The commandment to make a kiyor, washing station, is positioned after Parshas Terumah and Tetzaveh, which detail the construction of the Mishkan, its vessels and the priestly vestments. The instructions on building a kiyor are in Parshas Ki Sisa (30:17-21), sandwiched between the mitzvah of the half-shekel toll and the mitzvah to concoct the anointing oil and the incense. One could explain this as a statement about the function of the kiyor. It is not a vessel used in the actual service. Rather, it is used to prepare for service. However, if that were true, why is there a need to construct a specific vessel for this? It would be sufficient to instruct all those who serve to wash their hands and feet before service. Indeed, if one washes from another one of the klei shareis, the vessels in the Temple, he fulfills his duty. Why would there be a special mitzvah to do so from the kiyor? Why are there such specific instructions on the construction of this incidental extra vessel? It must be copper, must be shiny, must contain enough water for at least four men.
In this week’s parshas, we are taught that Betzalel was “in the shadow of G-d” because he had divine inspiration in his order of construction. First, he made the Mishkan, and only then did he make the vessels to be housed inside it. Then, he constructed the outer altar which would be placed right outside the Mishkan, and then the chatzer, outer enclosure. If the kiyor is really an extra, why did he need to construct it before the chatzer (38:8)? It could have been made last, after everything else, just as the commandment to make it is last.
Furthermore, later on in the parshas, when Moshe was told how to erect the Mishkan and arrange its keilim, the kiyor is also to be placed in position before the chatzer is erected (40:7). Then a special commandment is given to anoint the kiyor (40:11), something that very few vessels merit. Most of them are included in a collective commandment. Finally, in narrating the actual arranging, a dedicated section details placing the kiyor before erecting the chatzer (40:30-32). This all points to a more significant role for the kiyor than a simple washstand.
Let us examine the mitzvah to wash hands and feet. One could really ask, why would they not wash before entering the chatzer? Why wait until one is deep inside “between the mizbaiach and the Mishkan”? Furthermore, if they left the courtyard, the kohanim would need to wash on their return. This indicates that it is the entry into the chatzer that requires this preparatory handwashing. If so, one would expect it to be like tevilah, immersion, which must be done before coming into the enclosure.
It is clear that kiddush yadayim veraglayim, washing the hands and feet, is required specifically once one has entered the enclosure and finds himself in this holy presence. He has been more elevated than with the immersion of his body. Having entered the enclosure, and his entire body and being having become surrounded by the sanctity, he is now on a level that requires more. Kiddush yadayim veraglayim is more than purification or immersion. It is for the honor and respect of the service.
To elaborate, the Chinuch explains the mitzvah of tevilah in a mikvah. One immerses his whole body in a body of water, for water was the first thing created. With his ritual purification he becomes like a newly created being. Kiddush yadayim veraglayim has a similar effect. However, this is not for the whole body. The hands and feet function in a way that distinguishes the human from the animal. Upon entering the courtyard, his elevated quality of humanity is refreshed. The ultimate goal of mankind is to come as close as possible to Hashem. This takes place in the proximity of the Mishkan, Hashem’s abode in this world. When one’s physical body, his superior humanity, and his mental presence come into the enclosure of the Shechinah, the divine presence, he is elevated to the highest possible level a human can reach. In this sense, his body is renewed, and he needs kiddush yadayim veraglayim as a result.
This can only take place after he enters the enclosure. Therefore, the kiyor is placed inside the chatzer, rather than outside the entranceway. The construction of the kiyor demonstrates this concept. It is a dedicated vessel inside the chatzer; it is constructed before the chatzer; it is placed in position before the chatzer. The kiyor is needed before the walls are erected to enclose the Shechina to show that the enclosure encompasses this special quality.
One who is distracted from his service must wash again. The kiddush yadayim veraglayim is more about the mental state, the concentration, and utilizing the superior human attributes in serving Hashem on such a high level. Indeed, the Torah uses the term “when they shall come close” they must wash. It is the kurvah, the coming close to Hashem, that requires this special washing of the hands and feet.
Nowadays, when we are more alert to washing our hands to prevent disease, we appreciate the concept of distraction and the need to focus on hand cleanliness. We understand this uniquely human asset, the use of our hands to prevent communicable diseases. This should stimulate a new appreciation of the superior spiritual nature of humanity. Psalm 26 discusses how one should separate himself from the company of the evildoers. In the middle of the psalm comes this verse: “I wash my hands in cleanliness [purity] and I circle Your altar, Hashem!” (Tehilim 26:6). Why is handwashing mentioned in this context? Because handwashing indicates mental and spiritual cleanliness and the superiority of humanity.
“The evildoers around me do not recognize or acknowledge this superiority. They do not appreciate my high standards or the lofty levels to which I aspire. I, on the other hand, understand the distinction between myself and the animals, and I relate to this by washing my hands before circling Your altar, Hashem!” PJC
Rabbi Shimon Silver is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.