The Prohibition against Laundering on Shabbat

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Oct 30, 2009
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The Prohibition against Laundering on Shabbat


The Mishna, Shabbat 73a, records melaben, bleaching, as one of the thirty-nine avot melachot (categories of prohibited activities) of Shabbat.  Laundering a garment is included in this melacha.  [According to Rashi (1040-1105), Shabbat 73a, s.v. VeHaMelabno, the av melacha includes laundering.  According to Rambam (1135-1204), Hilchot Shabbat 9:11, laundering is a toldah (sub-category) of the melacha of melaben.]  In this issue, we will discuss some of the practical applications of the prohibition against laundering on Shabbat.



Wetting Garments as a Form of Laundry


The Gemara, Zevachim 94b, states that if one soaks a garment in water, it is considered laundering on a biblical level.  The Rishonim question how this ruling can be resolved with two passages in the Gemara that seem to permit soaking a garment in water.  First, the Gemara, Beitzah 18a, discusses the prohibition against immersing garments on Yom Tov.  [In times when ritual purity was observed, certain situations required immersion of clothing.]  The Gemara states that if a woman who is a niddah needs clothing for Yom Tov, there is a way for her to immerse her garments.  When she immerses for the purpose of removing her niddah status, she should enter the mikveh with her clothes on and this way, they will become pure.  This statement implies that there is no prohibition to soak clothing in water.  Second, the Gemara, Yoma 77b, cites a Beraita that states that if a student is visiting his teacher on Yom Kippur and he needs to cross a river, he may walk through the river on Yom Kippur.  This implies that there is no prohibition against soaking garments on Shabbat because the student's clothing will get soaked as he crosses the river.


The Rishonim provide three resolutions to the apparent contradiction.  First, Tosafot, Shabbat 111b, suggest that the prohibition against soaking clothing in water only applies to clothing that is dirty.  The two passages in the Gemara that permit soaking one's clothing in water are assuming that one is wearing garments that are clean.  Second, Rabbeinu Yitzchak (cited in Tosafot, ibid) suggests that the prohibition against soaking clothing in water does not apply if the activity is one that normally makes the clothing dirtier.  As such, the basis of the passages in the Gemara that permit going into a mikveh in one's clothes or going through a river in one's clothes is that these activities generally make the clothing dirtier.  Third, Maharam of Rutenberg (1215-1293, cited in Tur, Orach Chaim no. 302) suggests that the prohibition against soaking clothing in water only applies to linen garments.


Maharam's interpretation does not allow for the other leniencies presented by the Rishonim.  For this reason, Maharam rules that it is prohibited to dry one's hands with a linen towel on Shabbat because the water on one's hands will cause the towel to be laundered.  Tur, op. cit., disagrees and maintains that since there is only a small amount of water, it is permissible.  R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575), Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim no. 302, notes that according to Rabbeinu Yitzchak's opinion, it is permissible to dry one's hands with a towel because drying one's hands is an activity that usually makes the towel dirtier.  He also quotes R. Moshe ben Ya'akov of Coucy (13th century), Semag, Lavin no. 65, that the basis to allow wetting a garment with a small amount of water is that when there is a small amount of water, one does not normally intend to launder the garment.


Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 302:9-10, does not directly address which opinion is the normative opinion.  Nevertheless, he rules that it is preferable to shake the water from one's hands before using a towel.  This implies that it is permissible to dry one's hands with a towel, but one should show deference to the opinion of Maharam.  Rama (1520-1572), ad loc., cites a dispute whether one may wet a garment that is not dirty.  In providing the rationale for drying one's hands with a towel, Rama writes that drying one's hands is an activity that usually makes the towel dirtier.  R. Yisrael M. Kagan (1838-1933), Mishna Berurah 302:46, adds (based on the opinion of Semag) that it is prohibited to place even a small amount of water on a garment if one's intent is to remove a stain.


The Gemara, Zevachim 94b, states that leather garments are not subject to the principle that soaking a garment constitutes laundering.  One only violates the prohibition against laundering a leather garment if one scrubs the stain with water.  R. Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De'ah 2:76, notes that logically, plastic should be less stringent than leather because plastic is not absorbent at all.  As such, it should be permissible to scrub a plastic tablecloth.  However, R. Feinstein notes that since there is no explicit ruling on this matter, it is proper to scrub lightly, rather than scrubbing with force.



Removing Dirt from Clothing


The Gemara, Shabbat 141a, states that if one has dirt on one's clothing, he should remove it by rubbing the inside of the garment and not the outside of the garment.  Rashi, ad loc., s.v. MiBifnim explains that because there is no water involved, there is no biblical prohibition in removing the dirt.  However, since it looks like laundering, the rabbis required one to rub the stain from the inside of the garment where it does not give the appearance of laundering.  Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 22:17, has a different explanation.  He writes that the rabbis were concerned that if someone rubs the dirt on the outside, he may attempt to remove the dirt through a biblically prohibited form of laundering.


The Gemara cites a Beraita that an alternative method or removing the dirt is to use one's fingernail to scrape off the dirt.  Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), Shabbat 20:14, adds that one may use a knife.  However, Rambam op. cit., implies that one may only use one's fingernail. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 302:7, rules in accordance with the opinion of Rambam.


Rabbeinu Yehuda (cited in Hagahot Rabbeinu Peretz L'Semak 282:15) qualifies the Gemara's discussion.  He suggests that one can only remove dirt from a garment if the dirt is wet.  However, if it is dry, removing the dirt constitutes a violation of the melacha of tochein (grinding).  [R. Avraham Borenstein (1838-1910), Eglei Tal, Tochein no. 21, explains that dirt has unique properties within the melacha of tochein and is therefore subject to tochein, even if it was previously ground.]  Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 302:7, cites the opinion of Rabbeinu Yehuda.



Shaking off Dust


The Gemara, Shabbat 147a, states that it is a biblical prohibition to shake a garment on Shabbat.  The Gemara then limits the statement to a new garment that is dark and the individual wearing the garment does not want to wear it until it is shaken.  Rashi, ad loc., s.v. HaMena'er, writes that the discussion is dealing with someone who wants to shake dust off of his garment.  Rabbeinu Chananel (990-1053), ad loc., and Tosafot, ad loc., s.v. HaMena'er, contend that the discussion is dealing with someone whose garment is covered with dew.  Tosafot assert that there is no prohibition against shaking off dust because it not a form of laundering.


Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 302:1, codifies the opinion of Rabbeinu Chananel and Tosafot.  Rama, ad loc., cites the opinion of Rashi and adds that it is preferable not to shake dust off of one's garments.


R. Yonatan Eibeschitz (1690-1764), Ye'arot Devash Vol. II, Derush no. 1, suggests that the definition of a new garment is any garment where one is particular if there is dust on it.  As such, he suggests that one should not wear dark clothing on Shabbat because it is inevitable that one will shake off dust from the garment.  Mishna Berurah, Bei'ur Halacha 302:1, s.v. Lachush notes that most Acharonim don't accept R. Eibeschitz's definition of a new garment.  Nevertheless, he writes that one should ideally try to ensure that one's clothes don't become dusty and if they do, one should wipe off the dust in an irregular manner.





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