With the meal at a conclusion, it is time to thank God for our sustenance and for all the blessings in our life.
Yet, before we bentch (the saying of the Grace After Meals), we clean our fingertips. This is a small ceremony called "Mayim Achronim", which literally means "After Waters", or, as some call it, a "Jewish fingerbowl".
If one is attending a Shabbat meal at a traditional home, there will be other customs apparent at this point. Men who have removed their jackets during the meal will often put them back on, for there is a general feeling of formality about the next step.
Our blessings and thanks at the end of the meal are directed toward God. He is King, and just as one would dress in one's best if going before royalty, so does one act appropriately when addressing The Almighty.
Before we handle anything physically precious-- a silver goblet, a newborn baby, a priceless artifact, we make sure our hands are clean. It is a recognition that physical objects can have tremendous value.
Mayim Achronim recognizes the tremendous value of the spiritual. Thus, before we approach God and get in touch with all that He has given us; we clean our hands, respectfully don our jackets, and give thanks.
After the singing of "Shir Hamalos", one of the hosts will go to the kitchen and fill a small container with water. There are beautiful sets that can be purchased for this purpose, coming in a wide variety of styles--- a wishing well with the water held in a little bucket...silver cup and saucer sets...those made of brass...
But all that is really needed is a simple cup and small bowl.
1. Fill the cup with water, set it in a small bowl, and bring it to the table.
2. Pass it around to those present, with each person pouring a little bit of water over their fingertips (from the middle knuckle down), over the bowl.
3. When everyone has washed, remove the cup and bowl from the table before bentching. (The used water is considered "unclean".)