Halakhot of the Seder: Urchatz

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon



by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik




Washing for vegetables throughout the year


The Gemara in Pesachim (115a)[1] states: “Rav Oshaya said: whatever is dipped in liquid requires the washing of the hands.” In other words, if one wishes to eat any fruit or vegetable which is moist and is eaten with the hands, he must first wash his hands. This law applies throughout the year, and is not specific to the seder night. Whenever a person wants to eat a wet or moist fruit or a vegetable in his hands, he must first wash his hands.

This law only applies if the item is wet. The moisture must have come from one of seven liquids (wine, honey, olive oil, milk, dew, blood, water).


Washing ones hands before eating bread


In order to understand better what this washing is all about, we should note briefly the reason for washing the hands before eating bread. There are two reasons for this obligation:


1. In order to accustom people to proper consumption for teruma, the priestlytithes, the Sages decreed that every persons hands be considered to have the second degree of ritual impurity, and if a person touched teruma without washing his hands, the teruma may no longer be eaten.[2] However, if the person had first washed his hands before touching the teruma, the teruma remains permissible.

In principle, a second degree of ritual impurity does not render non-sacred foods unfit, and the law only applies to teruma, but in order to accustom the priests to wash their hands before eating teruma, the Sages ordained an obligation for every person to wash his hands before eating any bread. This ordinance was limited to bread alone, as the most likely case of eating teruma with ones hands, by Torah law, is when one eats bread (the students of Rabbenu Yona, Berakhot, p. 41a of the Rif pagination, s.v. kol).[3]

2. Because of cleanliness and holiness - as our Sages expounded: “‘You shall sanctify yourselves - that refers to washing the hands before the meal (Berakhot 53b). According to this reason, it is logical that the washing of hands was only ordained for eating bread, because the requirement of cleanliness and holiness is primarily for a meal which is significant and set, and not for casual eating (Shaar ha-Tziyun, 158:3).


Washing the hands for food which was dipped in liquid


As mentioned, the Gemara states that one must wash his hands before eating any fruit or vegetable which had been dipped in liquid. There is a dispute among the Rishonim in understanding the reason for this washing:


According to Tosafot (115a, s.v. she-tibbulo be-mashkeh), this washing is not part of the ordinance of washing ones hands before bread. The reasons given, because of accustoming people to wash their hands before teruma or because of cleanliness and holiness, only apply to bread, whereas the washing of the hands before eating fruits or vegetables which are moist is based on different principles. The basis for this washing is based on two ordinances of the Sages. The first is that the Sages ordained that a second degree of ritual impurity does not render normal food ritually impure. It does, however, render liquids ritually impure with the first degree of impurity. As a result, if a person touches moist or wet food without washing his hands first, his hands render the liquid ritually unclean with the first degree of impurity, and the liquid will then render the food second degree ritually impure.


Why should we care if a person renders food or drink ritually impure? After all, there is no prohibition against making non-sacred food ritually impure! Here Tosafot’s explanation is based on another ordinance of our Sages, that a person is forbidden to eat ritually impure food and to make his body ritually impure (even though by Torah law there is no such prohibition). Based on this, one who wishes to eat moist foods must first wash his hands, for if he does not do so, the liquid and the solid will become ritually impure, and that will mean that the person ate something which is ritually impure and has violated an ordinance of the Sages.

This means that according to Tosafot the ordinance does not require a person to wash his hands before eating something which is moist, however this washing is an essential action so that the person will not violate a prohibition. According to this view, the conclusion of Tosafot is that one does not recite a blessing for this washing, for there is no fulfillment of any commandment, but rather one is taking precautionary steps in order to avoid violating a prohibition.[4] A critical caveat raised by Tosafot is that in our times, where we are not at all careful about ritual purity, there is no prohibition whatsoever about eating ritually impure foods, and therefore there is no need to wash ones hands before eating food which is moist. And the Tur (473) wrote in the name of the Maharam of Rothenberg that this does not apply today.


