Considering the Custom for Washing Hands on Shabbat and Holidays Before Kiddush
While a common practice amongst Jews is to wash one’s hands for a Shabbat or holiday meal is to do so following kiddush and prior to the blessing over the bread/hallah, there is another practice that is done. And that is to wash one’s hands first, followed by kiddush and then the blessing over the bread/hallah.
The first practice is described by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his well-known work, Set Table (OH 271.12):
אחר שקידש על כוס נוטל ידיו ומברך על נטילת ידים ואם נטל ידיו קודם קידוש גלי דעתיה דריפתא חביבא ליה לא יקדש על היין אלא על הפת
After one sanctifies (or, colloquially, one makes kiddush) upon a cup, one washes one’s hands and blesses “on raising of hands” (or, colloquially, one says the hand-washing blessing). And if one washes one’s hands before kiddush and one favors the bread, one should not make kiddush on the wine, rather just on the bread.
The second practice is described by Rabbi Moses Isserles in his gloss on the above text:
ויש אומרים דלכתחלה יש ליטול ידיו קודם הקידוש ולקדש על היין וכן המנהג פשוט במדינות אלו ואין לשנות רק בליל פסח כמו שיתבאר סימן תע”ג
And there are those who say that it is preferable from the outset to wash one’s hands prior to kiddush and to make kiddush on the wine. And such is the common custom in our lands and one should not change from doing this, except on the night of Passover, as will be explained in section 473.
This custom, that Rabbi Isserles mentions as having been done by Jews in Poland,1 seemed to be a pretty important one of identity for Polish Jews, as he says not to deviate from it. Interestingly, Rabbi Isserles makes only one exception – the night of the Passover <i>seder</i>, when the delay between making <i>kiddush</i> and breaking bread would be very long. Rabbi Isserles also feels very strongly about customs,2 and this custom does not seem to be any different.
Whenever I mention this practice to people, the first question is “Isn’t this interrupting between hand-washing and the blessing over the bread?” In answering, who says there’s a hard and fast rule against speaking between hand-washing and making the blessing over bread? In fact, when one reads elsewhere in Rabbi Karo’s Set Table, one finds the following (OH 166.1):
יש אומרים שאין צריך ליזהר מלהפסיק בין נטילה להמוציא ויש אומרים שצריך ליזהר וטוב ליזהר. ואם שהה כדי הילוך כ”ב אמה מקרי הפסק
There are those who say that one need not be careful from interrupting between raising [of the hands] (i.e. hands-washing) and the blessing over the bread. And there are those who say that one should be careful. And it’s good to be careful. And, if one waited enough time to walk 22 cubits, it is called an interruption.
Rabbi Caro presents two separate opinions about not interrupting between hands-washing and blessing over the bread: one that says one should be careful and one says there is no requirement to do so. It is important to note that he does not use the language of forbidding of interruptions or speech between these two activities. His comment about being careful not to interrupt is simply that it’s good to be careful – not that one is required to not interrupt.
Thus, when considering that interruptions are okay, making kiddush prior to saying the blessing over bread is not problematic.
1. Joseph Davis, “The Reception of the Shulhan Arukh and the Formation of Ashkenazic Jewish Identity,” AJS Review 26, no. 2 (2002), 265: “Isserles used ‘these lands’ to mean the lands of Poland. The ‘customs of these lands’ that Isserles codified in his notes to the Shulhan Arukh were the customs of the Polish Jews.”↩
2. Rabbi Asher Siev, “The Period, Life and Work or Rabbi Moses Isserles” (PhD diss., Yeshiva University, 1943), 65: “The elevation of the minhag to the level of Halacha may also be credited to R. Isserles, for it was he who upheld the Ashkenazic minhag against the Bet Yoseph and continually sought to explain and justify it.”↩