Bleaching or Laundering?

Parshas Pinchas is the only parsha that mentions specifically the korbanos offered on Shabbos, thus, providing a reason to discuss the laws of Shabbos.


Bleaching or Laundering?


Question #1: Bleaching or laundering?


“Is the name of the melacha bleaching or laundering?”


Question #2: Painting white


“If someone whitewashes his wall or paints something white, what melacha has he performed?”


Question #3: Threading a thread


“What could possibly be wrong with moistening a thread on Shabbos?”


Among the 39 melachos of Shabbos listed in the Mishnah is melabein, which I will translate and define shortly. It is the second of the thirteen melachos involved in manufacturing a garment, which is referred to as sidura debeged. In order, they are: Gozeiz (shearing), melabein, menapeitz (carding or untangling), tzovei’a (dyeing), toveh (spinning thread), meisach (warping, a step in preparing to weave), oseh batei nirim (creating a heddle, a further step in preparing to weave, oreig (weaving), potzei’a (undoing a weave), kosheir (tying), matir (untying), tofeir (sewing), and korei’a (tearing).


Bleaching or laundering?


The rishonim dispute what is the definition and the proper translation of melabein. According to Rashi (Shabbos 73a), the correct translation of the melacha is laundering. The Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 9:10) disagrees, contending that the actual definition of the av melacha is bleaching, which means removing the color from a fabric or fiber. Although the Rambam agrees that laundering on Shabbos is prohibited min haTorah, in his opinion, laundering is a toladah, or subcategory, of the melacha of melabein, not the av melacha, or primary category.


A question that one would ask on this ruling of the Rambam is why bleaching is not considered the same melacha as tzovei’a, dyeing, which is also concerned with changing the color of a fiber. Since melabein is bleaching, which changes the color of an item, and tzovei’a is dyeing, which changes the color of an item, why are these two separate melachos?


The answer appears to be that whereas tzovei’a adds color to the fiber, bleaching removes color from the fiber. In the Rambam’s opinion, a distinction is made between adding color to an item, which constitutes tzovei’a, and bleaching it, which removes the color and constitutes melabein. Laundering, which removes impurities from the cloth that detract from its appearance, is therefore a toladah of melabein.


An advantage to the Rambam’s approach is that melabein shares its root with lavan, which means white. (As a curiosity, the Modern Hebrew word for bleaching is malbin, derived from the same root, lavan. The word malbin is used in the Mishnah [Nega’im 4:4], although there it has a different meaning from the modern word. In the Mishnah the word means turning white. [See a similar usage in Parah 2:5.]) Since Rashi understands that the av melacha melabein means laundering, it is strange that the Mishnah did not call the melacha mechabeis, which means laundering.


It should be noted that there is a rishon who appears to hold that bleaching is not included under melabein at all, but is forbidden because of tzovei’a (see Tosafos, Bava Kamma 93b s.v. ha). This approach follows Rashi that melabein means laundering, but restricts laundering to actions that clean, and does not extend it to those that change the material’s color. Any activities that change an item’s color are considered tzovei’a, according to this opinion.


Clean or color?


This dispute between Rashi and the Rambam reflects different ways of understanding the concept of the melacha. According to Rashi, the focus of the melacha is the cleaning of cloth, whereas the Rambam understands its focus to be changing the cloth’s appearance. Laundering is included, according to the Rambam, because it changes the appearance of the cloth, albeit by removing dirt rather than by removing color.


There are halachic differences that result from this dispute, although I am unaware of any that affect us today. When the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt, bimheira biyameinu, there will be questions regarding offering korbanos chatos that will be affected by the dispute between Rashi and the Rambam.


Notwithstanding their dispute, both Rashi and the Rambam agree that all forms of laundering are prohibited on Shabbos. In the modern world, most laundering is performed by dropping clothes into a washing machine, adding detergent, and turning the machine on to its appropriate cycle. However, prior to the invention of the washing machine, mankind was familiar with the different stages involved when laundering clothing. There are numerous questions germane to the details of how one launders clothing that affect the halachic application of melabein.


Several stages


There are several stages involved in laundering. First, one soaks the clothing or fiber, which loosens the grime. Then, one scrubs the clothing or fiber, which separates the loosened grime from the fibers of the material. One then wrings out the water, which removes much of the dirt. Finally, one rinses out the material, which washes away the remaining dirt residue. Thus, the standard way of laundering clothes involves four different steps: soaking, scrubbing, wringing, and rinsing. Let us now understand some other halachic ramification of these steps.




