While most people are generally aware of the Halachic obligation to wash one’s hands before eating bread, few people are aware of the Halachah requiring one to wash his hands before eating moist foods. A food requires Netilat Yadayim if it has on it one of the seven liquids known by the acrostic “Yad Shachat Dam”: “Yayin” (wine), “D’vash” (honey), “Shemen” (oil), “Chalav” (milk), “Tal” (dew), “Dam” (blood), “Mayim” (water). If the food has drops of liquid on it – such as if it was washed without being thoroughly dried – or if one dips it in a liquid before eating it, then he must wash his hands before eating.
However, since this requirement is subject to a debate among the Rishonim, with some maintaining that Netilat Yadayim is not required in such a case, one should not recite a berachah over this washing. He must wash just as he washes for bread – three times successively over the right hand, and then over the left hand – but without reciting the beracha of “Al Netilat Yadayim.” For Ashkenazim it is twice on each hand.
Many people, for whatever reason, are not careful to fulfill this requirement and do not wash their hands before eating wet foods. Ha’Rav Ovadiyah Yosef (shlit”a), in a lengthy response, demonstrates that this Halachah is a strict requirement, as codified by a number of Rishonim – including the Rambam (a”h) – as well as by the Shulchan Aruch. Many people are familiar with the concept of washing before eating wet foods from the Seder on Pesach, when we wash (“U’rchatz”) without reciting a beracha before eating the Karpas – the celery dipped in salt water. But many people mistakenly think that this requirement is special to the Seder. This is incorrect; all year round, it is obligatory to wash one’s hands without a beracha before eating a wet food.
A common example is a fruit which one washes before eating it. If a person washes an apple and does not thoroughly dry it before he eats it, he must wash Netilat Yadayim before eating the apple. Likewise, people generally wash grapes before eating them, usually without drying them. Once again, one would be required to wash Netilat Yadayim before eating the moist grapes. Another common example is olives, which are commonly soaked in oil, which is one of the seven liquids. One would have to wash Netilat Yadayim before eating moist olives. By the same token, if a person dips a piece of cake in coffee or tea, he would be required to first wash Netilat Yadayim before eating the moist piece of cake.
Ha’Rav Ovadiyah Yosef makes an exception in a case where one eats the food with a utensil – rather than directly with his hands – and the liquid had previously been cooked. There are some authorities who maintain that the Netilat Yadayim obligation does not apply if one eats the wet food with a utensil and there are others who claim that the obligation does not apply if the liquid had been cooked at some point before it came in contact with the food. Although we do not follow either of these opinions, we may rely on them in a situation where both factors are combined. For example, if a person uses a fork to dip a piece of cake or other food in his coffee or tea, he does not have to wash his hands before eating the cake. Similarly, if a person eats croutons in his soup with a spoon other utensil, he does not have to wash his hands. In these situations, the liquid in question (the tea, coffee or soup) had been cooked, and one uses a utensil, not his hands, so Netilat Yadayim is not required.