Aids to Prayer: 1 Washing

hand washing
Washing, especially of the hands (and sometimes feet) has long had symbolic significance in the Middle East. Such washing has often been less for ablution (or cleaning) than as a symbol of an inner cleansing. A careful, intentional and ritual washing of the hands prior to prayer can have a powerful psychological effect. For some people, bathing (or showering) prior to prayer, or washing the face and rinsing out the mouth, will also be useful. Whatever form the ritual washing may take, the words of Psalm 26:6-12 (KJV—in the Septuagint it is Psalm 25), can appropriately be recited:

I will wash my hands in innocency and I will compass Thine altar, O Lord, that I may hear the voice of Thy praise and tell of all Thy wondrous works. O Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth.

The tradition of Israel required ritual washing before prayers and meals, and on other specific occasions.

“The Talmud used the requirement of washing the hands in Leviticus 15:11 as a hint for general hand washing law, using asmachta – a talmudical hermeneutics form in which the verse used as a hint rather than an exegesis.
jewish hand washing
The general Hebrew term for ritual hand washing is netilat yadayim, meaning lifting up of the hands. The term “the washing of hands” after excretion is sometimes referred to as “to wash asher yatzar” referring to the bracha (blessing) said which starts with these words.
Halakha (Jewish law) requires that the water used for ritual washing be naturally pure, unused, not contain other substances, and not be discoloured. The water also must be poured from a vessel as a human act, on the basis of references in the Bible to this practice, e.g. Elisha pouring water upon the hands of Elijah. Water should be poured on each hand at least twice. A clean dry substance should be used instead if water is unavailable.
Contemporary practice is to pour water on each hand three times for most purposes using a cup, and alternating the hands between each occurrence; this ritual is now known by the Yiddish term negel vasser, meaning nail water. This Yiddish term is also used for a special cup used for such washing.
The blessing
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה הָ׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם “Blessed are you, Hashem our God King of the universe Who has sanctified us with His commandments, And has commanded us concerning the elevation of hands.”

“The Talmud requires a person to wash his hands before prayer. A person must wash his hands to the wrists before prayer. Therefore, even though he washed his hands in the morning, if his hands touched a place of filth – i.e., a portion of the body which is sweaty and usually covered: he scratched his head, or in the morning, he did not wash them until the wrists – he must wash them again before prayer. (Sotah 39a). The custom is to wash the right hand three times, and then the left hand three times. In addition, the Shulchan Aruch requires that the face be washed and the mouth rinsed upon rising.
The ritual washing of the hands is not explicitly prescribed by the Bible, but is inferred by the rabbis (Ḥul. 106a) from the passage, Lev. xv. 11, in which it is stated that if a person afflicted with an unclean issue have not washed (or bathed) his hands his touch contaminates. The passage, Ps. xxvi. 6, “I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O Lord,” also warrants the inference that Ablution of the hands is requisite before performing any holy act. This particular form of Ablution is the one which has survived most completely and is most practised by Jews. Before any meal of which bread forms a part, the hands must be solemnly washed and the appropriate benediction recited. Before prayer, too, the hands must be washed; also after any unclean bodily function or after contact with an unclean object. The precepts concerning the carrying out of the ritual washing of the hands are contained in the rabbinical code “Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim,” §§ 117-165. The chief rules are these: The water must be in a state of natural purity, not discolored or defiled by the admixture of any foreign substance; it must not have been previously used for any purpose, and must be poured out by human act, the mere natural flow of water not sufficing. If a hydrant or stationary receptacle is used, the cock must be opened separately for each hand. This precept, that the water must be poured out by human act, is based on the fact that Scripture describes the pouring of water upon the hands as performed by one person for another, and considers it an appropriate act for the disciple to do for his master. The pouring on of water was a sign of discipleship. Thus, Scripture says of Elisha that he poured water ( ) upon the hands of Elijah, meaning that he was his disciple. The hands may also be purified by immersion; but in that case the same rules must be observed as in the case of immersion of the entire body in a regular ritual bath, or miḳweh. If water is not obtainable, the hands should be rubbed with some dry, clean substance, such as cloth. The hands must also be washed after eating. The Ablution before grace is known technicallyas mayim rishonim (first waters), and the subsequent Ablution as mayim aḥaronim (last waters). The latter Ablution is by no means generally observed.”
The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia

