An excerpt from Secrets of the Last Waters (Mayim Achronim Chova).
Within the vastness of Torah literature and halakhah, there is a little-known Jewish law called mayim achronim (מים אחרונים). It is commonly translated as “last waters”, though as with any Hebrew term its true meaning is difficult to capture in another language. At one point or another you have likely seen the small vessel of water passed around the dinner table before birkat hamazon—the blessing recited after a meal—from which a tiny amount of water is poured over the fingertips of each hand. This simple procedure is known as mayim achronim.
That very simplicity is misleading, and may suggest that mayim achronim is an insignificant ritual. Perhaps this is the reason why many Jews tend to overlook it. Yet, probing into Jewish writings both ancient and modern will reveal that mayim achronim carries tremendous importance—so much so that it was said to trump netilat yadaim (the washing of the hands before the meal), and in times past, some of our Sages even recited a special blessing for this act.
This book presents a brief exploration of mayim achronim. It begins with a journey through a number of Jewish texts, ranging from the Talmud to the Zohar, which reveal the great significance of mayim achronim, before offering a brief overview of various laws and customs of the practice, and ending with a final thought regarding the long-awaited redemption. To borrow from the living words of our Sages:
מים אחרונים חובה
Mayim Achronim is Mandatory!
Chapter 1 – The Mystery of Sodomite Salt
ארבעה דברים פטרו במחנה מביאין עצים מכל מקום ופטורין מרחיצת ידים ומדמאי ומלערב
Four things were given exemptions in a [military] camp: they can bring wood from any place, and they are exempt from washing of the hands, and from demai, and from making an eruv.
– Talmud, Eruvin 17a
ופטורין מרחיצת ידים אמר אביי לא שנו אלא מים ראשונים אבל מים אחרונים חובה אמר רב חייא בר אשי מפני מה אמרו מים אחרונים חובה מפני שמלח סדומית יש שמסמא את העינים
“…and they are exempt from washing of the hands”—said Abaye: this refers to mayim rishonim but mayim achronim is mandatory. Said Rav Chiya bar Ashi: why did they say “mayim achronim is mandatory”? Because there is Sodomite salt which damages the eyes.
– Talmud, Eruvin 17b
We begin with a passage from the Talmud which discusses exemptions granted to an army. Understandably, keeping Torah law is far more difficult in the midst of war, so our Sages allowed four small exemptions. One of these is the ritual washing of the hands. The Talmud concludes that this exemption refers only to mayim rishonim, the “first waters”, more commonly referred to as netilat yadaim (washing before the meal). However, mayim achronim (washing after the meal) is an obligation—even to an army preoccupied with war!
Why is mayim achronim so significant that it supersedes netilat yadaim? The Talmud explains that it is due to something called melach sdomit, “Sodomite salt”, which can hurt the eyes. The simplest explanation is that after a person has finished eating they may have residues of salt on their fingertips, and if they were to rub their eyes the salt may damage them. Having said that, everything our Sages stated down to the very letters carries a great deal of depth, and requires further analysis. The first of many questions to ask is: what is Sodomite salt?
The Biblical city of Sodom, as first described in the Book of Genesis, was located near the Dead Sea. Due to this body of water’s incredibly high concentration of salts, the Dead Sea gives rise to salt deposits along its banks. In ancient times (and continuing to this day), the Dead Sea was a major source of salt compounds for people living in the Middle East and beyond. Because of Sodom’s proximity to the Dead Sea, the city was actively engaged in the salt trade, hence the emergence of “Sodomite salt”.
Throughout history, salt was among the most prized commodities. In the time before refrigerators and artificial chemicals, salt was the major food preservative. When few gourmet delights were available, salt was the primary flavouring agent. It was also used in medicinal compounds, cleaning and hygienic products, and even as a weapon of war (to “salt” the earth of the enemy and damage its land).1 Salt was so important that it was often used as currency. In fact, the root of the word “salary” is the Latin sal, meaning salt! It is similarly believed to be the root of “soldier”, from the Latin sal dare—to give salt—as the Roman army was known to pay its soldiers with portions of salt.2
In the territories around Israel, much of the salt comes from the Dead Sea. Since salt was such a valuable commodity—at times worth its weight in gold!—those controlling the salt trade would have been incredibly rich. It is easy to see why the Torah describes the area of Sodom, near the Dead Sea, to be the richest in the land, and where Lot chooses to settle when he separates from his uncle Abraham (Genesis 13:10-13). Sodom was a major centre of the ancient Near Eastern salt trade. But why do the Sages state that it is particularly Sodomite salt that can hurt the eyes, and not another variety?3
More perplexingly, why do the Sages even call it “Sodomite salt”? In their time, Sodom would have been destroyed and in ruins for roughly two thousand years. We can rest assured that none of the Sages of the Talmud ever met a Sodomite, let alone purchased salt from one. If they were referring to salt from the Dead Sea, it would have been far more appropriate to call it “Dead Sea salt” (as it is known today). Besides, the Talmudic passage quoted above was composed in the region of Babylon (Bavel), in modern-day Iraq. It is highly improbable that the average Jew imported salt all the way from the Dead Sea for his dinner table; there were undoubtedly more locally-derived, and far cheaper, salts available. Nor does it make sense that thousands of common foot soldiers on a distant battlefield (who, as we saw, are never exempt from mayim achronim) would be treated to expensive, imported Dead Sea salts!
It appears that when our Sages refer to Sodomite salt, they are not necessarily describing a substance physically tied to the geographical region of Sodom. Rather, the Sages—as they often do—may be referring to a spiritual connection. What is the spiritual significance of Sodomite salt?
Chapter 2 – In the Garden of Eden
אמר רב אידי בר אבין אמר רב יצחק בר אשיין מים ראשונים מצוה ואחרונים חובה… ראשונים נוטלין בין בכלי בין על גבי קרקע אחרונים אין נוטלין אלא בכלי… מים ראשונים נוטלין בין בחמין בין בצונן אחרונים אין נוטלין אלא בצונן מפני שחמין מפעפעין את הידים ואין מעבירין את הזוהמא
Said Rav Iddi bar Avin in the name of Rav Yitzchak bar Ashyan: mayim rishonim is a mitzvah, and mayim achronim is mandatory… rishonim can be washed into a vessel or over the ground, but achronim only into a vessel… rishonim can be washed in warm or cold water, but achronim only in cold because warm water softens the hands, and fails to remove the zuhama.
– Talmud, Chulin 105a
The Talmudic passage above begins by reaffirming that mayim achronim is obligatory. It goes on to describe the differences between netilat yadaim and mayim achronim, most notably that the latter must be done specifically with cold water because otherwise the zuhama is not removed.
“Zuhama” is another term that is challenging to define. Generally, it is used in reference to some kind of uncleanliness or impurity. It is sometimes used to refer to plain, physical dirt. However, this could not be the meaning in the passage above, considering that regular dirt can certainly be washed away with warm water just as well as with cold water, if not better! Another Talmudic passage (Avodah Zarah 22b) suggests that zuhama refers to a spiritual impurity:
א״ר יוחנן בשעה שבא נחש על חוה הטיל בה זוהמא אי הכי ישראל נמי ישראל שעמדו על הר סיני פסקה והמתן עובדי כוכבים שלא עמדו על הר סיני לא פסקה זוהמתן
Rabbi Yochanan said: when the Nachash came upon Eve, he infused her with a zuhama. If so, the same should apply to all of Israel! However, when Israel stood at Mount Sinai [the zuhama] was eliminated. Idolaters, who did not stand at Mount Sinai, their zuhama was not eliminated.
Rabbi Yochanan teaches that when the Serpent4 convinced Eve to eat of the “forbidden fruit”, he infused her with a certain impurity (zuhama) that carried over to all future generations of mankind. The divine revelation at Mount Sinai removed this impurity from Israel. Clearly, the zuhama is not a physical stain, but a spiritual one.
