Can Contact Lenses be Laundered? How do I Care for my Soft Contacts on Shabbos?

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Question: My friend and I both wear soft contact lens, but we received very different instructions regarding their care on Shabbos. Could you please explain the background to the questions and details involved?

Answer: From a halachic perspective, the question is whether cleaning soft lenses on Shabbos is different from washing the older hard lenses and 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, soaking them in water or another cleaning liquid, scrubbing out the dirt and wringing the water out of the clothes. Each of these steps is prohibited 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,” (Gemara Zevachim 94b).

Some poskim contend that it is even forbidden to soak clean clothes (Yerayim; see Rama 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 be removed thereby (Tosafos Yeshanim and Rosh, Yoma 74b). Although most poskim are lenient, one should preferably follow the more stringent opinion (Mishneh Berurah 302:48).

Some later poskim contend that even the opinion that forbids soaking a “clean garment” only does so when the soaking will cause a noticeable change, e.g., the garment looks brighter when it is soaked. However, it does not apply in the case where one is soaking a clean item that never brightens when it is soaked (Shu”t Avnei Nezer 159:10; Shu”t Koveitz Tshuvos #18. However, see 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, certainly if one intends to clean it. Therefore, if some 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 a cloth for the purpose of making it dirty. For example, may one mop up some 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 a 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 Rama 302:10).

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 302,11). We are not concerned that he will forget and squeeze a towel or rag since they are meant for this purpose.

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 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.)

Since most poskim prohibit using hot water from the faucet in modern homes on Shabbos, our prior discussion concerned 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. Yet, there is a material that falls in between dishes and normal clothing which is leather. It is permitted to soak leather, although it is prohibited to scrub it or to wring liquid out, as will be explained.

Halacha forbids scrubbing soft leather on Shabbos, although it is disputed whether this is prohibited min haTorah or only midirabanan (Graz 302:19; Shu”t Avnei Nezer 157:2; Biyur Halacha 302:9 s.v. aval). Those who contend that it is midirabanan contend that dirt never absorbs into leather – it merely adheres to its surface like it does to dishes (Shu”t Avnei Nezer 157:5). However, since leather is not as hard as dishes, it is still prohibited midirabanan 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 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 indeed 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. It is prohibited midirabanan to squeeze wet leather (Rambam Hilchos Shabbos 9:11).

HARD LEATHER

Most poskim allow one to scrub hard leather on Shabbos (and certainly to soak it) although some contend that this is prohibited midarabanan (Sheiltos, quoted by Mishneh Berurah 302:39). Thus, if a leather bound book becomes soiled with mud on Shabbos, one may scrub it clean immediately before the mud dries. Once the mud dries this would be prohibited because of tochein, grinding (Shulchan Aruch 302:7).

PLASTIC

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

What is the halachic status of soft plastic items such as disposable tablecloth covers? Is there is 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 302:15). Following this approach, children’s rubber pants may be soaked on Shabbos but should not be scrubbed. However, so-called rubber sheets should not be soaked at all since they are made of cloth and only coated with a plastic layer. However, it is permitted to soak plastic sheets made for the same purpose since they are like plastic tablecloths.

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 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 that, although they are initially unnoticeable, eventually collect on the lens and cloud it after a few days. To facilitate this cleaning, one rubs one’s finger over the lens before reinserting it. The rubbing action removes the dirt and tears which 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 makes a big difference in our shailah.

The halachic question is whether placing the lenses into the solution, rubbing them, and then removing them involve any violation of laundering on Shabbos. Does placing the lens into solution constitute soaking, is rubbing them equivalent to scrubbing, and is removing them considered squeezing since the cleaning fluid is now being removed or “squeezed” out of the lens. 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, as a matter-of-fact considerably more than leather. 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 lens is 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 Tshuvos #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 is 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 immediately and place the lenses into regular saline solution when removing them for the night on Shabbos.

However, if following 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 it and 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 cloth. Thus in his opinion, it is permitted to clean soft contact lenses on Shabbos the same way one would on weekdays (Nishmas Avraham 5 pg. 20; see Shmiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 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 that when removing the lenses one should not rub them since this might be considered scrubbing the lenses.

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.

As in all areas of halacha, one should consult with one’s posek how to care for contact lenses on Shabbos. The goal of this discussion is to present the background of the halachic issues that form the basis for the varying piskei halacha on this contemporary issue.

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