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29. Hygiene

January 29, 2015 | by

The Jewish way of washing hands, cutting nails, bathing, haircuts and shaving.


In the 14th century, Europe was struck by the devastating "Black Plague" that is estimated to have killed one-third of the European population, or 25 million people. The Jewish community suffered proportionally fewer casualties, triggering rumors that the plague was the result of an international Jewish conspiracy to poison Christians. Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred to prevent further outbreak of the plague.

There are many theories as to the origin of the Black Plague. All agree that the outbreak was spread by lack of hygiene. It seems that the Jewish communities suffered fewer fatalities, because they maintained better hygiene, as mandated by specific halachic requirements. The Torah commands us to take good care of our health,1 as this shows respect to God for the gift of life.

Jews do a lot of hand washing. We wash when we wake up, before we eat, and after we eat. We wash after being in a cemetery or at a funeral. We wash after using the bathroom. All of these practices are discussed in their appropriate places.

A person must also wash his hands (even without a cup)2 after touching a part of the body that is "normally" covered.3 Some authorities require this even if the body part is perfectly clean.4 If an adult touches an infant's thigh, he need not wash his hands, as it is normal for an infant's leg to be exposed. Similarly, it is considered normal for a man's upper arm to be exposed in the area where tefillin is placed, so one who touches that area when donning tefillin need not wash.5

One who touches his scalp or scratches his head must wash his hands.6 In addition, one who touches any footwear (excluding shoelaces and clean socks)7 must also wash.8

In all these cases, if the item was touched by only one hand, only that (entire) hand needs to be washed.9

Although many of these laws were not necessarily instituted for hygienic purposes, it should come as no surprise that by following God's rules for living, we can generally maintain the healthiest possible lifestyle in every sense.

Cutting Nails

It is a mitzvah to cut one's fingernails on Friday in honor of Shabbat,10 and on erev Yom Tov.11

One may not cut nails on Shabbat and Yom Tov, since that is one of the 39 melachot.12 Some men also refrain from trimming nails on Rosh Chodesh.13 Some have the custom not to cut one's fingernails on the same day as one's toenails.14

There are some mystical practices associated with clipping nails. One of these involves the order in which the fingernails are cut, as per the diagram.15 The nails of the left hand precede that of the right hand.

Another mystical source says that it can be harmful for a pregnant woman to walk on a cut fingernail.16 One should therefore be careful to discard fingernail clippings.17 If a nail does fall and you cannot find it, just sweep or vacuum the area.18

You should wash your hands (even without a cup)19 after cutting your nails20 or having your nails manicured by others.21 The manicurist need not wash his/her own hands.22 One who bites his nails need not wash his hands.23

The habit of nail-biting is discouraged, especially since it may lead to biting fingernails on Shabbat, which is prohibited.24


It is a mitzvah to take a hot shower on Friday in honor of Shabbat,25 and on erev Yom Tov. There are a variety of halachic problems associated with showering on Shabbat or Yom Tov, so make sure that you are done well before sunset.26

In an expression of mourning over the loss of the Temple, we refrain from bathing for pleasure during the days preceding Tisha B'Av.27 Bathing for medical purposes or to remove perspiration is permitted, but one should minimize the comfort by limiting the length and warmth of the shower/bath to whatever is necessary.28 (see "Daily Living – Tisha B'Av and the Three Weeks")

The Torah dictates the importance of order and precedence in everything that we do in life, even that which appears mundane. When bathing, the head should always be washed first,29 since it is the preeminent limb. When washing arms or legs, etc, always start with the right one.30 By giving precedence to the right over the left, we demonstrate that what is important to God is important to us.31

Haircuts and Shaving: General

Jewish men are forbidden to use a razor blade to shave even a single hair from the head or face.32 The lower part of the back of the head may be shaved with a razor blade. Scissors, or an electric shaver that does not function as a single-blade razor, may be used to remove hair from the head and face.33

Further, a man may not have his sideburns (nor the area immediately around them) removed with any instrument.34 The definition of 'sideburns' is the hair in front of the ears, that extends to underneath the cheekbone which is level with the nose.35

Some Jews grow extra long sideburns, called peyos. This is a matter of custom and is not a halachic requirement.

A woman's hair may be cut or groomed however she chooses.36

In Judaism, it is considered uncouth for men to grow their hair long,37 except for their sideburns. Long hair can also cause problems with the proper positioning of one's tefillin.38

Regarding parts of the body from which only women remove their hair, the Torah forbids a man to remove such hair. The criteria are based on societal norms.39 A man may remove such hair if it is necessary for health reasons.40

One who receives a haircut needs to wash his hands41 (even without a cup).42 The barber only needs to wash if he touched the scalp with his hands.43 One who shaves is not required to wash his hands.44

During a haircut or shave, one is permitted to contemplate sacred thoughts and even to respond "amen" to someone else's blessing, even if the head is uncovered.45

Haircuts and Shaving: Time-Sensitive

It is a mitzvah for men to shave on Friday in honor of Shabbat,46 and on erev Yom Tov.47 Be sure to be done long before sunset. One who is concerned that he will not have time on Friday should do so on Thursday.48

It is forbidden to cut or remove any hair on Shabbat and Yom Tov, as this involves a violation of one of the 39 melachot.49 On Chol HaMoed, one should not get a haircut or shave50 facial hair.51Some people also refrain from shaving or getting haircuts at night or on Rosh Chodesh.52

