By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
There exists a lesser known obligation to wash one’s hands prior to eating foods that are dipped into certain liquids or otherwise eaten while wet. This halacha is widely observed at the Pesach Seder where we wash our hands without reciting a blessing before dipping the ‘karpas’ into salt water. It follows, therefore, that should one enjoy dipping cake into one’s coffee, or cookies into milk, netillat yadayim may be required. No blessing is ever recited over this washing, however.
There are seven liquids that are subject to the requirement to wash one’s hands should one desire to dip any food into them. These seven liquids include: wine, honey, olive oil, milk, dew, blood, and water. The common denominator between these seven liquids is that they are all liquids that render food susceptible to tuma, spiritual uncleanliness. Washing our hands, which is in effect purifying them, eliminates this concern. The procedure for this washing is the same as the washing done before eating bread. One pours water out of a vessel onto each hand two or three times, depending on one’s custom.
The requirement to wash one’s hands remains in effect even if one does not intend to wet one’s fingers in the process of dipping. Nevertheless, if it is an item that is never completely immersed when dipping, or there is an incentive that helps ensure that one will not to get one’s fingers wet (i.e. the liquid is too hot) then there are grounds to forgo the handwashing. Similarly, if one is dipping only a tiny food particle in a liquid, then the washing may be omitted if it will prove too inconvenient.
There would be no requirement to wash one’s hands for food dipped into liquid if it is a food that virtually no one else would ever consider eating in this way. There is also no need to wash one’s hands if one is only dipping one’s finger into a liquid. If one is dipping with a fork or other utensil however, washing is not required. Nevertheless, one would be required to wash one’s hands prior to eating a food that is normally dipped before eating even if one is now using a fork, or other utensil to eat the food. Fruits that one washes before eating must be fully dry before actually eating them or a handwashing will be required.
Those who conduct themselves leniently and do not wash before eating wet food or dipping foods into liquid have authorities upon whom to rely. Nevertheless, those who are meticulous in their performance of mitzvot will be sure to wash their hands before eating wet foods. In any event, keeping one’s hands clean is always a good thing, especially when one will be putting them into one’s mouth!