Is it really forbidden to talk between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi?
And is it ever okay to speak between birkath ha-mossi and eating some bread?
These questions are explicit in the halakhah and it is only due to a personal custom of the Rosh brought down by the Tur (see OH 166 – where he re-interprets the Gemara to fit this practice of the Rosh – see Rabbeynu Yoel there) has there been any confusion on the issue. Rambam, Rashi, the Ba`alei Tosafoth, and many others agree that dibbur (talking) between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi does not constitute a hefseq (unless a heysah ha-da’ath is thereby created – see below).
The concept of hefseq (“interruption”) is only applicable between a berakhah and that which was the occasion of the berakhah (e.g. eating, drinking, performing a misswah, etc). In the case of netiylath yadhayim there is no hefseq through dibbur since one has already said the berakhah “`al netiylath yadhayim” and has washed [and dried] their hands. The saying of birkath ha-mossi is a separate matter which does require clean [washed] hands, but may be said hours after netilath yadhayim is performed as long as one is mindful of his hands (presumably to guard them from filth). [cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Berakhoth 6:18(17)]
In fact, heysah ha-da`ath [or coming into contact with filth – tenufah (e.g. feces) – which is the reason for guarding the hands in the first place] is the reason for the need to re-wash in every case. [cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Avoth HaTum’oth 13:3 , Hilkhoth Bi’ath HaMiqdash 5:1-6, Hilkhoth Hamess Umassah 8:6, et al] In fact, it is explicit that when one touches either his head or a wall his hands remain tahoroth and he need not wash netiylath yadhayim again because of it. [cf. Hilkhoth Miqwa’oth 11:5]
The Rambam writes in Hilkhoth Berakhoth 1:8 (in the midst of his list of general principles with regard to berakhoth – i.e. “kol ha-berakhoth kulan…”) the following:
כל הברכות כולן לא יפסיק בין הברכה ובין דבר שמברכין עליו בדברים אחרים ואם הפסיק צריך לחזור ולברך שנייה ואם הפסיק בדברים שהן מעניין דבר שמברכין עליו, אינו צריך לברך שנייה כיצד כגון שבירך על הפת וקודם שיאכל אמר הביאו מלח הביאו תבשיל תנו לפלוני לאכול תנו מאכל לבהמה וכיוצא באלו אינו צריך לברך וכן כל כיוצא בזה
Kol ha-berakhoth kulan, lo yafsiyq beyn ha-berakhah uveyn ha-davar she-mevarkhiyn `alaw bi-dhevariym aherim. Wa-im hifsiyq ssariykh la-hazor ulevarekh sheniyyah. Wa-im hifsiyq bi-dhevariym she-hen me-`inyan davar she-mevarkhiyn `alaw eyno ssariykh levarekh sheniyyah. Kessadh? Keghon she-beyrekh `al ha-path wa-qodhem she-yokhal omer hevi’u melah, hevi’u tavshiyl, tenu lifloni le-ekhol, tenu ma’akhal livhemah, ukheyosse ba-ellu eyno ssariykh levarekh wa-khen kol ka-yosse ba-zeh
“With regard to every berakhah, one should not interrupt between the berakhah and the matter which is the occasion of the berakhah with other matters. And if one does so interrupt, he must go back and bless a second time. But if he interrupted with matters that are related to the subject of that which is the occasion of the berakhah, he does not need to go back and bless a second time. How is this? Like when one blesses upon bread and before he eats he says, “bring salt,” “bring the dish,” “give to so-and-so to eat,” “give food to the animal,” and other things like these – he does not need to bless [a second time] and the halakhah is the same for all similar cases.”
It can be clearly seen from here that it is permissible to ask someone to pass the salt in between netiylath yadhayim and birkath ha-mossi. In fact, bedi`avadh one can still ask for the salt even AFTER birkath ha-mossi before he has even taken a bite of bread! Additionally, if one speaks or makes a request directly related to eating or the laws of se`odhoth, it is not considered hefseq that would require a new berakhah.
The majority of the Rishonim and the Geonim interpret the phrase tekhef le-netiylath yadhayim berakhah – תכף לנטילת ידים ברכה (“Immediately following netiylath yadhayim is the berakhah“) as referring to mayim aharoniym (which is a full netiylah and is referred to as such – cf. Hilkhoth Berakhoth 6:1, 21) and not to mayim rishoniym at all. And even in the case of between mayim aharoniym and saying birkath ha-mazon it is not completely forbidden to speak, as long as such speech is relevant to the recitation of grace after meals.
It has been the custom of Yemenite Jews for millenia to speak at the table after washing netiylath yadhayim. Many have noted that it is actually a good time for singing songs or discussing divrey torah (as long as it is not in a heated manner since getting upset or angry can cause a heysah ha-da`ath).
But, hey, if you enjoy the serenity before eating, and if you enjoy listening to adults comically trying to communicate in strings of “tisk” and “nu?!,” then perhaps continuing the popular practice modeled after the Rosh is for you. Just don’t stay silent because you think it’s forbidden, because it’s not.