[Avodah] What is mayim achronim (washing hands at the end of the meal) and is it obligatory?

Prof. L. Levine llevine at stevens.edu
Wed Nov 3 06:29:08 PDT 2021

>From today's OU Kosher Halacha Yomis

Q. What is mayim achronim (washing hands at the end of the meal) and is it obligatory?

A. At the conclusion of a bread meal, there is a mitzvah to wash one's fingers before Birkas Hamazon. This mitzvah is called mayim achronim (the final waters, as opposed to netilas yadayim when we wash our hands at the beginning of the meal). We find two separate reasons for this mitzvah in different sections of the Talmud. In Chulin (105b) we learn that mayim achronim was instituted to wash off melech Sedomis (salt from Sedom) which may have adhered to the fingers during the meal. Melech Sedomis is a very strong variety of salt, and if a person would touch his eyes after the meal with soiled fingers, melech Sedomis could possibly cause blindness. According to this reason, we wash mayim achronim as a matter of safety. However, the Gemara Berachos (53b) finds an allusion for mayim achronim in the verse “V’hiyisem Kedoshim”, and you shall be holy (Vayikra 11:46). Mayim achronim promotes holiness because we cannot recite berachos when our hands are not clean. Since it is common for hands to be soiled at the end of a meal, Chazal instituted a uniform requirement to wash our hands before we bentch.

Initially, Shulchan Aruch (181:1) writes that mayim achronim is obligatory. However, at the end of the same chapter, Shulchan Aruch (181:10) states that some do not observe the custom of mayim achronim. The opinion of Tosfos is that mayim achronim is no longer required because Sedomis salt is not common, and most people are not finicky about the cleanliness of their hands. Still, the Mishnah Berurah cites many poskim who maintain that mayim achronim is mandatory today as well. In addition, there are Kabbalistic reasons to fulfill this mitzvah. The Aruch Hashulchan (181:5) strongly advocates to wash mayim achronim, first because many poskim disagree with Tosofos and maintain that V’hiyisem Kedoshim is still relevant. Furthermore, the position of Tosofos that we no longer have Sedomis salt is debatable, as it may be that sea salt has traces of such potent salt mixed in. In fact, it may be that Tosofos recognized this possibility as well, and only sought to be milamed zechus (to offer justification) for those people who did not wash mayim achronim.

It thus appears that while there is some rationalization to be lenient, it is clearly preferable to wash mayim achronim.

I find it surprising that this discussion does not mention that today most of us eat most foods with cutlery, and not with our fingers as was done before cutlery was introduced.



And as late as the Middle Ages, common people still ate with their hands, using four-day-old pieces of bread called “trenchers” to push their food.

See this URL for more about the development and use of cutlery.

In light of the fact that today most people eat most food without ever touching it with their fingers,  it seems to me that this is a strong reason not to have to wash mayim achronim.

A Timeline of Our Ancestors’ Cutlery - Family Tree Magazine<https://www.familytreemagazine.com/history/timelines/mar-2011-history-matters-cutlery/#:~:text=The%20history%20of%20cutlery%20took%20a%20different%20direction,away%20from%20both%20the%20slaughterhouse%20and%20the%20kitchen.>
Spoons were initially fashioned from shells or animal horns; our ancient ancestors attached a stick for longer reach. Spoons also were carved from wood; the word spoon comes from the Anglo-Saxon spon, meaning “a chip of wood.”The Romans made spoons from bone, pewter, bronze and silver, gradually tapering the handle end and flaring the front.

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