The Mitzvah of Mayim Achronim-Obligation & Custom

The Mitzvah:[1]

The obligation: [It is an obligation to wash Mayim Achronim.[2]] The Sages instituted the washing of hands at the end of a meal of bread in order so one recites Birchas Hamazon in purity [i.e. Kedusha] and cleanses his hands from the leftover food. This obligation applies whether one is reciting the Birchas Hamazon himself, or is being Yotzei with the recital of another.[3] [One who does not do so is tantamount to committing murder.[4] Not being careful in this Mitzvah can shorten one’s life Ch”v.[5]]

The custom and practical directive: Nonetheless, some are no longer accustomed to perform Mayim Achronim being that the reasons for the institution no longer apply.[6] Practically, it is proper for every man to be careful to perform Mayim Achronim [even if he ate with a fork and did not touch any food or salt during the meal[7]].[8] This especially applies if he is a pampered person who is accustomed to always wash his hands after a meal, in which case he must do so.[9] [This especially applies according to Kabala which holds that the obligation of Mayim Achronim for all people applies even today.[10] Nonetheless, those who do not do so have upon whom to rely, although Chas Veshalom to belittle those who follow the custom to do so.[11]]


The reasons for Mayim Achronim:[12]

There are three reasons recorded behind the Rabbinical institution of Mayim Achronim:

1)      Kedusha:[13] It is a Mitzvah due to Kedusha to sanctify oneself prior to blessing Hashem for one’s food, as after eating, the hands are dirty [i.e. Mezuhamos] from the food and are invalid for reciting a blessing. 

2)      Sodomite salt danger of blindness:[14] In addition, the Sages made this an obligation because sodomite salt, and all salt of this property, can blind the eyes if they come in contact with the salt. Now, since Chazal[15] directed that one is to eat salt after each meal, they suspected that perhaps one will eat the sodomite property salt, and then touch his eyes and become blind. Thus, they instituted that everyone is to wash their hands at the end of a meal, even if they are being Yotzei Birchas Hamazon with another.

3)      Prevent murder:[16] The Talmud[17] records a story in which a woman was killed as a result of not performing Mayim Achronim. From that point and onwards the Sages made it an obligation.

4)      Evil spirits:[18] Upon eating, there are evil forces, known as Kelipos, which seek to receive sustenance from the food one eats. Upon washing the hands, one gives the Kelipos their due sustenance and they leave the person be. If one does not wash their hands, the Kelipos will embellish upon the person and try to cause him to sin. [It is for this reason that we recite “Zeh Cheilek Adam Rasha Meilokim” prior to washing. See Halacha 6!]


Practical ramifications:

The practical ramifications of these reasons is regarding:

1.       Must one who plans on being Yotzei with another must wash [1st reason-no, 2nd and 3rd reason-yes[19]]

2.       Should a blessing ideally be said [1st reason-yes, 2nd and 3rd reason-no[20]]

3.       Should it be done even if one did not eat any salt. [1st, 3rd and 4th reason-yes, 2nd reason-no[21]]

4.       Should it be done if one ate with a fork. [1st, 2nd reason-no, 3rd and 4th reason-yes[22]]

5.       Should it be done after touching salt even outside of a meal? [1st, 2nd and 3rd reason-no, 2nd reason-yes[23]]


Are women to perform Mayim Achronim? 

There is no difference mentioned in Halacha between men and women regarding this obligation, and just as men are obligated to perform Mayim Achronim, so too women.[24] Nevertheless, the widespread custom today amongst women is to no longer be particular in performing Mayim Achronim.[25] Some Poskim[26] justify this custom.[27] Other Poskim[28], however, negate the custom and rule woman are to be careful in this matter just like men. [Practically, each family and community are to follow their custom, and each have upon whom to rely. Regarding the Chabad custom, while there is no known written testimony from the Rabbeim on this matter, the widespread custom amongst women of Anash is not to wash Mayim Achronim.[29]]

What is one to do if there is no water available?[30] One is required to search for water up to a Mil’s distance from his location [i.e. 18/24 minutes] to perform Mayim Achronim. If water is not available for this distance, then one is to wipe his hands on earth or a rock, or anything else that cleans. If he later reaches water after Birchas Hamazon, he is to wash his hands, as explained next.


If one forgot to perform Mayim Achronim before Birchas Hamazon, is it to be performed afterwards?[31]

Yes. He is to perform Mayim Achronim after Birchas Hamazon.


Must one wash his hands after touching salt?[32]

Some Poskim[33] rule that one is to wash his hands after touching salt.[34] Practically, the worldly custom is not to be particular in this matter.[35]

If one’s hands are dirty, must he wash his hands prior to saying a blessing?

