By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
When we wake up in the morning we wash our hands from a vessel in a specific manner: three times on each hand, switching off each time. This is called “Negel Vasser.” There are two customs as to when the blessing on Neggel Vasser is recited. The prevalent custom is to recite the bracha immediately (MB 6:9), but some recite it together with the morning Brachos in Shacharis.
Generally speaking, we recite Brachos before we do the actual Mitzvah. Why is it different for Negel Vasser? The answer is that when our hands are impure, we shouldn’t recite a bracha! So here, Chazal enacted the bracha afterward.
What is the reason that we wash our hands in the morning? This is actually a four way debate between the Rosh, the Rashba, the Orchos Chaim (Rav Aharon of Narbonne), and the Zohar. The Rosh (Responsa #61) writes that the sages enacted this obligation because our hands invariably touch parts of the body during the night that should be covered, and we must wash our hands before praying.
The Rashba (Responsa 1:191) writes that we are renewed every morning based upon the Pasuk in Eichah (3:23). Therefore, the sages enacted that we must wash our hands from a vessel just as the Kohanim wash their hands from the Kior (a vessel) in the Bais HaMikdash.
The Orchos Chaim (cited in the Drisha in OC Siman 4) writes that during the nighttime an impure spirit rests upon the hands and does not leave until the hands are washed three times. The Shla (Chulin, Derech Chaim) explains that there are three separate impure forces. Therefore, three washings are necessary to remove them.
The Zohar (Parshas VaYaishev 184) states that when the Neshama leaves it leaves a spirit of Tumah, impurity in the body. When the soul re-enters, the impurity travels to the limbs. Water can remove the impurity from the hands. Why the limbs? The Shla explains that the limbs correspond to the outer extensions of the universe, where the powers of impurity are strongest.
How does the Shulchan Aruch rule? He rules that a bracha is only recited when both the Rosh’s reason and the Rashba’s reasons apply. The other reasons may be reasons to wash one’s hands, but as far as the sages enactment goes, the Rosh and the Rashba are the main reasons.
What are the differences between the reasons? There are four main differences: