Q. Do you need to wash your hands and your feet before praying (Exodus 30:17-21)? At the moment I take a shower in the morning before praying, but I don’t know if this suffices. And what to before Minhah or Arvith?
A. Taking a shower suffices for washing your face and feet. You should, however, recite the blessing "ha-Ma'avir" upon leaving the bathroom. You can find it on page 14 in our English siddur or on page 16 in our Hebrew siddur. (Click here for a print-out of the blessing upon washing the face.) But taking a shower will not, l-khathila, suffice for hand washing before reciting Qiryath Shema or the Amida. Before beginning the morning prayers, make sure you wash both your hands by pouring at least a cup's worth of water over both hands evenly. The water should run over your hands at least to the wrists. For more information about hand washing, see Hilkhoth Berakhoth chapter 6.
Hil. Tefilla 4,1 states:
“Five things withhold one from properly fulfilling his duty to pray the Amida (the 'Standing Prayer'), even though the time for prayer arrived. If one prayed the Amida while violating one of these five, he is to pray the Amida again properly. These are they: purity of the hands [...]"
One must, therefore, see to the purification of his hands before praying the Amida, whether in the morning, afternoon, or at night -- any time one plans to pray the Amida. Even if it is the Amida of Musaf or if one is voluntarily praying the Amida, purification of the hands is required. Similarly, if one is only going to recite the Shema' and its blessings without praying the Amida afterwards, although it is not l-khathila to do so, he must still wash his hands - even if only for Qiryath Shema. The only difference is that the purification of the hands is not me'aqev with regard to Qiryath Shema. In other words, if one said Qiryath Shema without having washed his hands, he need not recite the Shema and its blessings all over again, as would be the case if he prayed the Amida without having purified his hands.
When water is so far away that the halakha does not require one to pursue the actual washing of hands with water, or if one is simply unable to get to the water for whatever reason, it is sufficient that one rub his hands with earth, pebbles, or the like, and pray. If one did so, he need not pray the Amida for that period of day again upon gaining access to water.
FACE AND FOOT WASHING:
Hil. Tefilla 4,3 states "[...] One washes his face, hands, and feet in morning and then prays. If he was distant from water, it is sufficient that he wipes his hands alone before prayer."
According to the Rambam, one is only obligated to wash his face and feet before the morning prayers. The Talmud does not mention for which prayers one must wash the face and feet. It simply states that every day one should wash his hands, face, and feet because of the verse that says "Prepare to approach Your G-d." That would be at least once a day. Due to the Talmud's ambiguity as to for which prayers this applies, or whether it applies to all prayers, some believe that the Rambam's reason for mentioning face and foot washing as obligatory only for the morning prayers is due to the principle of safeq d-Rabanan l-haqel (Where there is a doubt concerning something of Rabbinic origin, we are to go with the lenient opinion).
This does not mean that it is not proper to do so for the other prayers as well. Indeed, it was the opinion of the Geonim that one wash the feet before praying the Amida at any period of the day. In fact, the Rambam's own son writes in his book "Kitāb Kifāyah al-`Ābidīn" (Guide for the Servants [of G-d]) that although washing the feet before Minha and Arvith is not obligatory, we are obliged to do so. He was of the opinion that much of what Haz"al made obligatory in terms of prayer, they made obligatory as a minimum measure, so as to provide the multitude with insight into the principles of how to properly approach the Most High, but without overburdening the masses -- but not so as to hamper one who finds that going a bit beyond the minimal requirement strengthens his devotion to G-d.
The Rambam himself mentions in the 6th halakha of the same chapter the widespread custom among the Jews of Spain and the region of Iraq, that any healthy individual who had a seminal emission would wash his entire body in water before praying, even though such is not the obligatory halakha. The reason? "הִכּוֹן לִקְרַאת-אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל" "Prepare to approach your G-d, O Israel." (Amos 4,12)
Although, according to Mishneh Torah, there is no obligation to wash one's face or feet before Minha or Arvith, there is more than sufficient reason to believe that it is proper to do so. Considering that we prostrate and place our faces to the floor, it is reasonable to avoid walking around a place of prayer with shoes on. It is also proper, if not common decency, to make sure your feet aren't dirty when entering a place of prayer. Washing them removes filth. And if they are smelly, washing them can reduce the odor.
Likewise with washing one's face before prayer: Although, according to Mishneh Torah, it is mandatory that one wash his face only before the morning Amida, it is beneficial to do so before praying the Amida at any time of day. It is easy to get worn out after a hard day's work. One can grow tired or become sweaty by the end of the day. Splashing water in your face before the Minha or Arvith prayer freshens you up as well as wakes you up. And truly, is there a more fitting time of day to have optimal awareness as when standing in the presence of your Maker?
Although our Sages did not make face or foot washing, in and of themselves, manditory before Minha and Arvith, they did instruct that we must remove phlegm, mucus, or any other bothersome thing before praying (Hil. Tefilla 4,10). Phlegm is what's in one's throat. 'Sleep' is mucus, as is whatever may be in one's nose. Face washing is the most certain way to remove any 'sleep' from one's eyes. If there is anything in the nose, clean it out before prayer. If there is anything bothering you in your ears, remove it before you pray. If you need to relieve yourself, do so before you pray. If doing so means that you won't be able to pray with a minyan, so be it. The presence of distractions are one of the five things that keep a person from fulfilling his obligation to pray; praying with a minyan is not. These halakhoth are among the most neglected daily pertinent laws among the Jewish people. It is our duty to turn the tides and see to it that the Name of the Holy One of Israel is again sanctified in the midst of His People.
R' Yosef Eliyah
(The Laws of Blessings) Hilkhoth Berakhoth 6
(The Laws of Prayer) Hilkhoth Tefilla 4
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