Some Poskim[36] rule that one whose hands are dirty [with food, oil or other substance], is obligated to wash his hands prior to saying any blessing, as the law of Mayim Achronim is not limited specifically to Birchas Hamazon. Thus, if in middle of a meal one desires to drink wine or eat a fruit, he is to first wash his hands if they are dirty.[37] Likewise, prior to saying Borei Nefashos or Al Hamichya one is to wash his hands if they are dirty.[38] However, according to those who rule that one is no longer required today to perform Mayim Achronim, there is likewise no requirement to wash dirty hands prior to a blessing, unless one’s is particular to always wash his hands.[39] Practically, if one hands are dirty to the point that one would normally be particular to wash them, then they are to be cleaned prior to reciting a blessing.[40] One may clean them with a towel, or water.[41] If, however, they are not dirty to that point, one is not required to wash them before saying a blessing.[42]



[1] Admur 181:1; Michaber 181:1; Brachos 53b; Chulin 105a; Ketzos Hashulchan 43:1

Background: The Mitzvah of Mayim Achronim is a Mitzvah of holiness, to sanctify oneself to bless Hashem over the food he ate. The reason this sanctity is needed is because prior to the washing the hands are dirty with the filth of the foods that were eaten, and they are hence invalid for saying the blessing. [Admur 181:1; Rabbeinu Yona 40a; Maadanei Yom Tov on Rosh ibid Taf; Brachos 53b] An additional reason behind the obligation of washing hands is due to the Sodomite salt that rests on the hands after a meal, and the sodomite salt can blind a person if it touches his eyes. The Sages thus obligated that one wash his hands after a meal. [Admur ibid; Rabbeinu Yona ibid; Chulin 105a]

[2] Michaber 181:1

[3] Admur ibid; Michaber ibid

The reason: This is due to the 2nd reason behind Mayim Achronim, as perhaps they touched salt and will get it into their eyes. [Admur ibid]

[4] Tanchuma Balak 15; See Yuma 83a

[5] Kav Hayashar 41; See Rebbe in Sichas Shavuos 5745 that a certain well known orthodox leader that year made fun of the Mitzvah of Mayim Achronim and those who still do it, and Hashem caused destruction in his family, simialr to the destruction described in Yuma ibid

[6] Custom in Admur 181:9; Michaber 181:10; M”A 181:8; Darkei Moshe 181 that so is Minhag Ashkenaz; Tosafus Brachos 53b, Chulin 105a; Rosh Brachos 8; Mordechai Remez 207

The reason: As the sodomite salt is no longer found amongst us and we are no longer accustomed to be particular on the dirtiness of the hands after a meal to wash it off. It is thus not considered dirty at all. [Admur ibid; Poskim ibid]

[7] Implication of Admur ibid; Ketzos Hashulchan 43 footnote 11

[8] Admur 181:9; M”A 181:10 in name of Mekubalim; Rashal Chulin 8:10; Zohar 2:154; Shaar Hamitzvos Parshas Eikev; Kitzur SHU”A 44:1; See Kaf Hachaim 181:27; Piskeiy Teshuvos 181:1

[9] Admur 181:9; Michaber 181:10

[10] Kaf Hachaim 181:1

[11] See Sichas Shavuos 5745 “There are whole and G-d fearing Jews who do not perform Mayim Achronim due to the reasons brought above. However, to make a joke of those who do perform it, no one has ever thought of doing so. This is such great Chutzpa to make fun of matters of Kedusha. Even the Yevesektzi in communist Russia did not do so, and not even the Natzim Yemach Shemam.”

[12] See Kaf Hachaim 181:1

[13] 1st reason in Admur 181:1; Michaber 181:1; Brachos 53b; Rabbeinu Yona Brachos 40a; Rosh Brachos 8:6; Madanei Yom Tov on Rosh ibid

[14] 2nd reason in Admur ibid; Michaber 181:1; Chulin 105a; Rabbeinu Yona Brachos 40a; Rosh Brachos 8:6; Rambam Brachos 6:3

[15] Brachos 40a

[16] Brought in Rif and Tanchuma Balak 15 as the reason for Mayim Achronim

[17] Yuma 83a; Chulin 106a

[18] Zohar Teruma 2:154; Shaar Hamitzvos Parshas Eikev; Kaf Hachaim 181:1; See Admur 181:2 “Due to the evil spirit which rests on the waters”

