The Jewish custom to wash hands after a funeral and to not dry them

Death is one of those topics we usually prefer to avoid. It is not pleasant to be reminded of our mortality and of those whom we have lost. And yet, it is a part of life that we cannot avoid. A healthy attitude towards death can in fact be life-enhancing. The washing and non-drying of the hands helps to illustrate this.

There are several reasons given for washing and not drying the hands after a funeral or visiting a cemetery.

1. A corpse is ritually impure, and anyone who’s been close to a dead body contracts some of that impurity. Washing the hands cleanses us of this touch with death, and we don’t want to pass this unholy spirit onto a towel, so we leave our hands to dry themselves.

2. We want to arouse kindness and mercy on the departed when they are judged in heaven. Water represents kindness, as it falls from the heavens to irrigate the earth. So pouring water on our hands symbolizes the kindness that we pray should rain down on the departed in heaven. We want this kindness to be everlasting, so we don’t dry the hands.

3. Washing is a reminder for the living that now is the time to purify ourselves and ensure we have clean hands and a pure heart. We remember our own mortality and cleanse ourselves while we still have the chance. By not drying the hands, we take the message of own mortality with us.

We wash our hands after contact with the dead to express our desire to stay away from death and to embrace life. We don’t dry the hands to state that death, and its urgent message, are always with us. We can’t avoid death. So let it remind us to celebrate life.

Source: Maavar Yabok, Sifsei Renonos 19, by 17th century Kabbalist Rabbi Aharon Berechia of Modena, Italy. There he adds another reason: we are washing our hands of any negligence in the passing of our loved ones. We did all we can. We need to cleanse ourselves of survivor’s guilt. Rabbi Moss

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Bluming of the Chabad Shul of Potomac, Maryland has purchased a section of the Garden of Remembrance Gan Zikaron Jewish cemetery http://www.gardenofremembrance.org/chabad-shul-of-potomac/ which he hopes will remain with plenty of empty space for a long time to come