However, most Rishonim disagreed with Tosafot. According to them, washing ones hands before eating moist food is not only a question of being careful but a mandated ordinance of the Sages, like washing ones hands before eating bread, and therefore it is in force today as well, and one is to recite the blessing over it. That emerges from the Tur (there) in the name of the Geonim and Rashi (who agrees with them), that one is to recite the blessing on the washing, and that emerges from Rambam (Berakhot 6:1-2). A number of the Rishonim explained that as moist foods are made ritually impure by the hands as is the case with teruma foods (as the hands render the liquids ritually impure and the liquids then render the foods ritually impure, as above), the Sages ordained that one must wash ones hands before eating them, because of the need to accustom oneself to the standard of eating for teruma (the students of Rabbenu Yona, Berakhot. 41a in the Rif pagination, s.v. kol; Rosh, Chullin, 8:10, and elsewhere).


To summarize: There is a dispute among the Rishonim regarding the question as to why one must wash ones hands for eating something which is moist: according to most authorities this law is an absolute rabbinic ordinance (evidently because of the teruma aspect), like washing ones hands before eating bread, and that is why it is in effect today as well, and one must recite the blessing when washing the hands; whereas according to Tosafot the washing is only an essential precautionary means in order not to violate the rabbinic ordinance that a person may not make himself ritually impure, and therefore one does not recite the blessing on it. Nowadays we do not guard ourselves from becoming ritually impure, and therefore one does not need to wash the hands here.


In practice, the Shulchan Arukh (158:4) rules that as this is a dispute among the Rishonim, one should wash his hands without a blessing. The Vilna Gaon (Hagahot ha-Gra, ibid.), however, rules in accordance with most authorities, that one washes ones hands with a blessing. The Magen Avraham (158:8), though, writes in the name of the Lechem Chamudot that it is the general custom not to wash the hands for food which is moist, and those who do so have upon whom to rely (i.e., on Tosafot).[5]


On the other hand, the Mishna Berura (subsection 20) writes that many of the Acharonim were very stringent in this regard and ruled like the majority of the Rishonim that by law one must wash one’s hands, and therefore, even though the custom is not to recite the blessing, one may not be lenient and eat the karpas without washing one’s hands first. That is also what the Ben Ish Chai wrote (Year 1, Tazria, 16), as did the Kaf ha-Chaim (158, subsection 25).


On the seder night


As the basic law is that one must wash his hands before eating any fruit or vegetable which is moist, on the seder night we wash our hands (u-rchatz) without a blessing before eating the karpas which has been dipped in salt water (Shulchan Arukh, 473:6). Generally, people who are not scrupulous the whole year about washing their hands in these circumstances are careful to do so on the seder night. The Taz wondered how it is that just now people are stringent and wash their hands. Should we say that they wish to be more stringent at the seder, that type of action would be more appropriate during the Ten Days of Repentance:


Why is this night different from all other nights of the year? And if one wishes to act in a holy manner on this night, he should have been as stringent as this at least during the Ten Days of Repentance!


The Taz answers that indeed there is no justification for this custom, and it is not proper that throughout the year there are people who do not wash their hands for food which is moist:


This is an open rebuke to those who are not careful the whole year to wash before they eat anything which is moist ... this is but a lack of care, and one should not emulate their actions.


It appears that throughout the year people are not careful in this because of ignorance, whereas on the seder evening, as the haggada states that one must wash his hands, all act that way.


It is true that there are Acharonim who justified the custom of these people. The Mishna Berura (Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 473:69) writes in the name of the Chok Yaakov that even those who do not wash their hands before moist food throughout the year must wash their hands this time, so that the children will ask about the change.


There are those among the Acharonim who wrote that even those who are not careful the whole year before eating moist food are to do so tonight so that the children will ask about the change.[6]


A more principled explanation is suggested by the Netziv (in the introduction to his haggada, Imrei Shefer). According to him, on the seder night we attempt to act as if the Temple still stood, and to imitate the Pesach seder as it was at the time that the Pesach sacrifice was being offered.[7] This principle has many ramifications, one of them being the washing of the hands here. At the time the Temple stood and the laws of ritual purity and impurity were in effect, there is no doubt that people had to wash their hands before eating anything which was moist (the leniency of Tosafot is particular to our times, because we do not maintain the rules of ritual purity). Therefore, even those who are not stringent about washing the hands the whole year are stringent about this on the seder night.[8]


Based on the Netziv’s view, one can answer other questions as well. For example, there are those who insist on eating less than a ke-zayit (olive-bulk) for karpas. At first blush, it is surprising that one must wash his hands before eating such a small amount of karpas, because according to many Acharonim one is not even required to wash his hands if he eats less than a ke-zayit of bread (see Mishna Berura 258:10). While at the outset we are stringent in washing for even less than that amount of bread (see there), when it comes to eating fruit or vegetables which are moist, many people are lenient even when one eats more than a ke-zayit, and one should certainly be lenient when eating less than a ke-zayit.[9] Why, then, are we stringent in washing our hands before karpas?

