This week someone asked me to make a mayim achronim set for her. I said I would, and estimated the price at around $30.
She said she wanted a nice one as opposed to the cup and bowl they tend to rustle up from the kitchen for the job.
At my Shabbos and holiday table nowadays we do not have the custom of mayim achronim, which literally means “after waters.” My husband’s family did not have this handwashing ritual at their table and we follow their way. But when I was growing up in my childhood home, we did have this custom (in our home, a man’s custom) and passed around a cup and bowl, also random items from the kitchen, for mayim achronim after Shabbos or holiday meals. My father and brothers rinsed their fingertips with this system before bentshing (saying grace after meals). We would take the mayim achronim bowl off the table after use, as it was not fitting to leave the used rinse water uncovered there while speaking to G-d. However, it was OK to leave the used water bowl on the table if it was covered.
I wondered on occasion where this custom came from. Some people we know nowadays do it, particularly Sefardic Jews, but many people we know do not. (I found information I liked at OHR Online and Chabad.org if you want to know more.)
I went online to see what is out there, and how much sellers are charging.
There are very limited design concepts for mayim achronim. A set tends to be a tiny pitcher that sits atop a little well with a flared rim. The idea is to pour the water from the pitcher over one’s fingertips into the little well. Then the pitcher is replaced on top of the well, covering the hole and the used water inside it. I’ve seen it a million times.
There is also very limited profit in it. Competitive pricing really is around $30 per set; it was a good guess.
My challenge: Make a mayim achronim set that pours and contains well, looks interesting, and is not too labor intensive. ($30, after all, should not involve spending hours per piece.) It has to fit to the curve of the hand and have a gracefully handy shape, so that a child can pass it without spilling; must be stable when standing, (the pitcher has to stay upright); and satisfy my sense of aesthetics, which are somewhat nature oriented with simple lines.
Six tries later, I still don’t have the well portion of the mayim achronim, let alone the itty bitty pitcher. It’s not that the item is so complicated. It’s just not very interesting. Since the basic forms of the two parts are determined by their function, we’ve got a pitcher or cup, and a well. Ba dum bum.Whoopee. Can I just make them look like MY pitcher and well? That would make me happy.
Clean and contemporary…that’s what I want. Contemporary Organic. The ones I found scrolling around through Judaica web sites are aluminum, silver or wood. One- get this!- is silver plated resin. The surfaces tend to be silly, ornate, what my kids call plastered with grapes. Nyet.
Renee Vishinsky has a couple of nice stoneware pieces to see online. They are bowls with a raised well in the center and a classic little pitcher that sits on top of the well. (Check her work out online and in shops, it’s nice. She is a pro & has been for years.) I remember meeting Renee at the former Anshe Chesed Judaica craft fair in NYC in the late 80s, early 90s.. She is a wonderful Judaica potter. I saw a mayim achronim set at her booth. We had a conversation about the design, which in my still fairly novice yet freely offered opinion would have been improved by changing what was then a simple open bowl into a bowl with a well that could be covered. She hadn’t thought about having to take the thing off the table after using it and before benshing if the used water was uncovered. Renee was interested, though whether that helped facilitate the design change to her current one, I don’t know.
It’s nice to think about the potter I was then, in the late 80s, and the one I am now. A lot of water under that bridge! Renee said to me then, “I can throw any form I want.” She could, too. I was struck by her confidence. I’m almost there, maybe, after all this time.
More design thoughts to work through first, though.