“Blessed are You Lord our God King of the universe Who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us on the washing of the hands.”
There are are a few times during Jewish daily life that ritual hand washing is performed. The most commonly known one is before consuming bread. Before eating bread, one must fill up a vessel with water, pouring water over each hand. Afterwards, the blessing is recited, and only then may one recite the blessing over bread and eat.
In Judaism, water is a symbol for the Torah and spirituality. Water is the essence of physical life, because without it we would die – and yet, it is symbolic of spirituality, wisdom, and growth. Hands are symbolic of man’s interaction with the physical world. Bread is symbolic of physical sustenance, and is treated with respect. When one ritually washes their hands, they are reminding themselves to incorporate wisdom and spirituality in their everyday physical actions. Ritualistically washing hands before taking part in a meal is reminiscent of how the priests would behave in the Holy Temple, “And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet . . . when they come near to the altar to minister” (Exodus 30:19). They would wash their hands before doing their holy work or partaking in the holy offerings, and so too when we wash our hands before eating, we are creating a spiritual space at our table.
According to Jewish tradition, one must also ritualistically wash hands upon waking up in the morning. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote in his Code of Jewish Law,
Man entrusts his soul [to God at night] tired and exhausted, and G‑d restores it to him rejuvenated and refreshed so that he may serve his Creator with all his capacity, this being the purpose of man. Therefore we should sanctify ourselves with His holiness, and wash our hands with water from a vessel before serving Him and ministering to Him, like the priest who would wash his hands from the basin each day before beginning his service [in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem].
When we sleep, our soul returns to the Almighty, and He returns it to us restored and rejuvenated for the day. We prepare ourselves spiritually for the day and remind ourselves to add an element of spirituality (water) to all of our physical actions (hands).