The Life of Jesus in Harmony
A distinction must be made between this ceremonial washing and ordinary
cleansing of the hands as a matter of decency. When the charge was made against our
Lord's disciples that they ate with unwashed hands, it was not meant that they
did not wash their hands at all, but that they did not do it ceremonially.
These ceremonial washings were prescribed with such minute details as to be
not only burdensome but sometimes impossible. Before the ceremony one had to
decide the kind of food to be partaken of-- whether it was prepared firstfruits,
common food, or holy, i.e., sacrificial food.
"The water was poured on both hands, which must be free from anything covering
them, such as gravel, mortar, etc. The hands were lifted up, so as to make the
water run to the wrist, in order to insure that the whole hand was washed and
that the water polluted by the hand did not again run down the fingers.
Similarly, each hand was rubbed with the other (the fist), provided the hand that
rubbed had been affused; otherwise the rubbing might be done against the head, or
even against a wall. But there was one point on which special stress was laid.
In the 'first affusion,' which was all that originally was required when the
hands were not Levitically 'defiled,' the water had to run down to the wrist. If
the water remained short of the wrist, the hands were not clean. Accordingly,
the words of St. Mark can only mean that the Pharisees
eat not 'except they wash their hands to the wrist.' If the hands were
'defiled' two affusions were required: the first to remove the defilement, and the
second to wash away the waters that had contracted the defilement of the hands.
Accordingly, on the affusion of the first waters the hands were elevated, and
the water made to run down at the wrist, while at the second waters the hands
were depressed, so that the water might run off by the finger joints and tips"
(Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus
The Pharisees carried the practice of ablution to such excess, from the
affectation of purity while the heart was left unclean, that our Lord severely
rebuked them for their hypocrisy (Mt 23:25).