Shalom and thank you for your question! You wish to understand the practice of ritual hand-washing with a jug. (It is called a natla in Hebrew and a kvertel in Yiddish.) You question whether it is not more hygienic to wash hands with soap? The answer is – yes it is hygienic to wash hands with soap but if the hands are soiled, they should be washed with soap before the ritual washing. Where do we get the idea of ritual washing from? Isn’t it enough to be hygienic?
To understand this better we must take a look at the history of hand-washing in Judaism, and understand the meaning behind it. In the book of Exodus (which we are currently reading in the weekly Torah portions of this time of the year,) we learn about the Sanctuary (Mishkan in Hebrew) in which the Jews served G-d after the sin of the Golden Calf. The Cohanim were people from the tribe of Levi who were entrusted with running the holy services in the Mishkan in the Sinai desert as well as in the Holy Land of Israel, and generations later in the Holy first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Before entering the inner sanctum, they would wash their hands and feet from the copper basin in the courtyard. In Exodus 30:19-20-21 we learn that “this shall be for them a permanent statute.” Thus we see that there is a type of hand-washing which is a preparation for performing commandments. Later on, in the book of Leviticus, chapter 15, a different kind of washing is described. This latter type of washing is for when a person has had contact with impurity. The hand-washing then is in order to become purified. The Jewish legal aspect of these mitzvot is referred to in the tractate Yadayim (hands) in the Mishna, and discussed more fully in several tractates of the Talmud, including tractate Chulin 105:1 – 107:2.
The Torah itself tells us to “Carry out the instructions of the Sages in all that they instruct you.” (Deuteronomy 17:11.) Examples of practices instituted by the Sages are the lighting of the Sabbath candles and the celebration of Chanukah, as well as the reading of the Megilla on Purim. Hand-washing also was instituted by the Sages in light of the above-mentioned sources.
All right, but what does it all mean? Today we do not have a Temple, (unfortunately! In fact we pray constantly to witness the rebuilding of theTemple,) and we do mostly keep clean! The thing is – it isn’t only about physical cleanliness, it is about spirituality and purity. According to Judaism, spirituality does not mean cutting oneself off from society and going to dwell on a mountain top in absolute silence. (It doesn’t hurt to get out of the city and enjoy G-d’s beautiful creations in gratitude.) Spirituality means doing PHYSICAL things that G-d commanded, like putting on Tefillin made from cowhide, eating kosher food, and washing our hands – ritually. The commandments of the Torah involve the physical world, and the performance of those commandments ELEVATES the physical material objects being used, to become spiritual artifacts. It elevates the person carrying out the mitzvot to a higher spiritual level – meaning that it brings him/her closer to G-d. (Of course sincere intent and being good people is an inseparable part of this.)
Torah tells us what kind of vessel should be used for this washing. It should be a round vessel without dips in its lip or cracks. The vessel should be clean and the hands being washed should be clean.
What does purity mean? It is a state of potential for life and for coming closer to G-d. The definition of what is pure or impure is detailed in the Torah. The common denominator of impurity is that it has to do with death. Bodily discharges of materials that had potential for life, such as unusual discharges of hormonal nature, from both men and women, are considered impure. Sleep is considered a 60th of death and thus we must wash our hands upon waking up, since the impurity caused by sleep is concentrated in our fingers at that point. We say a prayer thanking G-d for returning our souls and then wash. Preferably close to the bed. After going to the toilet we need to clean our hands if they became soiled, and then wash ritually with a cup, pouring the water alternately on one hand and then the other three times. (Some have the custom of only twice on each hand.) When washing the hands before eating bread, we should have the intention of eating the food in order to have strength to learn Torah and carry out its commandments, and the preparatory washing is done three times consecutively on the right hand and then the left. (Or twice each according to certain customs.) The Kabbala, which explains the spiritual dimension of the mitzvot, favors the custom of three times on each hand.
Again, we must realize that true spirituality involves the physical world and physical objects, which are used in accordance with G-d’s commandments, and thereby become holy. Before the Torah was given physical objects could not become holy. The gift of receiving the Torah from G-d brought about a new era where objects used for mitzvot become holy. Most people would feel the need to lift up a prayer book or Torah scroll if it fell on the floor G-d forbid. In the same way, washing the hands physically, is a holy thing when done according to the instructions of the Torah. By performing G-d’s commandments we purify and elevate the material world and prepare it for the time when, as stated by the prophet Zachariah 13:2 “and I shall remove the spirit of impurity from the earth.”