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Always Wash Your Hands: So said your mother, and so says the Torah

Like it or not, there are a lot of instances in the Torah that call for capital punishment. Murder is punishable by death in the Torah. So is lighting a fire or working on Shabbat. You can also execute a rebellious child who doesn’t listen to his or her parents (I believe that’s called a teenager). Additionally, look out for blasphemy. You can also be executed for cursing or striking your parents. Adultery… that one is a capital offense as well. I won’t belabor the point, but there are many actions that are so blatantly wrong that they bring the harshest of penalties with them. This is not to say that these sentences were carried out, nor does it mean that they even mean in reality what the text says on the surface. In fact, whenever the text speaks about capital punishment, the Talmud goes to great lengths to show how difficult it was to prove any of the circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, making it nearly impossible to carry out an execution.

In the Torah, when a crime requires capital punishment, the term is usually מוֹת-יוּמַת

“Shall surely be put to death.” This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, has something unique in that it speaks about something which, unlike a crime that is punishable by death, is an action that if not done can lead to death. Specifically, in Exodus 30:18-21, continuing the instructions for how practices in the Tabernacle were to be conducted the Torah tells the Kohanim: “Make a basin of brass, and the base of brass for washing. And put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet from it when they go into the tent of meeting. They shall wash with water, that they not die, or when they come near to the altar to serve, and make an offering to the Lord by fire to smoke, so they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they not die.What follows after this passage are intricate instructions concerning the making and application of anointing oil and incense to be offered to God. Yet in these instructions we do not see anything that says, if you don’t do this or that, you will die. Only water has the power of life and death.

Wash With Water

As far back as the Torah, we were taught that improper hygiene can kill. So, one of the first things a Jew does in the morning is wash our hands and recite a blessing. Yes, there is a blessing for washing our hands. We say it first thing in the morning and before eating a meal.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', אֱלֹֽקֵינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָֽיִם.

Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and commands to wash our hands.

In the Middle Ages, during the time of the Black Death from 1348-1351, the Black Death didn’t affect our communities as severely as others, so pogroms ravaged Jewish communities in Europe because people believed the Jews caused the plague. This disparity in hygiene came because we didn’t use public wells where the plague may have spread and because Jews practiced better hygiene through daily washing and kashrut.

It wasn’t until 1847 that medical science caught up with the Torah when a Hungarian Jewish doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis recognized that infection and disease were being transmitted, not through bad smells, but through bad hygiene. Dr. Semmelweis promoted a concept that today we take for granted: Wash Your Hands. Or to paraphrase the Torah… Wash your hands that you not die. The Torah presented many intricate instructions to the Kohanim for the management and functioning of the Tabernacle, but not washing their hands and feet with water would lead to death. Without water, the entire service of the Tabernacle would not and could not have taken place.

Clean Water for All

Unfortunately, what the Torah taught us so long ago and what modern science teaches us today is not the norm for everyone. According to the World Health Organization, in 2020, nearly half the world’s population (46%) lacked safely managed sanitation, and according to the same report, 45% of the household wastewater generated globally was discharged without safe treatment. Not only is this dangerous for the people who lack basic sanitation, it’s terrible for the water and the environment.

Water has the power of life and death. As the Torah says, wash that you not die, but if someone doesn’t have access to clean water to fulfill this simple act… they can die, and far too many do. Approximately 829,000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene. This is largely preventable. The deaths of 297,000 children under five years of age every year could also be avoided if these risk factors were addressed. This is why access to water is not a privilege. It is a basic human right. Yes, human rights violations occur every day around the world by tyrannical regimes and evil despots that the news media loves to report, but this is not the case with water. We don’t hear as much about this human rights violation because we can’t “blame” it on someone. It’s just nature… and it’s just water.

There are some great organizations that are working to address the problem. I encourage you to learn about what’s happening around the world in this area and get involved if you are so moved.

Remember, always wash your hands that you not die, and let’s work together to make clean water available to all.

Shabbat Shalom.

A Few Organizations You Should Know About:

Water4Mercy provides the 'One-Two-Three Solution' to permanently end thirst, hunger and poverty in the world. With their innovative technologies and partners, they provide clean water, agriculture, and educational solutions.

Innovation:Africa is an organization that brings Israeli solar, water and agricultural technologies to rural African villages. Since 2008, using Israeli solar and water technology, Innovation: Africa has delivered access to clean water and light to over 4 million people across 10 African countries. is a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world. They help people get access to safe water and sanitation through affordable financing, such as small loans.


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