What is the source for 'mayim achronim'' – that water that is poured on the hands after a meal and before saying birkat hamazon (grace after meals)? Some people say that it's halacha, but I've been to people where they don't do it. And are women supposed to? Thanks.
The Shulchan Aruch states that "Mayim Achronim Chova," meaning that washing one's hands before birkat hamazon is an obligation. Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, zatzal, oncetold me that women are includedin this obligation to the same degree as men.
There are two reasons which are offered:
Just as a soiled kohen is invalid to perform the Temple Service in the Beit Hamikdash, so too soiled hands make a person unfit to say a blessing.
To clean off any "melach sdomit" - "salt of Sodom" – that might be on the hands. Melach sdomit was a strong salt harmful to the eyes.
Some people have the custom to not wash Mayim Achronim. Since melach sdomit is virtually non-existent today, and the concept of "cleanliness" is a relative matter and most people don't consider their hands "dirty" after a meal, therefore washing them would not be necessary.
I once heard a beautiful explanation of the symbolism of Mayim Achronim: Mayim Achronim washes off the "Salt of Sodom." The people of Sodom were infamous for their stingy cold-heartedness, especially regarding hospitality towards strangers. For example, the people of Sodom surrounded Lot's house and ordered him to send out the wayfarers he was hosting. After a meal, having eaten our fill, we might not empathize with a poor stranger knocking on our door asking for a little food. This quality of cold-heartedness is the antithesis of Judaism, and therefore we "wash it off" – saying: "We want no part of it!"
- Chullin 105a,b & Tosafot, Berachot 53b and Tosafot
- Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 181:1, 10; M. B. 22