On the afternoon preceding Passover, it is forbidden for a man to shave or get a haircut. The reason is because during the Temple era, this was when the Passover sacrifice was offered, and thus it has the status of a quasi-Yom Tov. However, if a haircut is necessary, it may be cut by a non-Jewish barber.53

It is customary for Ashkenazim to refrain from shaving facial hair or getting a haircut during the three weeks of mourning from the 17th of Tammuz until the 10th of Av.54 Someone who needs to shave in order to maintain his livelihood is allowed to do so. However, during the week in which the Tisha B'Av occurs, until the 10th of Av, neither Ashkenazim nor Sefardim may shave, even for pressing reasons.55

Jewish tradition relates that during the Second Jewish Commonwealth, the 24,000 disciples of the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, tragically died during a short period. To mourn this calamity, it is customary to refrain from haircuts and shaving during the period between Passover and Shavuot. Most observe this custom from Passover until Lag B'Omer, but there are other customs as to when to practice this restriction.56 One who needs to shave for a very pressing reason may do so.57

In some communities, a boy's hair is not cut until he is three years old. This is known as "upsherin" in Yiddish, or "chalakah" in Hebrew. For more, see a full article on Upsherin.

  1. Deut. 4:15
  2. Yalkut Yosef (She’arit Yosef 4:19)
  3. Orach Chaim 4:18 and Mishnah Berurah
  4. Halichot Shlomo 20:15. But see Yalkut Yosef (She’arit Yosef 4, footnote #27) who is lenient except in regard to the feet and scalp.
  5. Ben Ish Chai (Toldot 17); Yalkut Yosef (She’arit Yosef 4:34)
  6. Orach Chaim 4:18. See Yalkut Yosef (She’arit Yosef 4:34) that one who merely touches his hair need not wash.
  7. Yalkut Yosef (She’arit Yosef 4, footnote 21)
  8. Orach Chaim 4:18 and Mishnah Berurah
  9. Chayei Adam 40:18
  10. Orach Chaim 260:1
  11. Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato 64:22
  12. Orach Chaim 340:1
  13. Mishnah Berurah 260:7. See Shemirat HaGuf ViHanefesh 62:8, that women do not practice this stringency. Also, see ibid (62:9) that when there are two days of Rosh Chodesh, this stringency is only practiced on the second day. The reason for this stringency is not known (Shemiras HaGuf ViHanefesh 62:3)
  14. Mishnah Berurah 260:6; Shemirat HaGuf ViHanefesh 62:2
  15. Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato (ch. 42, footnote 160). Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 260:6) writes that this custom is optional. Also, toenails may be cut in any order that you choose.
  16. Talmud - Nida 17a
  17. Mishnah Berurah 260:6
  18. Mishnah Berurah 260:6; Shemirat HaGuf ViHanefesh 68:15
  19. Yalkut Yosef (She’arit Yosef 4:19)
  20. Orach Chaim 4:18
  21. Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato (ch. 42, footnote 159)
  22. ibid
  23. Orchot Rabbeinu (vol. 3, pg. 186) in the name of the Chazon Ish
  24. Rabbi Shimshon Pincus z"l called biting fingernails Sunday through Friday as "transgressing Shabbat during the week" (chillul Shabbat bechol), due to the high probability of accidentally doing the same on Shabbat.
  25. Orach Chaim 260:1
  26. Mishnah Berurah 260:1
  27. Ashkenazim begin this period from the first day of Av (Orach Chaim 551:16). According to Sefardic tradition, this restriction begins in the week in which Tisha B’Av falls (Yalkut Yosef #18). On Friday, it is permitted to take a warm shower in honor of Shabbat (Rav Moshe Feinstein, quoted in Halachot of the Three Weeks by Rabbi Shimon Eider, pg. 13).
  28. Mishnah Berurah 551:88; Aruch HaShulchan 551:37
  29. Mishnah Berurah 2:7
  30. ibid
  31. See Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 2:8). In kabbalah, the right side represents kindness, while the left is strictness. We always strive to emphasize the kindness, though tempered with discipline.
  32. Leviticus 19:27; Yoreh De’ah 181:10-11
  33. Yoreh De’ah 181:10
  34. Leviticus 19:27; Yoreh De’ah 181:2
  35. There is some question as to the precise borders of this restricted area. Therefore, speak with a rabbi if you have a personal question in this matter.
  36. Yoreh De’ah 181:6
  37. Mishnah Berurah 27:15
  38. Mishnah Berurah 27:15
  39. Yoreh De’ah 182:1
  40. Yoreh De’ah 182:4
  41. Orach Chaim 4:19
  42. Yalkut Yosef (She’arit Yosef 4:19)
  43. Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato (ch. 42, footnote 159)
  44. Halichot Shlomo 2:12
  45. Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato (ch. 42, footnote 159)
  46. Orach Chaim 260:1
  47. Orach Chaim 531:1
  48. Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato (ch. 42, footnote 160)
  49. Orach Chaim 340:1
  50. Orach Chaim 531:2
  51. See Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchato 66:108
  52. Mishnah Berurah 260:7. See Shemirat HaGuf ViHanefesh (62:8) that women do not practice this stringency.
  53. Orach Chaim 468:1 and Mishnah Berurah
  54. Orach Chaim 551:4
  55. Halachot of the Three Weeks by Rabbi Shimon Eider (II, B-4)
  56. Orach Chaim 493:2 and Mishnah Berurah
  57. Piskei Teshuvot 493:10


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