Dr. Chaim Ehrman
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Our Sages tell us that Aharon the High Priest saw all the tribes of the Jewish nation bring special Korbanos to inaugurate the Mizbayach, but the Shevet of Levi was completely omitted. Why would the caretakers of the Mishkan be excluded from this special inauguration? These Korbanos had a special meaning. The fire on the Mizbayach was a supernatural flame. In the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avos, the Mishna enumerates ten miracles that occurred on a daily basis in the Bais HaMikdash. For instance, the smoke of the fire on the Mizbayach that went straight up to the Heavens, even when there was a hurricane or severe winds. A Korban adds fuel to the fire that represents the manifestation of the Shechina. One can readily understand why Aharon HaKohen Gadol felt a tremendous loss by not participating in the Korbanos of the Nesi-im, of the princes of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Hashem appeared to Aharon and informed him that he will be given a different Mitzvah. Preparing the Menorah is a special Avoda that only a Kohen can do. The Medrash concludes that Aharon's Mitzva was greater than the Korbanos of the twelve tribes. The question is obvious. Why is Aharon's Mitzva of preparing the Menorah greater than that of the Nesi-im? They placed their Korban of Chanukas Hamizbayach on the altar, in the supernatural fire. Aharon put oil and wicks in the Menorah. The actual lighting of the Menorah can be performed by a Yisrael who is not a Kohen. Where is this great significance of the Menorah? The Ramban answers that there is a special meaning in the Menorah. Centuries later, in the time of the Chashmonaim, the Menorah offered special encouragement and chizuk to Bnai Yisrael that the Shechina dwells in Klal Yisrael. The Chashmonaim found pure oil that could burn for one day. The Miracle of Chanuka was that the flame of the Menorah burned for eight days. This miracle was the testimony that indeed Hashem's Shechina is with the Bnei Yisrael. This message was greater than that of the Nesi-im.
One can perhaps suggest another answer. The Rambam states in the laws of charity that it is preferable to give a small amount of Tzedaka every day as opposed to one lump sum at one time. Giving Tzedaka every day means that the Mitzva is observed and practiced every single day. The Menorah was a daily Mitzvah. Aharon HaKohen lit the Menorah 14,600 times during the forty years that the Jewish people were in the desert, regardless of the events of the day (wedding, Bar Mitzvah, Levaya, travels, sandstorm, etc.). The Menorah had to be prepared on time, every single day. The Nesi-im brought a great Korban - but it was a one-time Mitzvah. The 23rd of Sivan is the yahrzeit of Reb Yaakov Zev ben Dov. He emulated the spirit of the Menorah. He always seized the opportunity to do Mitzvohs. In Long Beach, NY, the Young Israel synagogue needed a sidewalk. He personally canvassed wealthy members to contribute for this project. In Los Angeles, CA, there was a need for chizuk in Limud HaTorah. He personally canvassed ba'alei batim to participate in shiurim. Whenever a Mitzvah presented itself he seized the moment. May we learn from his example to take advantage of every Mitzvah that presents itself to implement the Mitzvos of Hashem. This may be the message of the Menorah: Aharon performed the Mitzvah on a daily basis and never became "bored" or tired of doing this great Mitzvah.
When he lived in New York City, he found out that his neighbor didn't have sufficient food. He went out of his way and collected food for his neighbor. He helped people and Mosdos HaTorah in Ruchnius and Gashmius. This was an ongoing process. This is the message of the Menorah!
Rabbi Ari Friedman
You've finished your meal and are about to bentch. There may, however, be one more thing left to do - Mayim Achronim. The Gemorah (Berachos 53B) quotes the Passuk- "Veheyissem Kedoshim" (and you shall be holy) as the basis of washing one's hands at the end of a meal before Birchas Hamazon. The Rishonim explain that during a meal one's hands may have become somewhat dirty and it would be disrespectful to bentch in such a state. We therefore clean our hands thereby fulfilling the Torah's order of "being holy." Another reason given in the Gemorah for Mayim Achronim is the fear that some of the "Harmful Salt" which was employed in the destruction of the city of S'dom may have been mixed in with the common table salt found in one's home. Since there is a requirement to have salt at a bread meal, there is a possibility that this salt may end up on one's hands. To protect ourselves, Chazal instructed us to wash our hands at the conclusion of a meal. In Talmudic times when S'dom salt was more prevalent, one was required to wash his hands after any contact with salt.
There are those that question the necessity for Mayim Achronim today, claiming that the reasons mentioned above do not apply any more. The first reason mentioned, which was to clean the hands of any food residue, is not a concern for cultured diners who eat with a fork and knife. Any minute remnants of food that may remain on our hands are not deemed as filth which would necessitate hand washing. As for the S'dom salt, many are of the opinion that this salt is not to be found anymore and we need not concern ourselves with it. The above arguments are certainly the rationale for the many who do not follow the practice of Mayim Acronim or are not scrupulous in its details. Indeed, this position is mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, however the Shulchan Aruch himself as well as the majority of the Poskim are of the opinion that Mayin Achronim is an obligation. (See O.C. 181 and M.B. there) This is also the position of the Mekubalim who cite various mystical explanations for Mayim Achronim. Although there does not seem to be a Halachic distinction between men and women in this matter the prevalent Minhag is for women not to wash Mayim Achronim (see Piskei Teshuvos who cites various explanations). HaGaon R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is quoted as saying that women need not change from the Minhag (See sefer V'Zos HaBeracha).
How is the mitzvah of Mayim Acharonim properly fulfilled? The water should be poured over both hands with enough water to adequately clean the hands until the ends of the fingers or at least until the second knuckle. Merely wetting the hands is not sufficient. The Mishna Berura mentions that the practice of the Vilna Gaon was to use a full rivi'is of water. Though the water need not be poured onto the hands using a utensil, the water should be poured into a cup or bowl and not left around since this water is recognized by Chazal as carrying a Ruach Ra'ah. If no vessel is available to receive the water the water should be poured over an area where people will not come in contact with it. After washing, the hands should be dried and some have the practice of wiping the mouth as well. Ideally water should be used for Mayim Achronim, however if none is to be found other liquids may be used as well.
After one has washed Mayim Achronim he should immediately begin bentching without any hefsek at all. Even words of Torah should not be spoken, including Shir HaMa'alos or Al Naharos Bavel, which should be recited before Mayim Achronim. Those who have the minhag to recite the various pesukim found in some Siddurim (such as Tehillas Hashem) before Birchas HaMazon may do so even after Mayim Achronim, as these pesukim serve as an introduction to bentching.
When a group of people are seated at a meal, the Mezamein (one who will lead Birchas HaMazon) washes first. If the group is larger than five people, multiple cups of water should be brought to the table to minimize the hefsek between washing and bentching. In the event that one did speak, he must wash over again.
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