The Month of Elul
5. From the Sunday before Rosh HaShanah until Rosh Hashana itself, [it is customary to] rise early (1) to recite Selichos (special prayers for forgiveness). When Rosh HaShanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, however, we begin reciting Selichos on the Sunday of the preceding week.
When we rise [before dawn], it is necessary to wash one's hands (2) and recite the blessing for that washing ("al netilat yadayim") (3), as well as the blessings for Torah study. After Selichos, one should wash one's hands a second time without a blessing (4).
(1) In most Ashkenazic communities, it is customary to recite Selichos either shortly before or shortly after dawn, because the end of the night is seen as a time of favor ("es ratzon"). On the first night, however, Selichos are begun directly after midnight (that is, "chatzot"). Many Sephardic communities begin reciting Selichos at the beginning of the month of Elul.
(2) Three times alternatively on each hand.
(3) There are two opinions as to why we have an obligation to wash our hands in the morning with a blessing:
a) According to the Rosh, since, during the night, our hands have almost certainly touched parts of the body which are considered dirty, the Sages required us to wash before morning prayers.
b) According to the Rashba, we are considered like a new creation in the morning, and therefore have to purify our hands before serving God, just like the Cohen in the Beit Hamikdash ("Temple") had to wash his hands before beginning the morning sacrificial service (Mishna Berura, O"H, 4:1).
In general, the procedure in the morning is to wash one's hands immediately upon arising from bed (to remove the "ruach ra'ah"), then one uses the bathroom, washes again, and then recites the blessings for washing the hands ("al netilas yadayim") and for going to the bathroom ("Asher Yatzar"), and then the rest of the morning service (Mishna Berura 4:1- 4).
(4) There is an opinion that at dawn, the "ruach ra'ah" (spiritual impurity) returns to one's hands; therefore, we wash a second time, but without a blessing, because the Sages did not require a blessing just for the removal of the "ruach ra'ah" (Shulchan Aruch, O"H, 4:14).