WASHING THE HANDS AFTER A FUNERAL
(Asked by Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Forest Hills, New York.)
THE SPECIFIC QUESTION asked was about washing the hands before entering the house after returning from the funeral. This custom has no foundation at all in the law. It is brushed aside by as important an authority as the Gaon Paltai. His opinion is cited by Isaac Ibn Gayyat in his Shaare Simcha in the laws of mourning (ed. Fuerth, 1861, p. 42). The Gaon was asked about the custom of washing the hands before entering the house after a funeral. He answered: “They do not need to do so, but if they have developed a custom to do so, it does not matter much.” This opinion is echoed by Israel Kremsier (14- 15th cent.) in his Notes to Asher ben Jehiel (at the end of Mo’ed Katan, sec. 86). He says that it is not necessary to wash the hands on returning from the cemetery, but if the people have become accustomed to do so, there is no harm in it.
There is, however, another washing of the hands which all authorities accept and approve. It is part of a three-part (or four-part) ceremony at the cemetery. After the burial the departing mourners pluck grass and earth, throw it over their shoulders, and then wash their hands. This throwing of grass or earth back over the shoulders suggests immediately the folkloristic basis of the custom—the attempt to repel or evade the various spirits (ruchos) that hover in the cemetery. Joseph Caro mentions this custom in Yore Deah 376:4. The Be’er Hetev (Judah Ashkenazi of Tiktin, first half of 18th cent.) cites the Ramban to the effect that all this is for the purpose of cleansing oneself of the tuma of the cemetery. He says that this tuma is so intense that it needs the three methods of cleansing, namely, water, dust (symbol of the ashes of the Red Heifer), and hyssop (symbolized by the grass). There is also a folkloristic reason for an additional custom on leaving the cemetery. In some countries the people sit down seven times (in other countries, three times) on going away from the grave, so that the spirits (ruchos) will give up following them.
An ethical meaning was given for the hand washing at the cemetery by Joseph Schwartz in his Hadras Kodesh (in the section “Likkute Dinim,” p. 44, # 103). He connects it with the hand washing which the Biblical law (Deuteronomy 21:8) requires of the elders of a city when a corpse is found on the road near their city. The elders perform this ceremony of hand washing to proclaim their innocence of this death. So do we (says Schwartz) wash our hands after the burial to proclaim our innocence of any neglect of the deceased during his illness. This explanation, that the washing of the hands at the cemetery is a declaration of our innocence, is found as early as the thirteenth century. It is given in Shibbole Ha-Leket (Zedekiah the Physician, 13th cent.) in the laws of mourning.
So the hand washing at the cemetery is properly (and traditionally) a part of the multiple observance after the burial, namely, dust, grass, sitting down three or seven times, and washing the hands. Evidently, then, this washing of the hands at the cemetery was transferred by some, perhaps for mere convenience, from the cemetery to the door of the house, where water would always be available. This later custom, though not forbidden, is deprecated by legal authorities. It is definitely not a requirement of the law. It is only an extension of the cemetery custom of washing, which itself is based upon folk apprehensions.