In trying to understand why the Pharisees insisted on washing their hands before eating bread (Mark 7:5). I have come across some interesting reasons but have not yet come to a conclusion about why they washed them.

It seems that they washed their hands because the hands had to be pure when touching Terumah (holy offerings that the priests could eat). This may seem simple enough but in a strange course of events, I stumbled over the fact that the scriptures themselves ‘defiled the hands’ and in fact to say something was part of the ‘canon’ meant it ‘defiled the hands’.

The physical scriptures (scrolls) used to be considered ‘holy’, so they were placed beside the Terumah , but this brought harm upon the scriptures, so they could not be considered clean anymore. Either the Terumah were unclean of the scriptures, so they ruled against the scriptures in the matter. (I imagine rats eating the food at night may have chewed on the scriptures, or pooped on them?).

The state of uncleanness on scripture was enacted to preserve the texts from this problem:

“And why did the rabbis impose uncleanness upon Scriptural books? Rabbi Mesharshiya said: Because originally Terumah foods were stored near Torah scrolls, for they argued: This is holy and that is holy. When it was seen that the books came to harm the rabbis imposed uncleanness upon them.” (Shabbath 14a)

What I am wondering is, 'Did the ruling that the scriptures were unclean originate the reason for the washing of hands before eating bread, since people would naturally touch the scripture daily? In other words, 'Did the washing of hands pertain to keeping the Terumah clean on its own right, or is there a connection to the 'unclean scriptures' so that it was also assumed that the hands were defiled because one has touched the scriptures and the whole point is that they must not make the Terumah unclean?'

I am so surprised by this dilema that I am not sure what the reason for the hand washing was.

  • 3
    I'm glad you got a good answer to your question, but it seems more of a topic for Judaism than BH after the first paragraph. I think there's space for questions that look at the cultural background of a text. As far as I know, no Biblical text addresses "unclean scripture", but that material would make for a very interesting answer. I'm thinking about editing the question to remove some of the extra material, but I wanted to see what you think. Aug 7, 2012 at 17:49
  • 1
    @JonEricson - sure I don't mind.
    – Mike
    Aug 7, 2012 at 23:30
  • As per the comments here from 2012 which indicate this is actually a question better suited for MY.SE, I've closed this.
    – Dan
    Jun 22, 2014 at 1:18

1 Answer 1


The original washing of hand before eating applied only sanctified food such as to cohanim (descendents of Aaron) when eating trumah, Levites when eating maaser and to other people when eating maaser sheni in Jerusalem on the pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Weeks and Tabernacles.

About the time of Jesus, the Pharisees began a custom of eating hulin (regular, non sanctified food) in a state of purity as if it were sanctified food. There are various reasons for this stated in various places in the Talmud and midrashim, but no clinching reason. The orthodox Jews of today, who are the cultural descendants of the Pharisees, still practice this custom strictly.

The washing for non-sanctified food quickly became a cultural marker for Pharisaic identification, and the Pharisees certainly felt a need to distinguish themselves in a highly sectarian environment. Needless to say, this quickly became a point of difference with the early Christians, who in a sense, adopted a more traditional position of not requiring the washing and not adopting the novel Pharisaic custom.

The Rabbis declared various objects or situations to transfer tumah, ritual uncleanliness, even without scriptural basis, in particular situations where a precautionary restraint or "fence" was deemed to be required, and in most cases these declarations were and are respected to this day.

Most people at the time of the Temple who studied Torah did not actually touch scrolls very often, if at all. The study was oral. Handling of scrolls was usually done by the priests, who were still the ones who performed the actual public readings (although not today). Scrolls were usually kept and transported in elongated wooden boxes. The Spanish or Sephardic Jews use these boxes to protect the Torah scrolls to this day. In the old days, these boxes with the scrolls inside often served a secondary purpose as containers for other objects. You can imagine a priest travelling with his Torah scroll and using its box as a lunch pail for his trumah sandwich. Why not? Both are sanctified objects! This in fact happened, to the detriment of the scrolls. The solution was to declare the scrolls "unclean" (which is not pejorative in any sense) so that they would not come into contact with trumah or other sanctified food.

Unwashed hands are presumed by default to be in a state of (second degree) impurity, so the declaration of the scrolls to be "unclean" did not impose any additional burden on people who in any event would wash before eating either sanctified or normal unsanctified food. It served only to keep the scrolls clean and free of mold and pests.


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