[19] Admur ibid

[20] Admur ibid

[21] See Admur 181:9

[22] See Mor Uketzia 181

[23] See Q&A below

[24] Toras Chaim Sofer 181:1; Salmei Chaim [Rav Chaim Zonenfeld] 119 “Without doubt [women are obligated]”; Rav SZ”A, brought in Vezos Habracha 14 and Halichos Bas Yisrael 3; Halichos Olam 2 Parshas Shelach; Halacha Berura 181; Sheivet Haleivi 4:23 that from the letter of the law there is no difference; See Mor Uketzia 181; Aruch Hashulchan 181:5 “One is to warn all his household to perform Mayim Achronim”

The reason: There is also no logic to differentiate between the genders, as the reasons behind the institution of Mayim Achronim apply equally to men and women, so they have clean and pure hands upon reciting Birchas Hamazon. [Salmas Chaim ibid]

[25] So testifies: Mor Uketzia ibid that our women are not particular to do so as they eat with a fork and do not touch food during the meal; Hagahos Tahras Hashulchan 181 questions why women do not do so

[26] Mor Uketzia ibid; Shevet Halevi 4:23; Piskeiy Teshuvos 181:1

[27] The reason: The reason for this is because we find that even by men, many are no longer accustomed to performing Mayim Achronim, as one of its main reasons of performance is to cleanse the hands of the Sodomite salt, and this salt is no longer common today. Likewise, we are no longer particular to wash hands after touching foods, and hence the hands are no longer considered dirty. [Admur 181:9; M”A 181:8; Michaber 181:10; Darkei Moshe 181 that so is Minhag Ashkenaz; Tosafus Brachos 53b, Chulin 105a; Rosh Brachos 8; Mordechai Remez 207] Accordingly, although the widespread custom amongst men is to be stringent despite the above justifications, most women never accepted this stringency upon themselves and hence are not accustomed to perform Mayim Achronim. [Sheivet Halevi ibid] Alternatively, the reason is because women eat with forks and do not get their hands dirty during the meal. [Mur Uketzia ibid] Alternatively, women are constantly in the kitchen during the meal, and end up washing hands regardless. [Heard from Rav Groner]; See Rashi Yuma 83b that a certain man’s wife was killed as a result of him not doing Mayim Achronim. Rav SZ”A suggests that perhaps due to this story women abstain from performing Mayim Achronim

[28] All Poskim in previous footnotes regarding the letter of the law

[29] Related to me by Rabbi Leibal Groner and Rabbi Eliyah Landa that women in Chabad are not accustomed to wash, and there is no need to do so.

[30] M”B 181:2; Kaf Hachaim 181:7

[31] Chesed Lealafim 181:8; Ben Ish Chaiy Shlach 11; Kaf Hachaim 181:26

[32] See Piskeiy Teshuvos 181:3

[33] Chulin 105b; Ben Ish Chaiy Shlach 13; Kaf Hachaim 181:2

[34] The reason: As we suspect that perhaps one has touched the Sodomite salt and will place his fingers by his eyes, causing him to become blind. [ibid]

[35] Setimas Haposkim, Tur and Michaber who all omit the Talmudic statement; Yalkut Yosef 181:21 in name of Poskim; Piskeiy Teshuvos 181:3

The reason: As there is no more Sodomite salt found [Tosafus ibid; Admur ibid], and the main reason we wash is for the sake of the blessing and due to Kabala. [Piskeiy Teshuvos ibid]

[36] M”A 181:9; Sefer Chassidim 58 and 853; Zechor Leavraham Mem; P”M 181 A.A. 9 [Is obligation by all blessings]; Kaf Hachaim 158:53; 181:29; Piskeiy Teshuvos 181:2; See Zohar Balak “One who says a blessing with dirty hands is liable for death”

[37] M”A ibid; Sefer Chassidim ibid

[38] P”M ibid; Shaar Hatziyon 181:32; See Binyan Shlomo 1:11

[39] See Admur 181:9 and M”B 181:23

[40] Admur ibid regarding an Istinis saying a blessing on wine during meal; M”B ibid

[41] Implication of Admur ibid and M”B ibid who write Kinuach; Piskeiy Teshuvos ibid

[42] Implication of Admur ibid

Ruling of Admur: From Admur 181:1 and 9 it is implied that washing the hand is not necessary prior to a regular blessing even if in general one is particular to perform Mayim Achronim [Admur ibid constantly writes the term “Birchas Hamazon” when discussing the obligation of Mayim Achronim, hence implying that by other blessings there is no prohibition to recite them with dirty hands] Furthermore, Admur 181:9 limits the ruling of the M”A and Sefer Chassidim ibid specifically to a case of an Istinis.

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