The Soiled Face


And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: “Make a basin of copper, and its stand of copper, for washing, and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar…. And Aaron and his sons should wash their hands and feet from it, when they enter the Tent of Meeting… or when they approach the altar to serve…”

Exodus 30:17-20

Every morning, a person should wash his face, hands and feet before praying

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 4:1

Since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem more than nineteen hundred years ago, G-d does not commune with man in a “Tent of Meeting,” nor do kohanim offer sacrifices to Him upon the altar. Yet the Holy Temple and the service performed therein remain, to this very day, the vehicle for our relationship with G-d; it is only that today they exist in a more spiritual form. In the words of our sages: “The daily prayers were instituted in place of the daily offerings”[1]; “A person’s table is comparable to the altar”[2]; “From the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, G-d has only the four cubits of Halachah (i.e., the places where Torah law is studied) in His world.”[3] Thus, many of the laws which govern our lives today derive from the laws of the Temple and its service: the designated times for prayer are the times in which the daily offerings were brought in the Temple; at the table, we dip our bread in salt because the salt was part of every offering placed upon the altar; and so on.

Before a kohen could perform a service in the Holy Temple or enter the Sanctuary, he first had to purify and sanctify himself by washing his hands and feet from a washstand especially constructed for that purpose. For although the Torah instructs to “know G-d in all your ways”[4] and that “all your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven,”[5] one must still distinguish between the world outside the Temple walls and that which is the exclusive domain of the Divine. When entering the sanctuary of G-d, one must cleanse himself of the materiality of everyday life, “washing his hands” of all that carries the taint of self-interest and mundanity.

This is the deeper significance of the law that obligates the kohen to wash his hands and feet before approaching the service of G-d. In its post-Temple incarnation, this law instructs the Jew to “wash his face, hands and feet” prior to the morning prayers, to cleanse and purify himself before making the transition from a material being in a material world to a soul communing with her Creator.[6]

Manual Labor

“If you eat of the toil of your hands,” proclaims the Psalmist, “fortunate are you, and good is to you.”[7] Chassidic teaching explains that the verse is telling us to invest only the most external of our faculties in the pursuit of material livelihood, leaving our higher talents free to devote themselves exclusively to our spiritual goals.

Our ancestors sustained themselves exclusively with the toil of their hands. The Patriarchs were shepherds, and the Jews who settled in the Holy Land were tillers of the soil. Many of the greatest Talmudic sages, whose teachings are a source of guidance and wisdom to us to this very day, were manual laborers: Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar was a cobbler, Rabbi Joshua a blacksmith, Shammai a bricklayer. There were also merchants and shopkeepers, but business was free of the craftiness and obsessive preoccupation that characterize it today. Scholarship and teaching were not professions but sacred callings, not to be sullied by the remuneration of material reward. Earning one’s daily bread was a matter for the hands and feet and the most rudimentary of mental exercises, not something upon which to expend the mind’s ingenuity or the heart’s devotion, which were reserved only for life’s higher aims.

That world is no longer. Today, we not only invest time and energy in the endeavor to procure our material needs; we give it our “all”—our keenest mental capacities, our strongest passions, our most forceful will.[8] Our “careers” consume our days and nights, our minds and hearts, indeed, our very identities (we don’t ask each other, “What do you do to make money?”—we say, “What do you do?”).

This explains the difference between the two laws quoted at the beginning of this essay. The law that one should wash before praying is a derivative of the law that the kohanim must wash before entering the Sanctuary or performing a service in the Holy Temple. But while the Torah commands Aaron and his sons to wash their hands and feet, Maimonides rules that before the morning prayers one must wash his hands, feet and face.

In the time of the Temple, only the “hands and feet”—externalities of human life—were involved in material pursuits; so only they required purification and sanctification before being devoted to the service of G-d. The “face” of man—his higher prowess and inner self[9]—required no such cleansing, for it was not sullied in the first place.

But in later generations, the mundanity of life began its encroachment on our inner selves. Today, the effort to commune with G-d also requires the cleansing of our “faces” of the taint of the material. Our minds and hearts must be purged of the prejudices and affinities that adhere to it in the course of their involvement in earthly affairs, so that we can truly relate to the essence and purpose of life.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on various occasions[10]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Talmud, Berachot 26a and b.

[2]. Ibid., Chagigah 27a.

[3]. Ibid., Berachot 8a.

[4]. Proverbs 3:6.

[5]. Ethics of the Fathers 2:12.

[6]. Talmud, Shabbat 50a; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 4:1.

[7]. Psalms 128:2.

[8]. The story is told of a Chassid who opened a factory for the manufacture of galoshes, and was soon completely consumed by his flourishing business. Said Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch to him: “I have heard of people who insert their feet in galoshes; but to put one’s head in galoshes?!”

[9]. In the English language, the word “face” often refers to the external aspect of things (as in “surface,” “superficial,” “façade,” “on the face of it,” “put a face on things,” etc.). But the Hebrew word for “face,” panim, actually means “innerness,” expressing the idea that the face is that part of a person’s body in which his higher faculties reside and which most reflects his essential nature and personality.

[10]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXI, pp. 188-189.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Meaningful Life Center