One of the few practices that every Jew performs is the ritual washing of hands upon leaving a cemetery (Shulhan Arukh, YD 276:4). The rinsing is meant to spiritually cleanse one’s hands from the ritual impurity of a place of the dead. This is done by pouring water from a cup on each hand three times, alternating from hand to hand at each pour. This practice likely dates from Biblical times when Jews needed to be careful about ritual purity, as they may have needed to enter the Temple or to eat consecrated foods. Why, however, are we so careful with this today, in post-Temple times?
The answer may lie in this week’s Parashah and in a custom of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews. The Torah addresses the case of a dead person found beyond the city limits. With no clearly culpable party, the city in closest proximity to the deceased must declare that they bear no measure of responsibility. The elders of the city are therefore called upon to perform the ‘Egla Arufah’ ritual, wherein they offer a sacrifice, wash their hands, and proclaim that their hands are clean (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). According to the Mishna the elders are saying “he did not come to us and we dismissed him without supplying him with food and we did not see him and let him go without escort (Sotah 9:6).”
The benediction that they recited is familiar to the Western Sephardim, because it is also recited when they wash their hands upon leaving a cemetery. “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” This recitation at a funeral dates back at least four centuries. It is recorded in Ma’abor Yabok, a work on Jewish mourning published in 1626 Mantua, Italy, by Aaron Berachiah ben Moses of Modena (Siftei Rinanot 19). Indeed, a plaque with these Biblical words appears above the washing station at the London S&P cemetery in Edgewarebury.
The text ‘Our hands have not shed this blood’ makes a lot of sense in the context of the ‘Egla Arufah.’ However, its usage at the funeral of a loved one seems out of place. Of course we haven’t shed any blood! So why do we exclaim this?
The death of a loved one is an emotional time. Not only do we grapple with the loss of someone who we cared deeply about, but we sometimes also question whether we did enough for them. In fact, it often goes further: the child of an elderly parent, for example, may carry guilt. Should they have noticed a condition earlier? Should they have advocated more strongly on their parent’s behalf? These questions can leave a person consumed with regret.
The truth is though, that these feelings are usually unwarranted. Whilst people wish they could have done more, they usually couldn’t have done anything more than they did. It is for this reason that at every funeral or visit to a cemetery we, like the elders of a city, are called upon to declare “’Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” When we wash our hands at a Spanish & Portuguese funeral we are figuratively washing our hands of misplaced responsibility. In this way we begin the healing process.
Now, instead of becoming preoccupied with remorse, we can reflect on our loss and what our loved one meant to us. Instead of dwelling on what we could have done, we can begin to think about what we can do. Whilst we will always miss those who are gone, we can now work to ensure that the lessons of our loved ones continue to live on in our families, values and choices.