I don’t know about you, but in my seders of years past, the hand-washing section of the Haggadah has either been skipped over or symbolically performed by one person on behalf of all of us at the table. What I do know is that this year, the importance of hand-washing has taken on a whole new meaning.

Recently, Laura Mandel, executive director of the Jewish Arts Collaborative, posed this question to me: What is the difference between the two hand-washing sections of the seder?

First, some background: The first, called in Hebrew urchatz, meaning “and wash,” is grammatically in the imperative form. It comes at the beginning of the seder, nestled between kadesh, “sanctification,” and karpas, “parsley,” and this first hand-washing is done without the usual blessing for washing hands.

A few reasons for this initial hand-washing stem from the time of the Temple in Jerusalem and the hand-washing ritual of purification the Temple priests undertook in order to be ritually pure to perform their duties of offering sacrifices on the altar to God. Once the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis adapted a variety of these rituals in different ways, seeing the Passover table as equivalent to the sacrificial altar, thus requiring the same ritual for purity. They also included a more symbolic interpretation of this physical act of washing our hands, explaining that this hand-washing allows us to be open and ready for the Passover tale of freedom and redemption.

The second hand-washing, rachtzah, “washing,” occurs after the telling of the Passover story and before the first blessing over the matzah. You’ll note that the two hand-washing words sound similar but are not the same; this is because while the first is in the imperative, command form, this second hand-washing is a gerund, a simple noun, “washing.”

This second hand-washing does include the normative blessing, using the typical blessing formula you may have heard thousands of times.  We learn that this second hand-washing is more closely related to the food about to be consumed. Our sages tell a few delightful stories about the dire woes that befall those who do not wash their hands before eating and, of course, there is more symbolism and a few warnings about not being able to reach the world to come and connecting with God with dirty hands. (I bet there are a few parents out there who might tuck this gem into their parenting toolboxes.)

We see that these two hand-washing experiences during the seder are respectively about ritual purity and actual cleanliness.

And now, some more symbolism: One of my favorite modern Jewish sages is Rav Kook, who posed that the first hand-washing was individual and the second, communal. So, perhaps we wash our hands initially, at the beginning, to ready ourselves, to be present in the moment of this important ritual. We’re given the opportunity to purify ourselves of extraneous thoughts or worries and can take this moment to find our focus, to be with the people at our table or on our Zoom screen, to fully engage in the tale we know so well and imbue it with new meaning and relevancy.

And this second hand-washing, at the end of the Passover story, can bring us all together, reveling in the reminder of our collective freedom. Whether virtually or physically, near or far, we take this moment to feel the water, grounding us and preparing us for our meal. We come to our Passover seder as individuals, with our own stories, our own needs, and we join a communal experience, weaving together each of our perspectives with our ancient story and leave not feeling the weight of slavery but rather the joy of freedom, together.

For those like me, who haven’t put much thought into this step of the seder before, perhaps this year, through the lens of our current heightened state, this ritual of hand-washing not only feels ever more relevant as we strive to protect ourselves and those around us, but also can be infused with a bit more holiness and meaning.

The wonderful thing about Passover and perhaps Judaism in general is the reliance on and creativity with symbolism. Not everything is as it seems. And while there is certain symbolism that has been “canonized” over the centuries, we also have the opportunity to create our own.

As we navigate our rituals and symbols for this Passover during a moment of great uncertainty, take the time to cherish old rituals and symbols and take the opportunity to explore what rituals have new meaning, and how your own creativity can transform something as vital yet mundane as a simple hand-washing into something more.

Source material: “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries Volume 1” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., and David Arnow, Ph.D.

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