat yadayim, since touching concealed areas may cause arousal and putting one’s hand in beer ruins the beer (by preventing it from fermenting).
If so, then the case of touching beer is not related to the problem of ruach ra’a. A possible practical ramification of this difference of opinion between Rashi and the Rosh may relate to the case of touching other foods without performing netilat yadayim. According to Rashi, it is problematic to touch any foods prior to netilat yadayim in the morning (and the Gemara gave beer as an example), whereas according to the Rosh, the Gemara never links netilat yadayim and refraining from touching food. There may be a special concern regarding beer, but ruach ra’a generally has no effect on foods.
This apparent dispute between Rashi and the Rosh may also be the basis of a dispute between Rashi and Tosafot in other Talmudic passages. The Gemara discusses whether only a person who holds bread and eats it must perform netilat yadayim (prior to eating bread), or even one who feeds bread to another by placing it directly into their mouth must also perform netilat yadayim. Within this discussion, the Gemara quotes the opinion of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel that a mother may wash one hand on Yom Kippur (but not two) in order to feed her child, which indicates that even someone feeding another must wash hands. But Abaye responds that this is not a proof, as there, the problem is due to shivta. Rashi explains that shivta is the ruach ra’a that rests on the hands before one performs netilat yadayim, and must be removed even before feeding someone else.
Tosafot, however, quote Rabbeinu Tam who interprets the Gemara differently. According to Rabbeinu Tam, shivta here does not refer to the ruach ra’a that rests on one’s hands before netilat yadayim. Rather, it refers to a special ruach ra’a found on food, which is specifically harmful to young children. Due to this, a mother is permitted to wash one hand in order to feed her child. Tosafot conclude that nowadays, we are not particular about this since this type of ruach ra’a is no longer extant. The Ran also explains the Gemara in a similar fashion to Tosafot.
According to Rashi in this sugya, it would seem problematic to touch food before washing netilat yadayim in the morning because of the ruach ra’a on one’s hands. Tosafot and the Ran, on the other hand, may hold that the problem is unrelated to ruach ra’a, and there would not appear to be any problem with touching food before performing the morning netilat yadayim. It is possible that Tosafot and the Ran argue with Rashi in Shabbat as well and hold that even touching beer is not a problem of ruach ra’a. Alternatively, Rabbeinu Tam and the Ran may agree with Rashi that touching food is problematic, but highlight that even if one did perform the morning netilat yadayim, there is still a problem of feeding children unless one washes first.
A Deeper Understanding of Ruach Ra’a
The Zohar presents a deeper understanding of the nature of this ruach ra’a. “There is no one that does not have a taste of death when going to sleep at night. An impurity hovers over the body. What is the reason? For the holy neshama leaves the body, and hence the spirit of impurity envelops the body. When the neshama returns, this impurity dissipates but remains on one’s hands until one washes the hands in the correct manner. Then, one is sanctified and called holy.”
This explanation of the Zohar leads to some practical halachic ramifications, as we will see further on.
The Tur, following his father’s opinion, is not concerned about touching foods before netilat yadayim. His only concern relates to touching one’s body with unwashed hands.
The Beit Yosef offers the following reason why the Tur did not follow Rashi’s explanation, which seems to be the more straightforward interpretation of the Gemara Shabbat. He suggests that since we see that there are definitely things in the list mentioned that are problematic to touch and are not connected to ruach ra’a (such as touching concealed areas of the body, which is problematic even according to Rashi due to arousal and not ruach ra’a), this implies that there could be other things mentioned in the list that are problematic to touch for reasons other than ruach ra’a as well.
The Shulchan Aruch, like the Tur, only mentions the problem of touching certain body parts before netilat yadayim. He does mention the problem of touching beer in the barrel, but only as a separate halacha because it ruins the beer, implying that this is not connected to ruach ra’a.
The Taz, on the other hand, brings proofs for Rashi’s opinion. He questions the Beit Yosef as follows: “Is it logical that the Sages would say that one’s hand should be lost just because he ruins the beer?” He opines that the Tur did not mention the case of the beer because it is uncommon, but he does not necessarily disagree with Rashi. The Taz writes that this was also the opinion of his father-in-law, the Bach. The Gra also argues with the explanation of the Beit Yosef, siding with the Taz and Bach.
We have seen so far that the primary point of dispute is whether we rule like Rashi that ruach ra’a does exist regarding foods, or like the other Rishonim. The later Acharonim also discuss how to rule practically concerning coming in contact with foods prior to netilat yadayim and what to do with foods that were touched.
The Mishna Berura writes: One should warn the women that they too must be careful to perform netilat yadayim three times in alternation [i.e., first the right hand, then the left, then the right] just like the men. In addition, they prepare food, which we do not want them to render impure. One should also be careful that children perform netilat yadayim in the morning since they touch food. But we need not concern ourselves with gentiles touching food without washing their hands, as they do not impart impurity.”
The Mishna Berura continues that “if one did touch the food, one does not need to prohibit the food, but one must be careful lechatchila not to touch food. If one touched food [before performing netilat yadayim] one must wash it three times.”
One possible understanding of the Mishna Berura is that in his opinion, although the Shulchan Aruch does not rule like Rashi, he felt one should accommodate Rashi’s opinion, at least lechatchila. Another possibility is that aside from following Rashi, there is another reason to be machmir, as we will see.
The Kabbalistic Rulings
The Arizal writes that “through this [correct intent when performing the netila] the spirit of impurity known as shivta flies away, but without that, it does not leave, and this is found in the Zohar.” The Arizal thus bases his understanding of netilat yadayim upon the Zohar and Kabbala. Indeed, many poskim that often follow the Kabbalistic approach, such as the Ben Ish Chai, rule that one must be careful not to touch food before washing one’s hands. The Ben Ish Chai even rules that if one did touch food with unwashed hands and one cannot wash it off to clean it, such as a liquid, it must be thrown away.
Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch HaRav rules stringently based upon the understanding of the Zohar quoted above. He is lenient, though, regarding children who have not yet reached the age of chinuch (training) based on a Kabbalistic understanding of the ruach ra’a. The Kaf HaChaim also writes that lechatchila, one must be careful not to touch food. If one did, the food is permitted, but a God-fearing individual should be stringent.
Furthermore, the Kaf HaChaim cites the Solet Belula, who states as follows: “It is stated that ruach ra’a causes blindness or deafness to one who touches his eyes or ears… and although this is not noticeable, the meaning is that one who touches his eyes without washing becomes blind or deaf on that day to the words of Torah…” The Shelah is also quoted as saying that foods touched by someone who has not performed netilat yadayim causes timtum haleiv (obstruction of the heart) and causes people to stumble and sin. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch even compares these foods to other biblically prohibited foods.
Other poskim, such as the Tzitz Eliezer, hold that there is no need to be concerned about foods touched before netilat yadayim even lechatchila since ruach ra’a does not apply in today’s times. He bases this approach upon the Maharshal, who writes that the laws of ruach ra’a do not apply anymore.
Returning to the question of the position of the Mishna Berura, perhaps the Mishna Berura’s stringency was designed to take into account the opinions of the Kabbalists, as stated above.
In fact, there is an interesting debate among the poskim in general how the opinions of the Zohar and Kabbala are viewed in the context of pesak halacha. Where there is a dispute between the Talmud and the Zohar, the halacha generally follows the Talmud. Different explanations have been given for this. The Divrei Yatziv explains that the Zohar is comparable to a “bat kol (voice from heaven) or prophecy,” but the halacha was given to the Sages of Israel to decide and “lo bashamayim hi,” it is not in Heaven. The Chacham Tzvi posits that we do not generally rule like the Zohar in such cases, as the reasons behind the rulings are hidden and mysterious. If we would do so, many people would interpret them incorrectly and terrible tragedies may occur (he is alluding to Shabtai Tzvi). Rav Ovadia Yosef rules regarding uprooting a corpse for reburial in Israel as follows: “Even though the Zohar states otherwise, we only follow the Talmud, poskim and Shulchan Aruch… Even though many Sephardi Kabbalists follow the Zohar, they have stated that in practical matters we rule according to the Gemara.” Rav Ovadia Hadaya, on the other hand, quotes Rav Chaim Palagi in his Responsa Chaim V’shalom who implies that in cases of conflict between the Zohar and Shulchan Aruch, we follow the Zohar.
Based on this, one could suggest that the Mishna Berura was concerned on a lechatchila level for the opinion of the Arizal and the Kabbalistic approach.
Concerning the practical halacha, in cases where food was touched by someone who had not performed netilat yadayim, even many of the poskim that often lean towards the Kabbalistic approach are lenient when buying from stores and bakeries. This is because besides the fact that many poskim are lenient lechatchila, most people today do wash their hands in the morning, even if it is not with a utensil. The poskim rule that this might be enough to weaken the negative effects of the ruach ra’a; hence, even the Kabbalists would permit eating.
May Hashem guide us that there should be no “takala beyadeinu,” no obstacle brought about through our hands or actions.
 Shabbat 108b–109a
 Rashi, s.v. yad l’ayin and in the continuation of his commentary on the sugya
 Rashi, s.v. ma’aleh polipos
 Kitzur Piskei HaRosh, Shabbat ch.14
 Korban Netanel, Shabbat 14:3
 Yoma 77b and Chullin 107b
 Tosafot, Yoma 77b and Chullin 107b
 Another central aspect to this dispute that does not relate to our discussion pertains to the permissibility of performing netilat yadayim on the morning of Yom Kippur. According to Rashi (and the Rambam), it seems that netilat yadayim is only allowed if one needs to feed children. Tosafot (and the Ran), in contrast, state explicitly that it is permitted for everyone to perform netilat yadayim on Yom Kippur morning. They explain that since one is permitted to wash hands to remove dirt, one can certainly wash hands to remove the ruach ra’a, since otherwise one may not touch one’s mouth or other limbs. Consequently, they explain the problem of shivta pertaining to a mother feeding her children in the manner discussed.
 Tur, O.C. 4
 Beit Yosef, O.C. 4
 Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 4
 Taz, O.C. 4:4
 Mishna Berura 4:10, 14
 See also Bi’ur Halacha to 4:5, s.v. lo yiga.
 Shaar HaKavanot, Inyan Birkot HaShachar
 Ben Ish Chai, Shana Rishona, Parshat Toldot
 Sefer Od Yosef Chai, Parshat Toldot
 Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Mahadura Sheniya, siman 4
 Kaf HaChaim, O.C. 4:20
 This is consistent with the general method of pesak of the Kaf HaChaim to rule based upon the Kabbala, similar to the Ben Ish Chai.
 Kaf HaChaim O.C. 4:19
 Piskei Teshuvot 4:10
 Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 2:7
 Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 22:4, s.v. uvazeh
 Responsa Divrei Yatziv, O.C. 2
 Chacham Tzvi 36
 Responsa Yabia Omer, Vol. 7, Y.D. 39
 Responsa Yaskil Avdi Vol. 6, E.H. 123
 Responsa Mishpetei Uziel 2, netilat yadayim shel shacharit; Yalkut Yosef, O.C. 4:34