Not hygiene but “spiritual purity”

Not hygiene but 'spiritual purity'

A man washes his hands © ElRoi (shutterstock)

Because of the coronavirus, there is currently a lot of talk about correct hand washing. Proper cleaning of hands is also a religious ie. A look at Jewish, Islamic and Christian practice.

In times of coronavirus, regular and thorough hand washing is considered the most important measure to contain the spread of the disease. That's why it's a hot topic again at the moment.

But it is not only from a hygienic point of view that it is worth taking a look at the correct technique for washing hands. It also has a high value in religion as a ritual act. There are, however, important differences between the individual denominations that need to be taken into account.

Hand washing in Judaism

In Judaism, washing hands originally had a ritual meaning, as Saxony's regional rabbi Zsolt Balla says. "This has been the case for 3.000 years topic in Judaism." For example, hands should be cleaned before prayers, religious services and other ritual acts, but also before eating.

"The morning starts with hand washing," Balla explains. "Some say you shouldn't walk two meters without washing your hands." Even those who eat bread should have cleaned themselves in this way beforehand. In addition, visitors to synagogues and cemeteries wash their hands in basins with the help of a special vessel.

Differentiating between rituals and hygiene

The Orthodox rabbi emphasizes that a distinction must be made between rituals and hygiene when washing hands. Because the latter is not the original background of the hand washing – here it goes actually around the aspect of the spiritual purity. The ritual of frequent hand washing, however, also has the "very practical side" of hygiene.

In this way, Jews could have protected themselves from serious diseases in the past. In the fourth book of Moses, he says, the Jews were instructed to protect their physical and mental health. Therefore, according to Balla, even in times of Corona crisis, it is a religious obligation to preserve one's health – that is, to use soap and disinfectant in addition to washing hands with water.

With sand if necessary

The Prophet Muhammad apparently took over the high value of purification from Judaism. In Islam, ritual washing is compulsory before the five daily obligatory prayers if the believer is in a state of ritual impurity.

The Koran prescribes as "small ablution", Arabic wudu, the cleaning of the hands, as well as the face, the head and the arms up to the elbows as well as the feet up to the ankles. The scholars even added further body parts such as mouth, nose and ears on the basis of many prophet traditions. Watering places or fountains thus became a central part of every mosque. In an emergency, however, the washing can also be done with sand.

Wudu eradicates the "minor" ritual impurity, which is caused, for example, by touching the skin of the opposite sex, by sleeping, or by performing one's emergency urination. In addition, the "great" impurity, for example after sexual intercourse, requires the "great ablution" of the whole body, called ghusl in Arabic. This rule contributed significantly to the widespread use of public baths in the Islamic world.

Washing hands in Christianity

In Christianity, on the other hand, hand washing has a special significance primarily only for the clergy. "In the early Middle Ages, the motif of cultic purity was emphasized anew, especially for the priest: he had to touch the body of Christ with clean hands," explains Bonn liturgical scholar Andreas Odenthal. In former times there had been therefore several hand washings, for example already before putting on the vestments and when entering the altar area.

Since the liturgical reform after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), however, only the washing after the offertory is provided for, which the priest accompanies with Psalm 51, verse 4: "Lord, wash away my iniquity; from my sins make me clean."

Hand washing more important for priests than for Christian believers

But why is hand washing less important for Christian believers than for priests?? "First of all, since the Middle Ages, it was no longer intended that the faithful touch the host themselves – this continues to this day in the disputes over hand and mouth communion," Odenthal says.

But the Bible also provides an explanation as to why hand washing has a lower priority in Christianity. "When Jesus was touched on his garment by a woman covered in blood, he thereby lost his ritual purity according to Jewish law," Odenthal explains. "Instead of turning away or wanting to wash, however, he established a relationship with the woman and healed her."

Odenthal sees this as a key scene for the Christian understanding of purity. "Jesus does not share the idea of cultic purity that was widespread at the time. What ultimately makes us Christians pure is therefore not ablution, but the celebration of the Eucharist."

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