By Rabbi David Markel Hall
The act of washing body, hands or feet, ceremonially, demonstrates the state of the person spiritually.
(1) Exodus 30:19-21; shows the importance of this statement. 19) "For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: 20) When they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD: 21) So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not: and it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his seed throughout their generations."
Matt 27:24 says that Pilot washed his hands before the people declaring that he was innocent of Yeshua's blood.
Mark 7:3 shows the people holding to the tradition of rachatzah (the hand washing ceremony) As they wash their hands they say "baruch atah haShem Eloheynu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu bmitzvotav v'tzivanu al n'tiylat yadayim." which means "Blessed are you hashem our G-d king of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of the hands."
The explanation for doing this is found in the reference Psalm 24:2,3 "Who may ascend the hill of the L-rd? or who shall stand by His holy place? He that has clean hands and a pure heart." In the ceremony, no attempt is made to wash the hands for cleaning them via soap etc. because the purpose is to show the clean (innocent) state of the hands. Washing the hands do not make one innocent. This is confirmed by Yeshua's words when the Pharisees enquired why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating. "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man but what proceeds out of the heart."
The Talmud, Mishnah tells us that the High priest immersed himself five times and washed his hands and feet ten times during the sacrifices and ministering of the office on Yom Kippur ( Moed, Yoma 3 Mishneh 3).
The question has been as regarding "effusion" or the pouring of water over the initiate. There are references to this in the Torah. Exodus 29:7, Leviticus14:18 and in the writings of the Kings, 2 Kings 9:3 etc.. Although these references are using oil instead of water, it shows the purpose of demonstrating the anointing of G-d on the one who is undergoing the ceremony. It is assumed this could be extended to ceremonial cleansing although I know of no such custom in Judaism either currently or historically.
An interesting reference is found in Acts 8:27-39. The Ethiopian eunuch was Jewish. He was returning from Jerusalem after a Holy Day (v. 27). Notice that Phillip did not say, "You must be baptized." It was the eunuch's idea. It also says they went into the water and came up out of the water.
Because this is a Jewish rite, we can draw certain conclusions from this experience. First, it is normal to undergo ritual immersion in miqveh (a large body of living water) after learning something which changes one's life. Secondly, They both went into the water and came up out of the water. Thirdly, In Jewish immersion, the one being immersed is not assisted in the rite, but immerses him/her self in water (see 2 Kings 5:10-14). The other participant is for witness only to make sure that all the hair and body parts go completely under. Immersion is traditionally done in the nude when a secluded place is available. The witness is of the same gender as the initiate. If a secluded place is not available, a sheet is normally used to block the view of others (not the witnesses) who might look on as was the case for the High Priest at Yom Kippur services (Yoma 3 Mishnah 4).
The objection has been made that if an initiate immerses him/herself, it does not properly represent the death, burial and resurrection of the believer. I say that it is a more exact representation of this nature because unlike the natural death where one must be burried by another, we volunteer ourselves to this death and burry ourselves willingly. The change that takes place is a choice. We are also picturing Yeshua's death burial and resurrection. He said "no man take my life but I give it willingly." He also said, "destroy this temple and I will raise it up." This is more fully pictured by our coming up out of the water by our own strength.
It is rumored that there is a painting, in the catacombs of the Vatican, of the immersion of Yeshua (Jesus) with Yochanan (John the immerser) watching from the bank of the river Jordan. I have not verified it personally (if it can be verified) but the sources seem to be reliable.