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Can a Lens be Laundered? How do I Care for my Soft Contacts on Shabbos?

Certainly, on Shabbos Bereishis it is
appropriate to discuss hilchos Shabbos.

Photo by Julia R. from FreeImages

Question: My friend and I both wear soft contact lens, but we received very different instructions how to care for them on Shabbos. Could you please explain the background to the shailohs involved?

Answer: From a halachic perspective, the question is whether cleaning soft lenses on Shabbos is different from washing the older, hard lenses or from cleaning ordinary eyeglasses, for that matter. The technical difference between them is that soft lenses absorb water, whereas the other lenses do not. Therefore, contemporary poskim dispute whether cleaning soft lenses involves a prohibition of laundering on Shabbos. To explain this dispute, we must first introduce the halachic concepts of laundering on Shabbos.

One of the activities necessary to construct the mishkan
was cleaning and bleaching the wool for its curtains. Therefore, one of the
thirty-nine avos melachos (main categories) of Shabbos is melabein,
which translates either as laundering (Rashi, Shabbos 73a) or as
bleaching (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 9:11). Both opinions
agree that laundering fiber or clothing is prohibited min haTorah
because it improves the wool’s appearance.

To illustrate this melacha’s details, we will first
explain the halachos of regular laundering. Washing clothes involves
three steps;

(1) soaking them
in water or another cleaning liquid.

(2) scrubbing out the dirt. 

(3) wringing the water out of the clothes.

Each of these steps is prohibited min haTorah because
of laundering.

SOAKING

The first step is soaking. Simply placing dirty clothes into
water to soak is a Torah violation of melabein. In the words of the amora,
Rava, “Someone who threw a handkerchief into water violated a Torah prohibition
of laundering on Shabbos” (Zevachim 94b).

Some poskim forbid soaking clean clothes (Yerei’im;
see Rema, Orach Chayim 302:9), since this whitens or brightens them.
(For purposes of meleches melabein, a “clean garment” means one without
noticeable stains or obvious dirt.) Others contend that soaking a garment is
prohibited only if there is noticeable dirt that will thereby be removed (Tosafos
Yeshanim
and Rosh, Yoma 74b). Although most poskim are
lenient, one should preferably follow the more stringent opinion (Mishnah
Berurah
302:48).

Some later poskim contend that the opinion forbidding
soaking a “clean garment” does so only when the soaking causes a noticeable
change, e.g., the garment looks brighter afterward. However, it is permitted to
soak a clean item that never brightens when it is soaked (Shu”t Avnei Nezer
159:10; Koveitz Teshuvos #18; cf. Graz 302:21 who disagrees.)
Later in this article, we will see how this factor affects our discussion about
contact lenses.

Sprinkling water on clothing is also considered soaking, and
this is certainly so if one intends to clean it. Therefore, if food splatters
on your shirt or blouse on Shabbos, placing some water or even saliva on
the stain so that it does not set is a Torah violation of laundering.

The poskim dispute whether one may moisten cloth
while making it dirty. For example, may one mop up spilled juice with a rag? If
this is prohibited because it is considered melabein, then one is
required to shake the excess water off one’s hands before drying them on a
towel, even though drying one’s hands soils the towel.

Other poskim contend that it is permitted to moisten cloth
while making it dirty. In their opinion, one may dry drenched hands on a towel.
The halacha is like the latter opinion, and, therefore, it is permitted
to throw a towel onto a spill (Shulchan Aruch and Rema, Orach Chayim
302:10).

To wipe up a spill, one should use a towel or rag, rather
than a garment, if it will get drenched. This is out of concern that one might
squeeze out a soaked garment (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 302
11). We are not concerned that he will forget and squeeze a towel or rag, since
they are meant for this purpose.

When absorbent paper towels came on the market, there was a
need to clarify their halachic status. Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that one may
wipe up a spill with a paper towel because paper is not an item that is
laundered (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 2:70).
(However, one should not squeeze out the paper towel because of the prohibition
of “mefareik,” extracting a liquid from a solid, which we will discuss a
different time iy”H.)

SCRUBBING

The second stage of laundering is scrubbing, which actively
dislodges dirt from the garment. This is the main step in cleaning a garment.
Any type of scrubbing or scouring clothing or material violates the prohibition
of laundering on Shabbos.

WRINGING

The final stage in laundering is squeezing out the water.
This is prohibited because the garment’s appearance is improved by squeezing
out absorbed liquid (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim end of 301, quoting
Kolbo). Thus, one can violate melabein by wringing out a garment,
even if it is totally clean. Furthermore, when squeezing water out of a
garment, one generally also squeezes out dirt (Shu”t Avnei Nezer 159:19,
23).

