Like the people of Sedom, Lot’s wife despised hospitality. While fleeing the destruction of Sedom, she became a pillar of salt because she had sinned with salt, either by refusing to give guests even a pinch of salt or by over-salting her food to keep guests away (Bereishis 19:26 and Rashi ad loc.; Bereishis Rabba 50:4 and 51:5). In destroying Sedom and its inhabitants, G-d turned otherwise lush lands into a desolate area of “sulphur and salt” (Devarim 29:22). Indeed, this site is thought to be the source of “Sodomite salt,” an especially potent variant of salt, which can cause blindness if it contacts the eye.
Because Sodomite salt is potentially harmful, we are required to wash our hands (mayim achronim) at the conclusion of every meal, to ensure we don’t unwittingly touch it to our eyes (Chullin 105b; Eruvin 17b; see Rambam, Berachos 6:2). This washing also generally cleans the hands in preparation for the after-meal blessings (benching) (Berachos 53b; Vayikra 20:7 and Vayikra 11:44 [Vilna Gaon]). Regardless of the origin, it is an “obligation” (Chullin 105a; Shulchan Aruch 181:1).
While most latter-day authorities maintain that the obligation remains in effect (Bi’ur HaGra, Orach Chaim 181:12; Aruch HaShulchan 181:5; Mishna Berura 181:22; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 44:1), others note that there is a general laxity when it comes to this washing since Sodomite salt no longer is in use (Tosfos, Chullin 105a; Tosfos, Berachos 53b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 181:10).
Perhaps this laxity is the source of several myths concerning mayim achronim. As always, guidance on practical questions should be directed to a competent authority.
Myth #1: Women Need Not—Or Should Not—Wash Mayim Achronim
The one leading benching or the most respected individual at the table should wash first, while the remaining people at the table should wash in the order in which they are seated (Rambam, Berachos 7:12; Mishna Berura 181:12-14; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 44:1).
For some reason, many women refrain from washing, although there is no apparent explanation of this practice (Yalkut Yosef, Vol. 3, 181:2; Halichos Bas Yisroel (5744) p. 58, n. 11; Riv’vos Efraim 1:140; Teshuvos v’Hanhagos 1:174). Perhaps the reason some women are not accustomed to washing is because—in light of the rarity of Sodomite salt—it is merely a stringency—one which women never resolved to adopt (see Shevet Halevi, Vol. 4, Orach Chaim, No. 23; Piskei Teshuvos 181:1). Regardless, there is little reason to distinguish between men and women.
Myth #2: After Washing, I Can Still Schmooze and Eat and Sing
Generally, benching should follow immediately after washing, without interruption or delay (Berachos 42a; Rambam, Berachos 6:20; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 179:1 and Mishna Berura ad loc.). As such, Shir Hama’alos should be said before washing (Aruch HaShulchan 181:9; but see Kaf HaChaim 157:22 [Shir HaMa’alos may be recited after washing because it is part of benching]).[i] Others are less stringent and permit a small amount of time to pass and two or three words to be spoken between washing and benching (Magen Avraham 165:4 and 181:5; Kesef Mishna, Berachos 6:20; Aruch HaShulchan 181:1).
R’ Chaim of Czernowitz once fell deathly ill. In his feverish state, he dreamed that he saw the holy Baal Shem Tov and begged him to entreat the heavens on his behalf.
When the Baal Shem Tov asked what merits he had, R’ Chaim explained that it was his rebbe’s custom every Shalosh Seudos to relate a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov. “Once,” continued R’ Chaim, “due to his intense cleaving to G-d, my rebbe forgot to do this and he nearly washed mayim achronim before I reminded him to relate one of your teachings. Had he washed, he would not have been able to interrupt even for words of Torah prior to benching.”
“If that is so,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “then you will make a complete recovery.” And so it was.
Undue delay or interruption not only compromises the washing, it also can expose one to danger (see e.g. Pri Megadim, Aishel Avraham 181:10).
R’ Chaim Vital once observed someone complain to the Arizal about relentless, sharp shoulder pains. The Arizal asked whether the man had interrupted between mayim achronim and benching, and the man admitted that he was accustomed to spending a few minutes studying Torah after mayim achronim.
“There’s your problem,” said the Arizal. “One is required to bench immediately after washing. The word for ‘immediately’ (teikef) is comprised of the same letters as ‘shoulder’ (kaseif). Your carelessness in benching ‘immediately’ after mayim achronim caused pains in your ‘shoulder’” (see Kaf HaChaim 157:17).
