Cup Used for Washing, Disposable Cups

December 4, 2020 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

I live in a location where it is impossible to buy Judaica, so I do a lot of improvising. What do I need to know about the cup used for washing my hands (both in the morning and before eating bread)? I haven’t been able to find one with handles. Is that a requirement?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

I commend you, first of all, for your observance living in a place where it is clearly difficult. May God bless and reward your efforts immeasurably.

The rules are identical for the cup used in the morning and the one used before eating bread as far as I know, so whatever I write below applies to both. Below are some of the most relevant laws. (Note that when not otherwise specified, the citations below are from Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim.)

(1) In terms of the specific issue you raised, there is no strict obligation for a washing cup to have handles. That is mainly for practical reasons. After you wash your first hand and want to pass the cup to that hand to wash the other one, you need to be careful that your hands do not touch each other (when washing for bread). If you would, the unwashed hand would render the water on the washed hand impure, which in turn would render that hand impure again. If that would happen, you would have to dry your hands and start again (162:4). But if you have no choice, you can carefully pass the cup from one hand to the other (or put it down and pick it up again with the other hand), without causing any problems.

(Note that touching water on the outside of the cup which may have come from the already-washed hand is not a concern. If the washing was done properly that water is pure.)

(2) The cup for washing should minimally hold 86 cc., which is close to 3 oz. (based on 159:1). Bigger, however, is advisable, so one can do four full pours – two on each hand – covering the hand fully with each pour, without having to refill the cup in the middle.

(3) In terms of disposable cups, most authorities allow them if they are made of a material such as plastic or Styrofoam which can theoretically be used indefinitely (unlike the waxed paper cups of my day). Some, however, are strict, so you should only use one if nothing else is available (Halacha Berurah 159:3, Piskei Teshuvos 159:2). (Some say you should make sure to use the cup at least one more time after the washing to demonstrate you consider it a true vessel).

(4) The cup should be smooth at the top without a spout (one which doesn’t reach the top of the container). If the cup does contain a spout, then the water which is poured from the top – not out of the spout – would not be said to be coming out of a utensil – since at the way top (above the level of the spout) the cup is unable to hold water and so is not legally considered a utensil. (Theoretically, it would be possible to wash using water which comes directly out of the spout – if it would be possible to pour from the lowest part of spout without some of the water coming out from higher up. See 159:2)

(5) Just a quick point on the best washing technique. You should hold your fingers slightly apart while washing so that the entire surface area comes in contact with the water. It’s also a good idea to rotate your hand slowly back and forth while washing to ensure the water gets everywhere – especially the underside of your hand. Once we’re on the subject, it is also proper to tilt your hands upwards while washing (so that impure water doesn’t roll down from your wrists back to your hands; 162:1), and to rub them together after (162:2).

For more detail on the washing process, see here and here.


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