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Judaica in Art – the Netilat Yadayim Hand Washing Cup

netilat yadayim cup

Jewish ritual hand washing cup, a simple concept with many different designs

The Judaica object called Netilat Yadayim, the Jewish ritual hand washing cup, always interests me as an artist because of its varied designs. Although just a container for water, it has many different forms. Sometimes the cup is cylindrical, spherical, or a combination of the two. Sometimes the cup is cube-like, or more like a bowl. I’ve seen Netilat Yadayim cups decorated with intricate artistic designs, and cups with little or no decoration at all. Some are expensive, some are not, and are found in most Judaica stores.

netilat yadayim cup, jewish ritual hand washing
Netilat Yadayim Jewish Washing Cup, © Rhonda Roth, All Rights Reserved

The Source in Judaism for the Netilat Yadayim Cup

The Netilat Yadayim cup has an interesting source in Judaism. In the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly Kohanim washed both their hands and feet from a special basin called a Kiyor before performing the Temple service. Netilat Yadayim literally means ‘raising of the hands’, When the Kohanim blessed the people they raised their hands. Perhaps this is the origin of of the term.

In the absence of the Temple, each Jewish person is considered like a Kohen and pours water over their hands using this cup before performing certain activities. This Jewish ritual hand washing is an integral part of daily life of the observant Jew.

Using the Netilat Yadayim Cup

This hand washing is not for physical cleanliness, but for spiritual purification. In fact, a person’s hands must be physically clean before rinsing their hands with the Netilat Yadayim cup. Activities using the washing cup include:

  • Upon arising in the morning
  • Before prayer
  • Prior to eating bread
  • After using the bathroom

Why Does the Netilat Yadayim Cup Have 2 Handles?

The two-handled cup makes it easier to wash each hand separately so one hand doesn’t touch the other while washing. Rabbi Eliezer Posner briefly explains the spiritual reason for this. Although the Netilat Yadayim cup comes in different shapes, materials, and decorations, they all have two handles. In theory, the cup need only have one handle, or no handle at all. One just makes sure that the hands don’t touch each other while using the cup.

Water For Spiritual Purification

In Judaism, water is a source of spiritual purification. The most popular example is a mikvah, wherein one immerses the whole body. Immersion in a mikvah is the last stage in the conversion process for a non-Jew, after which he or she literally becomes a new person.

Similarly, pouring water over one’s hands with the Netilat Yadayim cup spiritually purifies them. It reminds us that all our actions should be pure and for the sake of Heaven.

Other Articles About Judaica in Art

Judaica in Art – the shape of tefillin and its meaning


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