There is another puzzling aspect of the practice: the obligation of washing one’s hands only applies to moist foods which are customarily eaten while being held in the hand (Mishna Berura 158:26)[10] whereas karpas and other vegetables are generally eaten using a fork or a spoon, so why do we need to wash our hands before eating them?[11]


According to what the Netziv said, it is possible to explain that since on the seder night we try to feel as if we are in the Temple and try to mentally reenact the feeling of being there, we make a point of being scrupulous about ritual purity. That is why we are stringent about washing our hands even though we are eating less than a ke-zayit of karpas, and even with foods which are generally eaten with a fork or spoon.


In spite of the justifications that we brought, it is proper to wash the hands at the seder night, as this will bring us to strengthen ourselves the entire year to try to wash our hands for all moist fruits or vegetables (or to dry them).[12]


Details of the laws regarding washing


The washing should be conducted in accordance with the regular rules of washing one’s hands – with a revi’it of water from a utensil (Mishna Berura 158:20).[13]


One is not to recite a blessing on the washing. If one accidentally recited the blessing, he should eat a ke-zayit of the karpas (for one who eats less than a ke-zayit must certainly wash his hands without a blessing, whereas on a ke-zayit many of the Rishonim and the Vilna Gaon hold one must wash and recite the blessing, as we saw above).[14]


As mentioned, even though the primary obligation of washing is only when one dips the karpas while holding it in one’s hand, one who eats it with a fork or spoon must also wash his hands.


Ideally, all the participants should wash their hands for karpas, and that emerges from the Mordechai (37b), Avudraham (Seder ha-Haggada u-Peirusha, s.v. u-le’achar ha-kiddush) and others. There are those whose custom is that only the head of the household washes his hands (see Va-yagged Moshe, 16b).[15] It appear that their view is that the washing is but a remembrance of the Temple or to arouse the children (and especially when one eats less than a ke-zayit, as noted), and for these purposes it is enough for only the head of the household to wash. As mentioned, ideally, everyone should wash, but in large Pesach seder meals where that presents a problem one can rely on this view, with only the head of the household washing his hands for karpas.



Translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein and adapted by Rabbi Dov Karoll from the companion volume to Haggada for Pesach: Shirat Miriam, Haggada from the Sources by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon.  To purchase the haggada, please contact the Halacha Educational Center, [email protected] or [011-972-] 52-977-6009.

[1]    All references to the Gemara or its commentaries in this article, unless otherwise stated, are to Pesachim; references to the Rambam are to Hilkhot Chametz u-Matza and to the Shulchan Arukh and its commentaries are to Orach Chaim (OC).

[2]   The Gemara (Shabbat 14a) explains this ordinance based on the fact that ones hands are fidgety. The Rishonim argue about whether the concern is that the hands are ritually impure and will render the teruma ritually impure (Rashi quoting his rabbis, Rabbenu Chananel, Rambam), or that the concern is that the hands are dirty and might make the teruma disgusting (Rashi himself).

[3]   The obligation of teruma by Torah Law applies only to grain, olives, and grapes (your grain, your wine, and your oil). Olives and grapes are used mainly to produce wine and olive oil, which are not eaten with ones hands, whereas grains are mainly used to produce baked goods, which are eaten with ones hands, the most prominent of these being bread. That was the reason why the Sages ordained that the obligation to wash ones hands only for bread (the students of Rabbenu Yona, above).

[4]   This is the understanding of the Peri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav, 158:4) and Chazon Ish (125:4) of the view of Tosafot. And see the Arukh ha-Shulchan (158:4), who explained this view differently.