WASHING DISHES

Why are we permitted to wash dishes on Shabbos?
Aren’t we removing dirt from the dishes and improving their appearance?

Laundering clothing is different because this removes dirt
that became absorbed between the fibers of the fabric. However, the food and
dirt on dishes sticks to their surface and does not absorb into the dish. Thus,
washing dishes is halachically different from laundering (Shu”t Avnei
Nezer
, Orach Chayim 157:4).

(Note that it is prohibited to wash dishes on Shabbos
when one is obviously washing them to use after Shabbos [Shulchan
Aruch
, Orach Chayim 323:6]. However, this is a violation of
preparing on Shabbos for after Shabbos and has nothing to do with
the prohibition of laundering. Note also that since most poskim prohibit
using hot water from the faucet in modern homes on Shabbos, we are
discussing washing dishes in cold water or with hot water from an urn.)

LEATHER

We have seen that soaking, scrubbing, or wringing out
clothing violates melabein on Shabbos and that soaking or
scrubbing dirty dishes does not. There is a material that falls in between
dishes and normal clothing: leather. It is permitted to soak leather, although
it is prohibited to scrub it or to wring liquid out of it, as I will explain.

Halacha forbids scrubbing soft leather on Shabbos,
although it is disputed whether this is prohibited min haTorah or only miderabbanan
(Graz, Orach Chayim 302:19; Shu”t Avnei Nezer, Orach
Chayim
157:2; Orach Chayim 302:9 s.v. Aval). Those who
contend that it is miderabbanan are of the opinion that dirt never
absorbs into leather – it merely adheres to its surface, like it does to dishes
(Shu”t Avnei Nezer, Orach Chayim 157:5). However, since leather
is not as hard as dishes, it is still prohibited miderabbanan to scrub
dirt off the leather, even though it is permitted to scrub dishes clean.

All opinions agree that one may soak leather on Shabbos.
Thus, one may pour water on shoes and leather jackets that became dirty on Shabbos
and even rub lightly to remove the dirt. However, one may not scrub dirt off
shoes and jackets (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 302:9). (Shoes
and leather jackets are considered soft leather, whereas many leather-bound
books are considered hard leather. One must check that the entire shoe is
leather because many leather shoes have cloth parts that may not be soaked on Shabbos.)

Although soaking is generally considered the first step in
laundering, this only applies to clothes and fabrics where the soaking begins
the cleaning process. Leather is different because, although soaking dirty
leather or hide loosens the dirt, it does not significantly improve the
appearance of the leather.  Nevertheless, it is prohibited miderabbanan
to squeeze wet leather (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 9:11).

HARD LEATHER

Most poskim allow scrubbing hard leather on Shabbos
(and certainly soaking it), although some contend that this is prohibited miderabbanan
(She’iltos, quoted by Mishnah Berurah 302:39). Thus, if a
leather-bound book becomes soiled with mud on Shabbos, it is permitted
to scrub it clean before the mud dries. Once the mud dries, this would be
prohibited because of tochein, grinding (Shulchan Aruch, Orach
Chayim
302:7).

PLASTIC

Hard plastic plates or cups are considered like dishes and
may be washed on Shabbos.

What is the halachic status of soft plastic items,
such as disposable tablecloth covers? Is there a prohibition of melabein
in washing these plastic tablecloths? Are they considered like dishes, like
leather, or like cloth?

The great poskim who lived after the invention of
these tablecloths discuss whether they should be treated like leather or like
dishes. They conclude that, although they are probably most comparable to
dishes, one should be strict and treat them like soft leather. Thus, one may
rinse or soak them, but should be stringent not to scrub them (Shu”t Igros
Moshe
, Yoreh Deah 2:76; Shulchan Shelomoh, Hilchos Shabbos
I 302:15). Following this approach, children’s rubber pants (if anyone still
has them) or plastic sheets can be soaked since they do not absorb liquid,
but if one has a cloth item with a plastic lining, that cannot be soaked. 

PLASTIC LENSES

Now that we have explained these
cases, we can return to our original question about cleaning contact lenses.

To the best of my knowledge, all contemporary poskim
agree that hard contact lenses and eyeglass lenses, whether glass or plastic,
may be washed on Shabbos, just like dishes. Since they are hard, we
assume that the dirt adheres to their surface and does not absorb inside them.

The standard care of soft lenses is to remove them from the wearer’s eyes
and place them in a special antiseptic solution overnight. In the morning, one
removes the lenses from the solution, rubs a finger over them to remove any
remaining dirt, and reinserts them.

The lenses are soaked for three reasons.