Myth #3: I Shouldn’t Dry My Hands; I Should Just Rub Them Together
While there is a debate as to whether one must dry the hands following washing (Shulchan Aruch 181:8; Rambam, Berachos 6:20 [required]; Magen Avraham 181:7 [only the one leading the benching must dry]), it’s preferable to be strict and dry them (Mishna Berura 181:19).
Myth #4: Only The Tips of My Fingers Need Washing
Notwithstanding the common practice of sprinkling just a drop of water on the fingertips, to accomplish its purpose of cleaning the fingers from Sodomite salt, one should wash until the second knuckle (and first thumb knuckle) (Shulchan Aruch 181:4; Mishna Berura 181:10). It is even better to wash until the finger joints (Bi’ur Halacha 181:4; Rabbeinu Bachaye, Shulchan Shel Arba; Kaf HaChaim 181:17; see also Teshuvos V’Hanhagos Vol. 1, No. 174 [Vilna Gaon washed his entire hand]; Ma’aseh Rav 84).
Myth #5: Washing Really Isn’t A Big Deal
Wrong again. Being unduly lax can have disastrous consequences, such as a decreased life span (Kaf HaChaim 181:27; Birchei Yosef, Orach Chaim 181:7), a decrease in livelihood (Aruch HaShulchan 181:5), or other tribulations (Kaf HaChaim, Orach Chaim 157 [Iyov suffered hardship because he neglected to wash mayim achronim]).
Once, R’ Yehuda, R’ Yosi, and R’ Meir were traveling and stayed with a man named Kidor (Yoma 83b). Because they were staying with him over Shabbos, R’ Yehuda and R’ Yosi deposited their money with Kidor; R’ Meir, who was suspicious of Kidor, did not. Well, lo and behold, when R’ Yehuda and R’ Yosi asked for their wallets back after Shabbos, Kidor denied that any money had been given to him.
The next day, R’ Yehuda and R’ Yosi went to Kidor’s business and saw lentils from his last meal stuck in his beard. So they went to his house and asked his wife for their wallets, saying that, as a sign of Kidor’s consent, he told them to tell her he ate lentils for lunch. When Kidor came home and discovered that the wallets were gone, he killed his wife. Talk about an overreaction.
In any event, while certainly not the typical experience, Kidor’s failure to wash away his meal residue ended with his wife’s death.[ii]
Myth #6: The Water Must Be Washed Into A Silver Vessel
The common custom is to wash into a vessel or onto some surface other than the ground because the evil spirit appears on used water spilled onto the ground (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 181:2; Chulin 105b; Magen Avraham 181:2; Kaf Hachaim 181:13; Aruch Hashulchan 181:7; but see Kaf Hachaim 181:12 and Bi’ur Halacha 181:2 [evil spirit even with utensil]).
But a silver vessel is not required.
The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as the Rebbe Rayatz or the Friediker Rebbe) was presiding over a fabrengen on the first day of Pesach in 1942, when a silver vessel for mayim achronim was brought to him. He politely refused to use it, relating how the second Lubavitcher Rebbe had asked his father (R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe) what purpose mayim achronim would serve after the final redemption when the impure spirit would cease to exist. R’ Shneur Zalman explained that, in the future, mayim achronim would be for those who conducted themselves in worldly matters with complete purity.
The Friediker Rebbe turned to the man who had brought the silver vessel. “At that time, we can wash mayim achronim in a silver container.”
* * * *
Whether you dry your hands or not, use a silver vessel or not, talk after washing or not, wash the length of your fingers or not, the symbolism of this washing is clear inasmuch as it is intended to wash off the Sodomite salt.
Infamous for their cold-heartedness, especially when it came to hospitality, the people of Sedom were obsessed with self-gratification. Sodomite salt is symbolic of these traits, and it such attitudes—including any residue of selfishness—that we are directed to wash away.
[i] If one interrupted between washing and benching, it may even be appropriate to wash again (Mishna Berura 179:1).
[ii] Many have the custom, immediately after Mayim Achronim, to rub their wet hands over their lips to wash away any food particles that may be there (Rif, Chulin 37b); others argue against such a practice (see Kaf HaChaim 181:21; Elya Rabba 181:2; Ben Ish Chai, Shelach 68).