The Talmud tells us that mayim achronim washes away the zuhama, a spiritual impurity, regardless of whether our hands are physically dirty from the meal or not. (Indeed, we shall later see how the halakhah dictates that one must wash mayim achronim even if their hands are not physically dirty.) We can now understand why mayim achronim must be spilled into a vessel and carefully removed—in contrast with mayim rishonim which may be poured onto the ground—since we do not wish to have any impure energy remain in our midst. The Talmud notes this explicitly, and goes even further in saying that not only is there a spiritual impurity, but also an “evil spirit” over these waters (Chulin 105b):
אמר אביי מריש הוה אמינא האי דלא משו מיא בתראי על ארעא משום זוהמא אמר לי מר משום דשריא רוח רעה עלייהו
Said Abaye: At first I believed that the reason [mayim achronim] may not be poured over the ground was because of zuhama. My master has told me it is because an evil spirit [ruach ra’ah] rests upon it.
What exactly is the nature of this “evil spirit” and from where does it come? What is its connection to zuhama? And possibly the biggest question of all: why are these forces found particularly at the fingertips, where we wash mayim achronim?
The answer to these questions is found in the Zohar (II, 208b), the central text of Jewish mystical teachings. There it is explained:
בגין דהא כד חב אדם אתעדי מניה ההוא לבושא יקירא דאתלבש ביה בקדמיתא כד אעיל ליה בגנתא דעדן… ואינון לבושין דאקרון לבושי טופרא… כיון דחב ואתעדו מניה אינון לבושין דחיל ממלין בישין ורוחין בישין ואסתלקו מניה אינון משריין קדישין ולא אשתארו ביה אלא אינון ראשי טופרי דאצבעאן דסחרין לון לטופרין סחרנו דזוהמא אחרא
When Adam had sinned, that precious garment that he was originally dressed with in the Garden of Eden was removed from him… and this garment was called “Garment of Nails”… When he sinned and that garment was removed, he feared the evil forces and spirits, since the holy spirits [that protected him] had left, leaving nothing but the nails of the fingers, which are surrounded by the zuhama of the Other.
This intriguing passage from the Zohar explains that in the Garden of Eden, man was surrounded by holiness and protected from all evil. The Zohar metaphorically describes this protection as a garment of fingernails: instead of fragile skin, man was covered in tough, shiny nails that reflect God’s divine light. After consuming the Fruit the holy spirits had disappeared, and man was now susceptible to the forces of evil. The “garment of fingernails” was gone, except for a tiny souvenir at the back of the fingertips. Now, the fingernails functioned primarily as a reminder of a perfect world that was lost. And it is here specifically that the zuhama is most concentrated, the place that is symbolic of man’s descent into a world of impurity and death.
The idea that the fingernails house an element of impurity is not just found in a select passage of the Zohar. Across Jewish texts, the fingernails are described as being surrounded by such forces (commonly referred to as כוחות הטומאה—kochot hatumah). This is one reason why halakhah dictates that we must wash our hands immediately upon rising in the morning (before touching any part of our body), and that we are supposed to completely dispose of nail clippings after we cut our fingernails, making sure not to leave any lying around.5
Interestingly, that same page of the Zohar quoted above discusses the havdallah ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath. One of the famous practices during the ceremony is to watch the reflection of the candle flame on one’s fingernails. This is meant to be a reminder of the first fire that was lit by Adam at the conclusion of his first Shabbat.6 We watch the light reflecting off of our fingernails to remind us of a time when we were in a perfect world, our bodies composed of a “garment of fingernails” that reflected God’s divine light. It is also meant to instill in us, at the start of the new week, to remember that all of the work ahead—symbolized by the hands—should be done with a sense of divine light, with positive intentions and righteousness.
The Zohar passage above concludes by stating that the zuhama comes from the “Other”, referring to a mystical concept called sitra achra—the “Other Side”. This, too, is intricately tied to mayim achronim, as explained by the great kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal.