Dishes, Detergent and Malachos

The Aseres Hadibros include the mitzvah of Shabbos, providing the opportunity to continue our discussion from parshas Pinchas.

Dishes, Detergent and Malachos

Question #1: Washing dishes

“Whenever I ask my son to help wash the dishes on Shabbos, he claims that it is prohibited. Is he pulling my leg in his attempt to avoid family responsibilities?”

Question #2: No detergent

“Is it prohibited to wash clothes on Shabbos if I do not use detergent?”

Question #3: Six in one!

Can six people consecutively launder a garment?

Three weeks ago, we began our discussion about the melacha of melabein. We learned that there is a dispute among rishonim whether this melacha should be defined as laundering or as bleaching, although in practical terms, the halachos remain the same either way, and it is prohibited min haTorah to launder or to bleach on Shabbos. We also discovered that there are numerous ways that one can violate this melacha, such as by soaking, scrubbing, wringing, or rinsing, and, according to some authorities,  even by brushing a garment. At this point, we will continue our discussion where we left off.

Washing dishes

There is no prohibition of melabein for soaking, scouring, or cleaning a hard substance such as wood or metal. This is because the grime lies on top of the material and is not absorbed inside or between the fibers. This is the reason why it is permitted to wash dishes on Shabbos, provided that one does not squeeze a cloth or something similar in the process.

One may explain the difference between fabrics, that are included in the melacha of melabein, and hard substances that are not, in the following way. All melachos involve changing an object to make it more useful for mankind. In the instance of most melachos, this involves some type of physical or chemical change to the object upon which the melacha is performed. Regarding some melachos, such as trapping, carrying and selecting, no real physical or chemical change occurs in the item, but there is a difference in utility. The undomesticated animal was useless to mankind, and trapping made it available for mankind. Prior to removing the bad part of the item, one could not eat or use this food, and selecting made it useful. In carrying, the most difficult of the melachos to explain conceptually, the item is made useful by changing its location.

By the way, if we remember the dispute between Rashi and the Rambam that I mentioned earlier, the approach of the Rambam allows an easier explanation why washing dishes is not included under the melacha. According to the Rambam, the av melacha is bleaching, or changing the color of the fiber or fabric. All laundering changes the inherent appearance of the cloth, and, in this way, the toladah, laundering, is similar to the av melacha, bleaching. However, dirt on top of a plate does not change the inherent appearance of the plate – one merely needs to scrape off the leftover food on its surface, and the plate is clean. This contrasts with laundering cloth, where the dirt is embedded in the fiber.

All or nothing?

Does one violate melabein only if one performs all of the above-prohibited activities (soaking, scrubbing, wringing, and rinsing), or even if one performs any one of them? A ramification of the second approach is that cleaning an item only a bit violates melabein, despite the fact that the garment is still dirty.

The halacha is that each of these stages constitutes infringements of melabein min haTorah, and this is true even if one does not add any detergent to the water. In other words, although one ordinarily uses detergent to launder clothes, and without detergent the clothes are usually not clean, since performing each of the above-mentioned laundering steps does clean the garment a little bit, that is sufficient to contravene the Torah law of melabein.

Six in one

Thus, theoretically six different people could each be doing a different activity to a garment or cloth, each one violating the melacha of melabein min haTorah! The first one brushes the garment, removing some of the dirt. The second one places the garment in a bucket to soak it. The third one scrubs the garment on a scouring board; the fourth squeezes water out of the garment; the fifth rinses the garment clean; and the sixth bleaches the now clean garment.

Cleaning versus cooking

Since the halacha is that each of the laundering stages constitutes a Torah violation of melabein, we are faced with an interesting contrast between the melacha of melabein and that of cooking. The halacha is that someone who began cooking food, but the food is not yet cooked to the point where it is edible, has not yet violated the melacha min haTorah, but only a rabbinic injunction. Violating the melacha min haTorah requires that the food is cooked enough to make it edible. Yet, soaking an item of clothing contravenes the prohibition of laundering, even though removing it from the water without any other cleaning process may still leave the garment too soiled to wear. Why is there a difference between laundering, which one violates even if the item is still not fully clean, and cooking, which one violates only when the item is cooked?

The answer appears to be that cooking an item to the point that it is still inedible does not benefit mankind, since no one will eat it. On the other hand, although most people do not enjoy wearing dirty clothing, it is more pleasant to wear clothes that are somewhat laundered than clothes that are completely filthy. In other words, although laundering something a little bit made the item cleaner, cooking it a little bit did not make it edible.

According to the Rambam’s approach in the dispute over the definition of melabein, the distinction between laundering and cooking is more easily understood. The av melacha, in his opinion, is bleaching, which means that the basic melacha is changing the coloring, not cleaning it. Laundering is a toladah because it changes the appearance of the cloth. Thus, each stage of melabein changes the appearance of the cloth, which is the nature of the melacha.

Wringing versus stirring

At this point, we should discuss the following interesting phenomenon. When discussing the prohibition of wringing laundry on Shabbos, the Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 9:11) states the following: “One who wrings out a garment until he extracts the water that is absorbed inside it desecrates Shabbos for laundering, since wringing is necessary (mitzorchei) for laundering just as stirring is necessary (mitzorchei) for cooking.”

This is certainly an unusual statement. Why does the Rambam need to compare wringing water to stirring food in order to explain why it is prohibited on Shabbos? And, the Rambam uses a very interesting term to describe this relationship — the word mitzorchei, which he uses in only three contexts in his entire thirty chapters of the laws of Shabbos. Aside from using this term here to describe wringing laundry and stirring food, he uses it also in the context of meleches tofeir (Hilchos Shabbos 10:9 and Magid Mishnah, Kesef Mishneh, and Mirkeves Hamishneh ad locum; Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 340 and Elyah Rabbah 340:14)  .

Perhaps one could say that since wringing out water looks different from other laundering acts, one might think that it is not prohibited under the heading of this melacha. However, this is probably not what was bothering the Rambam. My proof is that there are many other melacha activities that do not look like the av melacha under which they are listed. For example, weeding is prohibited min haTorah because it is an aspect of plowing, notwithstanding that weeding does not look at all like plowing. It violates plowing because weeding prepares the ground to allow growth, which is the same concept involved when plowing. Similarly, pruning trees is prohibited as a subheading of planting. Although pruning appears to be the exact opposite of planting, since it is a method of having vines and trees grow better it is included under planting. In these instances, a melacha is performed because the goals of pruning and weeding are respectively similar to planting and plowing. Thus, we see that melacha prohibitions are often categorized by their purpose.Yet, in these instances, the Rambam finds no need to compare weeding or pruning to stirring, nor does he use the word tzorchei to describe what they do.

A possible approach to explain the Rambam is that both wringing and stirring are done after the basic melacha has already been performed. If you are stirring a cooking pot, someone already placed a pot of food on a fire, thereby violating the melacha of cooking. The Rambam is pointing out that stirring a pot is a full violation of cooking on Shabbos – and that we do not mitigate liability for this act on the basis that someone else already performed the actions necessary to cook this food.

Similarly, a person can wring out clothes only when someone else already soaked them in water – which, in and of itself, constitutes laundering according to halacha. Thus, one might contend that the wringer did not violate the melacha (Nimla Tal, meleches melabein #18; meleches tofeir #26).

Separate melacha

Heretofore, we have been assuming that wringing out clothes, socheit, is a subcategory of melabein. Actually, there is a dispute among tana’im concerning this matter. Indeed, most tana’im, including the anonymous author of the Mishnah, consider squeezing to be not its own melacha but a toladah of one of the other 39 melachos listed in the seventh perek of mishnayos Shabbos. (According to most rishonim, this violates the melacha of laundering, whereas the Ramban [Shabbos 111a, as understood by the Magen Avraham end of chapter 302 and Shu”t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chayim #159:20] explains that it violates the melacha of dyeing; cf. Lechem Mishneh, Hilchos Shabbos 9:11, who understands that the Ramban agrees with the other rishonim that it is prohibited because of melabein.) However, the tanna, Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka, contends that squeezing is a completely separate av melacha (Yerushalmi, Shabbos 7:2), although it is not explained in halachic sources why he feels this way. (Nimla Tal Melabein #24 suggests some possible approaches.) The Gemara notes that the Mishnah disagrees with Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka, since, according to him, there are forty melachos, and the Mishnah counts only 39.

39 or 40?

But wait one moment! I thought there were 39 melachos. How can a tanna have 40 melachos?

The answer to this question lies in a passage of Gemara (Shabbos 49b) that says as follows:

What is the basis upon which it has been established that there are 39 melachos? …Rabbi Yehonasan, the son of Rabbi Elazar, told them, “This is what Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rabbi Yosi ben Lekunia, said: ‘They correspond to the thirty-nine times that the word melacha is written in the Torah!’” Rav Yosef then asked, “Is the pasuk (Bereishis 39:11, regarding Yosef), Vayavo habaysa laasos melachto, included in the count or not?” To this, Abayei replied, “Let us bring a sefer Torah and count how many times the word melacha is mentioned in the Torah.” Rav Yosef replied that Abayei had misunderstood his query. Rav Yosef knew that the word melacha shows up in the Torah a total of forty times. When the tanna’im use the word melacha to count melachos, they are counting only instances when the word melacha in the Torah actually refers to work being performed. Rav Yosef’s question was whether the count of the Shabbos melachos included the pasuk regarding Yosef (which may be using the word melacha in a borrowed sense), or whether that pasuk was not included in the count, but instead they were counting a different pasuk, the one that concludes the construction of the Mishkan, which reads, Vehamelacha hoyso dayom. In the latter pasuk, also, the word melacha does not really mean work, but means the materials assembled for the work of the Mishkan. The tanna of the Mishnah, who counts only 39 melachos, felt that one of these places should not be included in the count of the melachos regarding the laws of Shabbos. The Gemara there remains unresolved which of these two pesukim is included in that count and which not. However, it is quite clear that the tanna quoted in the Yerushalmi, Rabbi Yishmael, the son of Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka, counted both pesukim, thus reaching a total of 40 melachos.

At this point, let us return to our opening questions:

Question #1: Washing dishes

“Whenever I ask my son to help wash the dishes on Shabbos, he claims that it is prohibited. Is he pulling my leg in his attempt to avoid family responsibilities?”

Washing dishes on Shabbos is certainly permitted, as long as one does not use an item that might involve squeezing. (Details of that question we will leave for a different time.)  It is safe to assume that your son’s motivation here is not halacha but laziness.

Question #2: No detergent

“Is it prohibited to wash clothes on Shabbos if I do not use detergent?”

As we now know, one can violate the prohibition of melabein min haTorah without use of detergent.

Question #3: Six in one!

Can six people consecutively launder a garment?

The simple answer is, “Yes.”

In conclusion

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Shemos 20:10) notes that people mistakenly think that work is prohibited on Shabbos, in order for it to be a day of rest. He points out that the Torah does not prohibit doing avodah, which connotes hard work, but melacha, activities or actions which bring purpose and accomplishment. Shabbos is a day that we refrain from constructing and altering the world for our own purposes. The goal of Shabbos is to allow Hashem’s rule to be the focus of creation, by refraining from our own creative acts (Shemos 20:11).