First, to sanitize the lens from microscopic germs that can cause infection.
This is why the solution is antiseptic.

Second, to clean the lens from dirt and tears; although they are initially
unnoticeable, eventually they collect on the lens and make it cloudy. Rubbing
one’s finger over the lens before reinserting it removes the dirt and tears
that are not always removed simply by soaking the lenses.

The third reason to soak the lens is to keep it soft and pliable. If the
lens is not kept moist, it will dry out and become unusable. For this purpose,
however, it is unnecessary to soak the lens in a cleaning solution – soaking it
in a sterile saline solution suffices.

Under normal circumstances, no dirt is noticeable on the lens. It is unclear
whether the dirt and tears are absorbed into the lens or lie on the surface,
and this lack of clarity makes a big difference in our shailah.

The halachic question is whether placing the lenses
into the solution, removing them from the solution, and rubbing them involve
any violation of laundering on Shabbos. Does placing the lens into
solution constitute soaking? Is removing them considered squeezing since the
cleaning fluid is now being removed or “squeezed” out of the lens? Is rubbing
them equivalent to scrubbing? Or do we say that these lenses are no different
from hard lenses?

As mentioned above, the critical difference is that, whereas
hard lenses do not absorb liquid, soft contact lenses do, and actually absorb considerably
more liquid than leather does. Whereas some lenses absorb as much as 70% water
content by weight, most leather absorbs little or no water at all. (Some
leather absorbs liquid, but never this much.) Because lenses absorb so much
water, it can be argued that they are like cloth and, therefore, all these
steps should be prohibited.

However, every posek I saw disputes this conclusion
because the lens remains unchanged when the liquid is added and removed. As
mentioned above, soaking a clean garment is prohibited only when it causes a
noticeable improvement, such as the garment looks brighter afterwards. However,
the appearance of soft lenses are unchanged by the soaking, and therefore
soaking alone does not violate any laws of Shabbos (Orchos Shabbos;
Shu”t Yevakeish Torah 5:11).

Some poskim distinguish between the normal cleaning
solution and a pure saline solution (Kovetz Teshuvos #18). In their
opinion, placing leather in a powerful cleaning solution is equivalent to
scrubbing leather and is prohibited on Shabbos. Similarly, since placing
the lenses in the normal cleaning solution removes the dirt from them, it is
considered as if one scrubbed them on Shabbos and is forbidden (Orchos
Shabbos
). However, placing them in a saline solution to keep them moist is
permitted since no improvement is noticeable.

Poskim who follow this approach usually tell people
to wash the lenses before Shabbos with cleaning solution, reinsert them,
and then place the lenses into regular saline solution when removing them for
the night on Shabbos.

However, if one follows this last opinion, one should be
very careful. The saline solution does not prevent infection from developing on
the lens, whereas the normal cleaning solution is also a disinfectant. A
physician I spoke to advised someone using saline solution to place the
solution containing the lenses into a refrigerator overnight. Even after
removing the lenses from the saline solution Shabbos morning, one should
keep the solution refrigerated the whole week until next Shabbos. He
also recommended replacing the saline solution every few weeks.

Rav Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach zt”l had a different
approach to this issue, contending that the soft contact lenses do not really
absorb liquid. He maintained that plastic does not absorb liquid the same way
that cloth does. Whereas the liquid actually enters the cloth and becomes
absorbed inside, liquid does not actually enter into the plastic of the soft
lenses, but remains between the strands of the plastic. Soft lenses are constructed
of a plastic that has space between its strands to allow water to enter.
However, the water never enters the “fiber” of the plastic the same way it
enters the fiber of the cloth. Thus, in his opinion, it is permitted to clean
soft contact lenses on Shabbos the same way one would on weekdays (Nishmas
Avraham
, Volume 5, pg. 20; see Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah pg.
181).

Rav Shlomo Zalman held that one must place the contact
lenses into solution only when they are still moist, out of concern that wetting
them after they are dry is considered repairing them. In point of fact,
everyone who has these lenses keeps them moist at all times, exactly for this
reason.

I have heard rabbonim paskin a compromise position
between these two above-mentioned positions, contending that there is no
problem with soaking the lenses, since this does not clean them, but when
removing the lenses from the solution one should not rub them, since this might
be considered scrubbing the lenses.

Conclusion

The Torah commanded us concerning the halachos of Shabbos
by giving us the basic categories that are prohibited. Our poskim
analyze the rules the Torah gives us and then compare these rules to new
circumstances that appear. The greatness of the Torah is that even though the world
is constantly changing and developing, the words of Torah are timeless and can
be applied to all of these new situations.