Don Isaac Abravanel, sometimes spelled Abarbanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. Midway through Exodus chapter 30, we read about another consecrated fixture of the
Tabernacle: the copper wash basin.

“And God spoke unto Moses saying, you shall also make a wash basin
of brass…to wash, and you shall place it between the Tent of Meeting
and the altar, and you shall put water therein. And Aaron and his sons
shall wash their hands and their feet therewith…”

Abravanel analyzes the verses pertaining to the Tabernacle’s wash basin: “And Aaron and his sons shall
wash their hands and feet therewith.” First, Abravanel focuses on Aaron, the High Priest. He and his
successor high priests need to wash their hands and feet “when they go into the Tent of Meeting.” Place
the accent on the Tent of Meeting. Feet walk them there. Showing up there without the requisite bodily
washing carries the death penalty: “They shall wash with water, that they die not.”

However, a very different emphasis relates to assistant priests. “Or when they come near to the altar to
minister, to cause an offering made by fire to smoke unto God, so they shall wash their hands and their
feet.” All priests took part in offering sacrifices on the altar. From that perspective, washing hands
highlights the priestly role of occupying themselves with animal sacrifices. Of course, this function
resulted in hands bloodied by their interaction with animals.

Given the different emphases between high priests (rinsing feet before entering the Tent of Assembly)
versus assistant priests (dealing with animals and the altar), the Bible reiterates: “So they shall wash
their hands and feet, that they die not…” Even though high priests and assistant priests did different
Tabernacle activities, this much they had in common: laxity in rinsing hands and feet proved fatal.

Abravanel continues his analysis. Washing did not reflect the need to remove dirt associated with
working the altar. That is because when people set aside livestock for the altar, those animals attain
holiness; they are pure. Thus, when priests handle sacrifices, they do not become spiritually impure.
Bloodied yes, ritually defiled no.

In sum, the reason why high priests cleansed their hands and feet upon entering the Tent of Assembly,
and the reason why assistant priests washed their hands and feet upon officiating at the altar had to do
with a general concern about personal hygiene. Perhaps priests needed rinsing due to outside causes of

In closing, Abravanel likens priests who minister in the Tabernacle to a king’s servants, who wait on him
and serve him food at the royal dining table. Obviously, these waiters scrub their hands before
entering the king’s dining room, seeing that they handle his food and pour his wine.

As for the divine commandment to wash feet, this conveys the manner in which priests officiated in the
holy compound – barefoot. As an expedient, and in acknowledgement that, invariably, men’s feet get
dirty and smelly, washing them just makes good sense.

See Abravanel’s World for more analysis of the topic of the Tabernacle’s wash basin.