Mayim Achronim is literally the last water – or washing ones hands at the end of a meal before saying Birchat HaMazon, or the Grace after the meal. It is a custom not widely embraced, even by the orthodox, but never-the-less every married couple gets at least one set as a present.
Hand washing ceremonies are replete in Jewish tradition. One washes after waking, before bread, after and using the bathroom. One of the lesser known traditions is washing one's hand after eating (rather than before). Many of the other hand washings stem from simple cleanliness forced by law – in a time when many people were simply unclean and thus carriers of disease. Jews always seemed to have been spared the worst of diseases in history as a result of the required hand washing (not to mention weekly dips in the Mikva before Shabat etc). However, as one has already washed before the bread, is one's hand so unclean after eating. Some say yes – that the hands become dirtied while eating (we didn't always use forks and knives) and thus it was incumbent upon us to wash before blessing Grace after the meal. Others say that at one time there was a salt used called Sodomite salt, which was potentially damaging to the eye, and thus cleaning ones hands was an imperative.
The Law of Mayim Achronim
However, as with all Jewish laws, there is naturally a spiritual and even kabbalistic. Sodomite salt naturally lends itself to the explanation that in fact we are washing are hands of the characteristics of the Sodomites – cold heartedness, and evil – and only then can we say the blessing thanking the Lord. One has to purify oneself even from the banal act of eating (a purely physical act) and prepare oneself to talk to G-d by washing ones hands.
The author of the Shulcan Aruch the grand Rabbi Joseph ben Ephraim Caro better known as the ha-Mechaber ("The Author") and as Maran states cryptically in his work (181:1) that the performance of Mayim Achromim is a Halachic requirement.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan better known as the Chofetz Chaim comments (181:1) that the hands are likely to become dirty and not suitable for the Grace after meals that will follow. He continues by saying that Sedomite salt or even other types of salt can be dangerous if it comes into contact with someone's eyes. Rabbi Karo states further (181:8) that there are those who do not have the custom to actually perform Mayim Achromim because there is no real Sedomite salt today . This is based on explanation of the Talmud at the end of Tracate Brachot ( 53b) by one of the Baalei Hatosfos. This Tosafos says “we do not have the custom to perform this ritual". Nonetheless Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman ( 1720-1797) better known as the Vilna Gaon ruled in his commentary that one should perform this ritual whether there is Sedomite salt or not. Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai,better known as the the Chida also was very stringent regarding this ritual. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liad better known as the Baal Hatanya says in his Halchic work “Shulchan Aruch Harav “(181:9) that it is correct for everyone to be meticulous in the performance of this ritual.
History of Mayim Achronim Sets
During the second Temple period, the priests used a copper laver to wash their hands before starting their work day. Some people believe that Mayim Achronim can be likened to the ritual washing in that one has to wash before saying a blessing. However, most Mayim Achronim sets are not similar in any to the copper laver used by the priests. The are generally small, as one only needs to wash the tips of ones fingers, with a small washing cup, a basin and plate for the basin. The plate is then used to cover the basin as it is generally thought that the evil washed from the fingers remains in the water, and thus can not remain on the table uncovered. It is generally made of silver or any other material of value and is highly decorative – and is often simply an object d'art sitting in the china closet.