These tempestuous times, when so many of our fellow Jews are bravely fighting our enemies, are an appropriate occasion to study the meanings of mitzvot which apply specially in times of war.
The mishna tells us that the members of an army camp are exempt from washing for bread before a meal, but still required to wash afterward. (Eiruvin 17a.)
The Semag gives an interesting historical explanation. The mishna says that the soldiers are also exempt from making an eiruv for carrying; the gemara tells us exactly these two mitzvot, eiruv and washing, were instituted together by King Shlomo (Shabbat 14a). The Semag explains, based on Rav Hai Gaon, that there is a connection. The Jewish people were in an almost constant state of war until the reign of Shlomo; but when Shlomo’s kingdom was established, “he had peace from all sides around” (Melakhim I 5:5; Semag beginning of Hilkhot Eiruvin).
In other words, these mitzvot are appropriate for a people who have known peace, and even then are obligatory only on those who are experiencing peace. We explained the connection to eiruv in a previous column (Vayakhel-Pikudei 5761); now we will study the connection to washing.
Washing hands has an interesting dual symbolism. It can denote either respect or disdain for the material world. We can explain this by a simple analogy. If someone is careful to wash their hands before they shake hands with us, we consider this a mark of respect. But if we notice that someone invariably washes their hands after shaking hands with us, we would probably be insulted.
Washing before and after meals has a parallel symbolism. Washing before meals, which is done because of the likeness of ordinary bread to holy teruma, shows respect and awe for our sustenance; washing afterwards, which is done because of the leftover uneaten salt and grime, shows our desire to cleanse ourselves from the debris and waste products (see column on Ekev 5760). One way we show this difference is that when washing before meals we elevate the hands (SA OC 162:1), whereas when washing afterwards we lower them (SA OC 181:5).
In all times and places, individual Jews are simultaneously involved in con- quering evil and in developing holiness. But the Jewish people as a whole go through different periods which relatively emphasize one or the other of these aspects. Until the time of Shlomo, the Jewish people were mainly involved in fighting evil, including eliminating idolatry from the land of Israel. But in the time of Shlomo, we had the opportunity to elevate ourselves above this conflict and devote ourselves to developing holiness, and this is the time when the Temple was built. (The opportunity was not necessarily ex- ploited in the ideal way by subsequent kings.) This is when the mitzva of washing before meals was established. (At least some aspects of it, as explained in the gemara in Shabbat.)
Likewise, a soldier in a war of Israel is devoting himself temporarily to the destruction of evil; afterwards (we hope very soon) the soldiers will be able to return to devoting themselves to building holiness through studying and observing Torah.
In the meantime, it is the mayim acharonim which symbolize the separa- tion from evil which have special meaning, more than the mayim rishonim which remind us of the sanctity inherent in our everyday being.
It is important to note that from the point of view of practical halacha, the Shulchan Arukh rules that the exemption from washing before meals applies only when there is danger involved in seeking (or using) water for washing, and not in any military situation (SA OC 158:8).