Thursday, September 14, 2006

Jewish continuity

"Some people have a custom of not talking after washing their hands, in order to preserve the continuity between handwashing and the blessing over the bread. So if someone doesn't talk to you, they're not being rude; they're just observing this custom."

A variation of the above was a standard part of the Shabbat dinner coordinator's speech each week at Hillel back in the day. Seared into the collective memory was a set of incidents before my time along the lines of:

Student 1: " netilat yadayim."
Student 2: "Hi, I'm Student 2, what's your name?"
Student 1: "..."
Student 2: "Well I never! You people are so RUDE! This is the last time you'll see me here."
Student 1: "..."

So this disclaimer was created in order to stem the tide of students being frightened away from Hillel. As a result, many people picked up the practice of "preserving the continuity", so that they could fit in and look like they knew what they were doing, even if they had no such "custom".

At Hillel and elsewhere, this has led to many conversations in a pidgin of pantomime and telepathy; for example, making frantic salt-shaker motions to communicate "Where's the salt?", or having an extended conversation like:

"Mmmmph. Mmm?"
"Mmm mmm? Mmmmm."
"Mm-mm, mmmmm."
"Mmmph mmmm mmmm."
"Ah. Mmmmm."
"Mm! Mmmm mmmm?"
"Mmmm, mmmph mmmm."
"Mmmmmm! Mmmm?"
"Mmmmmmmmm. Birshut..."

Which, of course, translates to:

"I think everyone's here - who wants to say hamotzi?"
"Wait, what about Plonit? I think she's still washing."
"I don't think she wants us to wait for her; we can go ahead."
"She might have gone to the bathroom; let's wait another minute."
"Oh look, she went over to that table. Never mind."
"Was someone sitting in this seat? Should we wait for them?"
"No, I don't think so, they were there for a second and then moved."
"Ok, let's say hamotzi. Who wants to do it?"
"Why don't you?"
"Okay, FINE, if no one else wants to. Birshut..."

One year around Purim, I made a fake event sign, advertising "Preserving the Continuity" by Marcel Marceau. (I never admitted to making that sign at the time. NOW THE TRUTH COMES OUT.)

Back to the present. EAR and I have started studying the Rambam's Hilchot Berachot (Laws of Blessings). It turns out that he addresses this issue in Hilchot Berachot 1:8. Here is my translation:

For all blessings, one should not interrupt with other things between the blessing and the thing over which one is blessing, and if you interrupt, you have to go back and bless again. But if you interrupt with things that are on the topic of the thing over which you are blessing, you don't have to bless again.

How? For example, you blessed over the bread, and before you ate, you said "Bring the salt" or "Bring the cooked dish" or "Give Ploni something to eat" or "Feed the animal" or something like that, you don't have to bless again. And likewise for any similar cases.

So there you have it; these silly conversations happened in the Rambam's time too, and he says that you can just say these things out loud rather than playing charades. Take that with a grain of salt (as it were), but now you have something to rely on.


  1. for one of the more original bar mitzva speeches I've heard, the bar mitzva boy gave an overview of halachot and customs about shabbos lunch (timely indeed), including the necessary-talk-before-hamotzi point.

    I think he enlightened a lot of people that morning.

    but people at my hillel still look surprised when I say "salt please"

  2. "Some people have a custom of not talking after washing their hands, in order to preserve the continuity between handwashing and the blessing over the bread."

    They used to say this at the Hillel that I went to in college, but some of the more traditional students objected that not talking between washing and hamotzi was not a "custom" but halakhah. Thereafter, the announcement was "Some people have the practice..."

  3. I remember people making that objection, but I thought it was about referring to washing as a "custom" (rather than halacha); I didn't realize that it also applied to not talking.

  4. every so often i give/gave a slightly longer version of the spiel.

    "right, so many people find meaning in the practice of refraining from speaking after they wash their hands and before they engage in the motzei process. Generally speaking when people fail to conform to generally accepted social patters we call the behavior rude. technically speaking the behavior is rude, but be kind to our rude friends, we are searching for meaning in a special moment."

  5. Just to clarify: Rambam here (and the Shulhan Arukh quoting him) does not permit talking between the blessing and the eating of the bread, even if it is about the food. Rather, it is a post-facto ruling--one need not remake the blessing, so long as it is relevant to the issue at hand.

    This is different from the actual permission to speak in between washing hands and eating bread, which is indeed an ab initio permission.

  6. the rambam and anonymous have thoroughly confused me. what are the relevant sources about speaking between the *act of netilat yadaim* and the *bracha of hamotzi*?

    (assuming: brachot of kiddush->drinking the yayin->bracha of netilat yadaim->act of netilat yadaim->bracha of hamotsi->act of hamotsi)

    What I've always heard (sorry no references) is that since netilat yadaim is dependent on eating bread, there should be no "hefsek hadaat" (wavering of attention) between the two linked acts. However, to discuss questions directly related to the eating of bread, or the blessing or salting thereof, would not constitute a hefsek hadaat, because your attention is still tied to the act.