This was also the tradition in the early Church. The Apostolic Tradition (or Egyptian Church Order), an early Christian treatise from the third century, requires that that hands must be washed before prayer:
“41.1 Let every faithful man and every faithful woman , when they rise from sleep at dawn,
before they undertake any work, wash their hands and pray to God. Then they may go to
41.11 Around midnight rise and wash your hands with water and pray.”

“The rite of ablution was observed among early Christians also. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica, X, 4.40) tells of Christian churches being supplied with fountains or basins of water, after the Jewish custom of providing the laver for the use of the priests.
lavabo fountain
Lavabo, Le Thoronet Abbey, Le Thoronet, France

The Apostolical Constitutions (VIII.32) have the rule: “Let all the faithful …. when they rise from sleep, before they go to work, pray, after having washed themselves” nipsamenoi.
The attitude of Jesus toward the rabbinical law of ablution is significant. Mk (7:3) prepares the way for his record of it by explaining, `The Pharisees and all the Jews eat not except they wash their hands to the wrist (pugme). (See LTJM, II, 11). According to Mt 15:1-20 and Mk 7:1-23 Pharisees and Scribes that had come from Jerusalem (i.e. the strictest) had seen some of Jesus’ disciples eat bread with unwashed hands, and they asked Him: “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” Jesus’ answer was to the Jews, even to His own disciples, in the highest degree surprising, paradoxical, revolutionary (compare Mt 12:8). They could not but see that it applied not merely to hand-washing, but to the whole matter of clean and unclean food; and this to them was one of the most vital parts of the Law (compare Acts 10:14). Jesus saw that the masses of the Jews, no less than the Pharisees, while scrupulous about ceremonial purity, were careless of inward purity. So here, as in the Sermon on the Mount, and with reference to the Sabbath (Mt 12:1 ff), He would lead them into the deeper and truer significance of the Law, and thus prepare the way for setting aside not only the traditions of the eiders that made void the commandments of God, but even the prescribed ceremonies of the Law themselves, if need be, that the Law in its higher principles and meanings might be “fulfilled.” Here He proclaims a principle that goes to the heart of the whole matter of true religion in saying: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites” (Mk 7:6-13)–you who make great pretense of devotion to God, and insist strenuously on the externals of His service, while at heart you do not love Him, making the word of God of none effect for the sake of your tradition!”

“It may be noted that possibly in consequence of the words of St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:8): “I will therefore that men pray in every place, lifting up pure hands”, the early Christians made it a rule to wash their hands even before private prayer, as many passages of the Fathers attest (e.g. Tertullian, “Apolog.”, xxxix; “De Orat.”, xiii).”
lavabo church 1
Mediaeval lavabo in the right-hand transept of Saint Mark’s Church in Milan

Ritual washing of the hands, the Lavabo, has long been part of the Divine Liturgy:
church lavabo 2
“The name Lavabo (“I shall wash”) is derived from the words of Psalm 26:6-12 (KJV—in the Septuagint it is Psalm 25), which the celebrant traditionally recites while he washes his hands: “I will wash my hands in innocency, so will I compass thine altar, O Lord”. The washing of hands during the recitation of these psalm verses is of very ancient usage in the Catholic Church.
In the third century there are traces of a custom of washing the hands as a preparation for prayer on the part of all Christians; and from the fourth century onwards it appears to have been usual for the ministers at the Communion Service ceremonially to wash their hands before the more solemn part of the service as a symbol of inward purity.
church lavabo 3
In many early and medieveal monasteries, there would be a large lavabo (lavatorio) where the brethren would wash their hands before entering church. This practice was first legislated in the Rule of St. Benedict in the 6th century, but has earlier antecedents.

St. John Chrysostom mentions the custom in his day of all Christians washing their hands before entering the church for worship.

In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the priest says the last six verses from Psalm 25:
I will wash my hands in innocency and I will compass Thine altar, O Lord, that I may hear the voice of Thy praise and tell of all Thy wondrous works. O Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth. Destroy not my soul with the ungodly, nor my life with men of blood, in whose hands are iniquities; their right hand is full of bribes. But as for me, in mine innocence have I walked; redeem me, O Lord, and have mercy on me. My foot hath stood in uprightness; in the congregations will I bless Thee, O Lord.
lavabo 3
After vesting, he goes to the thalassidion (piscina) as washes his hands before approaching the Prothesis (altar of preparation), where he will prepare the bread and wine for the Divine Liturgy. This lavabo takes place quietly, outside of the view of the congregation.”

“The hand and face washing that precedes ritual prayer is no invention of Moslems. Islamic followers adopted it in the seventh century based on Christian prayer practices. Christians used to wash themselves, or at least their hands, before praying. A water fountain stood in the forecourt of churches precisely for this purpose. In the atrium of St. Peter’s in Rome, there stood the famous stone pine fountain.
st peters fountain
A sarcophagus from Ravenna portrays such a washing bowl: a cantharus (deep bowl) adorned with peacocks.

This washing concerned an attitude of purity and integrity in prayer. Precisely because one’s hands were raised to heaven while praying, they had to be clean. The believer wanted to be seen by God. So, persons who prayed would show washed hands as a sign that they were not stained with blood. For Christians, washed hands were supposed to express that one entered into God’s presence with a pure conscience. “The clean of hand and pure of heart” may go up to the mountain of the Lord, was a Psalm sung by those traveling to the temple in Jerusalem (Ps 24:4).

This explains this prayer posture in the early Church: a person’s hands were held relatively close in front of one’s face with the palms turned outwards, as is the custom in the Dominican rite even today.
dominican hands
It was a way of saying: “Here, God, look at my hands! No blood and no injustice cling to them. And only in this manner do I dare to pray and raise my voice to you.” St. John Chrysostom addressed his followers by saying that it was not enough to raise washed hands to God; these hands must also be made holy through works of charity. So, in the forecourt of the church, one should not only go to the fountain for hand washing, but also use the opportunity to give alms to the poor who begged there.

What remains of this rite of hand washing, previously practiced by all of the faithful, is the priest’s ritual hand washing before the Eucharistic prayer. The faithful no longer wash their hands, because they also no longer raise their hands when they pray. In its place, people bless themselves with holy water at the church entrance, reminding themselves of their baptism.

These rituals of the past retain their meaning even today. Christian prayer presupposes “clean hands.” A person who has sinned against his neighbor also sins against God. In refusing to be reconciled with his neighbor, a person should not approach the altar of God. The act of faith does not simply erase all past and future sins. Our behavior and actions create new obstacles on the way to God, weakening the effectiveness of our prayer. The priest is reminded of his own inadequacy every time he holds up his hands. This automatic gesture should provoke in his mind a serious examination of conscience: what makes you worthy that you alone can raise your hands in prayer? Have you done everything in your power to enable you, with pure hands and full transparency of spirit, to bring before God the gifts and prayers of the people?”

hand washing 2
Suggested practice: Prior to morning prayer, bathe or shower and brush the teeth. Then, when dressed, ritually wash both hands by pouring water over the right hand and then the left hand (three times each), and then dry the hands. A bowl and towel set aside for the purpose should be used. Before other times of prayer (where possible), again wash the hands ritually.

a history of prayer
See further: Roy Hammerling (ed) “A History of Prayer: The First to the Fifteenth Century” Volume 13 of Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition [Brill, 2008]

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