A Question of Jewish Law

July 15, 2010

A One Handed Blessing

Filed under: Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 10:34 am

Question: What blessing does a person whose hand is in a cast, or who only has one hand, recite when washing before a meal?

Answer: At first sight it is tempting to compare this to a rule that was formulated in the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 120:3) which deals with the requirement to immerse utensils before using them for the first time. The Shulchan Aruch states that if one is immersing only one item, one should recite the blessing in the singular: al tevilat klee.  If there are two or more items to be immersed, the blessing is recited in the plural: al tevilat keilim . Using this logic, one might think that a person who is only washing one hand should recite the blessing al netilat yad in the singular,  instead of the normal blessing in the plural: al netilat yadayim.

This is not the case. The rule is that a person should use the normal formula of the blessing –  al netilat yadayim – whether they have one hand or two. The same rule applies when donning tefillin in the morning. The word tefillin is plural – referring to both the box that goes on the arm and the one on the head. The singular form of the word is tefilla. If a person dons only one part of the tefillin – either on the arm or the head – we still use the blessing להניח טפילין in the plural. This is because we always use the standard formula of a blessing, even in those cases where there isn’t a perfect match between the blessing and reality.

Behind this rule lies an important distinction between two different types of religious activity – prayer and liturgy. Prayer is a personal outpouring of the heart directed towards God. Prayer is usually spontaneous and personal. What we recite in the synagogue isn’t prayer – it is liturgy. Liturgy is a formalised service, like the service of God in the temple. Liturgy has fixed words – and there are always rules that guide the right way and the right time to recite it. Liturgies are passed down from generation to generation. Although we moderns have an instinctive attraction to prayer, there is a special magic to liturgy, which comes from familiarity and recognition. If you have ever been moved by the intensity of the Kol Nidrei service – then you have experienced the power that liturgy can hold over us.

Although there is room for personal prayer in the Jewish tradition, our regular prayers and blessings are liturgies. This can be best summed up by the statement of the Talmud: R. Yossi says: Anyone who changes the formulas that were established by the Rabbis has not fulfilled their obligation. [BT Brachot: 40b] Getting back to our original question – the fixed formula of the blessing is al netilat yadayim – and we recite this blessing whether we have washed one hand or two.

We still need to ask, why does the formula of the blessing change when immersing vessels?  Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef  explains that it is not unusual to immerse only one pot or plate and therefore, the Rabbis established a standard blessing for this occurrence. Since we sometimes immerse one vessel and sometimes immerse many – there is a standard blessing for one and a standard blessing for many. It is extremely rare for a person to have only one hand and therefore there is no fixed blessing for this case. The standard form of the blessing is in the plural – and we use it whether we are washing one hand or two.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner


Based on R. Ovadia Yossef, Yachve Da’at,  2, 19.

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Germany (The Rhineland).

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