[5]   That is what the Arukh ha-Shulchan (158:4) wrote, thatin our days we are lenient about this,and the Chayei Adam (130, rules of the seder 4) wrote:in our days we do not act this way, except for those who are especially careful. Responsa Eretz Tzvi (I, 32) also argued this way in finding justification for their actions.

[6]   A similar explanation appears in the Chayei Adam (130, Rules of the seder, 14).

[7]   Another explanation is offered by the Levush (473:6):Even though on the other days of the year we are not careful about this, it is possible that because of our love of the festival it becomes an obligation to dip, and people act now with greater ritual purity.See also the Peri Megadim (Mishbetzot Zahav, 473:6).

[8]   According to Rav Mordechai Breuer (Pirkei Moadot, I, p. 180), one should add the words of the Netziv to those of the Chok Yaakov brought above namely, that we maintain the customs which were observed at the time of the Temple, so as to arouse the interest of the children who will ask about the meaning of this action, and thus we will teach them to feel the absence of the Pesach sacrifice.And if the children ask you why we are acting this way, we will tell them the truth, we will tell them that the seder which we observe is but a fraction of what it used to be, and the main part is missing on our table, for we only have matza and maror, and do not have the Pesach sacrifice. However, when the Temple still stood, all of Israel would eat the Pesach sacrifice, matza and maror, and at that time one had to maintain the ritual purity of ones hands, and therefore there was an obligation to wash the hands for the first dipping... The very observance of this ancient custom will make the children feel the glory of the past and will arouse them to await its renewal in the future. In a similar fashion, Rav Breuer explains the other actions which we perform on the seder night in order to arouse the interest of the children.

[9]   That is what the Mishna Berura (158:20) wrote in his first edition, that in regard to eating moist food there is no need to be stringent and to wash ones hands for less than a ke-zayit, for many people are lenient in this even for bread. However, in subsequent editions Mishna Berura added a note at the side that since the Tur (473 and 486) wrote that one is to wash ones hands for karpas and to eat less than a ke-zayit of it, this shows that one must wash his hands even though he will be eating less than a ke-zayit,and I yield to his great erudition.

[10] The Mishna Berura (158:26) writes that one does not need to wash one’s hands before eating fruit and vegetables which are not generally eaten in ones hands, but with a fork or a spoon, even if the person happens to touch the food. On the other hand, for foods which are generally held in the hands, one needs to wash his hands before eating them even if he eats them with a fork or spoon.

[11] Rav Frank explains (Mikraei Kodesh, II, 39), that on the seder night we wash our hands even when by the letter of the law we do not need to do so, to arouse the children to ask.

[12] It is true that the Magen Avraham (158:8) found a justification for those who are lenient, but as noted, the majority of the Acharonim were very stringent about this. If a person is nevertheless lenient in this, he should be stringent about washing his hands with a utensil when he uses the bathroom. The reason for this: the Shaarei Teshuva (158:11) citing the Birkei Yosef and Radvaz, writes that if a person knows that ever since he last washed his hands, in the morning or after using the bathroom, he has guarded his hands from becoming dirty, he need not wash his hands before eating any moist food, even though he would have to wash his hands before eating bread. The Radvaz explains (Responsa Radvaz, VIII:27) that the reason why one must wash his hands before bread is because one should be accustomed to wash before eating teruma, and washing ones hands before eating teruma requires one to do so intentionally, while washing ones hands before eating moist food is because if he does not do so it might make teruma ritually impure. Such a washing does not require any specific intention, but it is enough that the hands be ritually clean (see also Moadim u-Zemanim, III:249, in the name of Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik). Yet, the Shulchan ha-Tahor (158, Zer Zahav, subsection 2) writes that one must have an intention even for washing ones hands before eating moist food.

[13] However it is possible that all one needs do is to wash one time for each hand, even though people generally wash each hand twice before bread (Moadim Uzemanim, III:249, based on Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik).

[14] See the Kaf ha-Chaim (473:197), that one who recited the blessing on washing accidentally can nevertheless recite the blessing again later on when he washes before the matza.

[15] That is deduced by Rav Frank (Mikraei Kodesh - Pesach, II:39) and others from the words of the Rambam (8:1-2). And see also the Maharal, Seder ha-Haggada, 13.