The Gemara teaches that throwing a kerchief into water violates Shabbos min haTorah as an act of laundering (Zevachim 94b). As we will see shortly, this is prohibited not only if one soaks the cloth, but even if one only moistens it (Rashi, Shabbos 142b).


The rishonim disagree as to whether one violates melabein if one soaks cloth that one is not trying to clean. There is also a dispute whether soaking or moistening cloth is prohibited if one does it in a way that one is soiling the cloth, such as by mopping up a spill with a piece of cloth or a rag on Shabbos. Because of space limitations, we will need to discuss these topics at a future time.


Rashi (Shabbos 142b) notes that pouring a small amount of water onto cloth similarly violates laundering. For this reason, one must always be careful not to place even a small amount of water or spittle on a stain on Shabbos. This is prohibited min haTorah even if one is concerned that the stain will set and ruin the garment.


Moistening a thread


The Yerushalmi (Shabbos 7:2) rules that moistening a thread in one’s mouth on Shabbos, such as what one would do to thread a needle, violates a Torah violation of soaking the thread. It is unclear whether the Yerushalmi considers any moistening of a thread, even with water, to be laundering, or if the concern is only because one is using saliva, which has a special ability to launder, something that was well-known in the days of Chazal (Mishnah, Niddah 9:6).


Here is an interesting ramification of this ruling. Someone sewed a button onto their garment shortly before Shabbos. On Shabbos, he noticed that there was extra thread dangling from the button of a garment. The logical, short-term solution for this problem is to moisten the offending extra thread and wrap it around under a button. However, halachically, doing this presents a serious problem. According to the above-quoted Yerushalmi, moistening the thread in order to facilitate this winding is prohibited min haTorah!




One of the steps in laundering clothing is that one wrings the dirty water out of the clothing. Wringing out cloth is a kind of squeezing. This sometimes creates confusion, because, the laws of Shabbos recognize two types of squeezing, what I will call (1) extracting and (2) wringing. The first type involves extracting juice or oil from fruit, such as grapes or olives, which is prohibited on Shabbos but has nothing to do with the laws of laundering. According to most rishonim, this type of squeezing is a violation of the melacha of dosh, threshing. The melacha of dosh is violated when one breaks the natural, physical connection between two items that are dissimilar in their use, thus creating a product that can be used easily. Further discussion of this type of squeezing, extracting, is beyond the scope of this article, whose topic is laundering.




Wringing cloth to clean it is a different type of squeezing, and this is involved only when one squeezes out something that can be laundered, such as cloth or fabric. According to all opinions, it is forbidden min haTorah to squeeze water out of cloth. The rishonim debate whether this melacha is violated when one wrings out a cloth to remove absorbed wine, beer, oil or other liquids that are not customarily used for cleaning. Rabbeinu Tam contends that squeezing these liquids out of cloth is not prohibited min haTorah unless one wants to use the liquid (in which case it would be prohibited because it is considered extracting), whereas his nephew, Rabbeinu Yitzchok (whose name is usually abbreviated to R’Y), ruled that it is prohibited min haTorah (Tosafos, Kesubos 6a s.v. Hei, and other rishonim ad locum; Sefer Hayoshor #283; Tosafos, Shabbos 111a). Because of space considerations, further discussion on this subtopic will be left for a future article.


Brushing a garment


According to many authorities, one can violate melabein even without use of water by brushing out a garment, at least under certain circumstances (Rema, Orach Chayim 302:1; Bach, Elyah Rabbah, Mishnah Berurah, Biur Halacha). For this reason, one should refrain from brushing clothes on Shabbos. The Mishnah Berurah (302:6) rules that one should be careful on Shabbos to place his clothes in places where they will not fall into dust or dirt, so that he does not come to brush the clothes.


At this point, we can answer the three questions that we posed at the beginning of our article:


Bleaching or laundering?


“Is the name of the melacha bleaching or laundering?”


Actually, it is a dispute among rishonim whether the melacha should be defined as


bleaching or as laundering, although for our contemporary purposes there may not be a halacha lemaaseh difference.


Painting white


“If someone whitewashes his wall or paints something white, what melacha has he performed?”


The answer is that he violated the melacha of tzovei’a, dyeing, not of melabein.


Threading a thread


“What could possibly be wrong with moistening a thread on Shabbos?”


Indeed, it might be prohibited min haTorah to do so, because it is considered that one laundered the thread.


We will continue our discussion of meleches melabein in three weeks.