February 2019 QUESTION:
Why do we wash our hands when we leave the temple after a funeral, or when we leave the cemetery?
February 2019 ANSWER:
The actual answer to this is something that most people today do not relate to at all. It comes from the Biblical period, when our ancestors were vividly aware of the nexus between life and death. And they also had a complex understanding of ritual purity, something to which most contemporary Jews give little or no thought.
Ritual purity, simply put, is the desired state for performing any religious practices. And our ancestors believed that some things can cause us to lose that purity. Death was one of those things that “defiles”; it is important to know that this is not a
matter of hygiene. It is a matter of being qualified to perform religious rituals. Contact with a corpse, or being in the presence of a corpse can cancel one’s
state of purity. Therefore, our custom is to ritually wash away that contact or exposure.
Jewish cemeteries often have a wash basin at the exit or they have spigots at intervals around the driveways, so that those who visit a cemetery (for a burial, an unveiling, or just to pay respects) can ritually remove the “contamination” that death causes, before they go elsewhere.
When a coffin is present in the synagogue for the funeral, it is appropriate for the congregation to provide the washing water for those who do not go to the cemetery. Some families will have the washing water right at the door wherever they come directly after the cemetery, as well.
While there is no soap involved in this washing, it is worth noting that these very practices did provide Jews with some protection against the Bubonic plague, so that the percentage of deaths in around them. That, and the traditional Jewish
practice of very prompt burial after death, combined to disrupt the spread of the disease amongst the Jews, which of course raised the suspicions of their
Gentile neighbours…but that’s a whole other story.
Next time we are reading the Book of Leviticus at temple, pay attention to the number of times that book says that a person who is somehow “ritually defiled” must wash with water before re-entering the community. It will have a new significance for you, I suspect.
But do not dismiss all this as superstitious mumbojumbo. Those who created our rituals lived with an intense awareness of the fragility of life, and they created these practices to give us some sense security, despite that fragility. We may live in a very
different world than they did, but our lives are just as precarious as theirs were.
So we wash, ritually.
I hope this explanation is useful to you.