Question #1: May someone soak an infected toe in hot water on Shabbos?
Question #2: May I take a quick dip in the pool on a Shabbos when it is 105 degrees in the shade?
Question #3: Is bathing on Shabbos permitted to alleviate a minor skin condition?
Although most people assume that one may not shower on Shabbos, there actually are some situations when one may. Factors one must take into consideration include:
I. Is one taking a bath or a shower?
II. Is the water hot or cold?
III. Does one want to ease a medical need or a degree of discomfort?
IV. How does the water heating system work?
V. Is one a Sefardi or an Ashkenazi!
The interplay of all these factors makes this a highly interesting subject.
WHY YOU SHOULD NOT TAKE A BATH!
The Gemara (Shabbos 40a) records a dispute between the early Amora’im (Talmidei Chachamim of the period of the Gemara), Rav and Shmuel, concerning bathing on Shabbos. Although both scholars agree that one may not bathe in the regular manner on Shabbos, Rav permits bathing on Shabbos, as long as one does not submerge his entire body at once, but only part at a time. Shmuel disagrees, contending that one may not wash more than half of one’s body (as explained by Magen Avraham 326:2). (Most poskim contend that one may wash on Shabbos only with water heated before Shabbos [Magen Avraham 326:6; Gra to 326:5; Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim 326:2. However, Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:126, disagrees.])
One might ask:
Since bathing is not one of the 39 melachos that the Torah prohibited on Shabbos, why can’t one take a relaxing Shabbos bath?
HISTORY OF A TAKANAH
Although Torah law permits bathing, Chazal prohibited bathing in hot water on Shabbos, because it could lead to Shabbos desecration. The Gemara (Shabbos 40a) narrates the following historical account of the ban:
Initially, one was permitted to bathe in water that was heated before Shabbos. Then, the bathhouse owners began to heat water on Shabbos (to generate business), claiming that the water had been heated before Shabbos. In order to stop this practice, the Sages prohibited bathing in hot water on Shabbos, but permitted entering a steam bath on Shabbos. However, people who did not listen to the Sages began to take hot baths on Shabbos, claiming that they had only used the steam bath. (In those days, both activities were performed in a commercial bathhouse.) To enforce their ruling, the Sages then prohibited entering a steam bath as well, but permitted bathing in natural hot springs. When some people continued to violate the instructions of the Sages by bathing in hot water and claiming that they had used water from hot springs, the Sages then banned bathing in any hot water, even hot springs, but permitted bathing in cold water. After a while, the Sages realized that this was an unbearable hardship and rescinded the ban against bathing in hot springs, while retaining the prohibition against steam baths and bathing in hot water (Shabbos 40a).
In conclusion, we see that the Sages banned bathing on Shabbos, even in water heated before Shabbos, lest bathhouse owners and managers encourage business by heating water on Shabbos. In order to maintain this initial injunction, Chazal initially prohibited attending the steam bath and bathing in hot springs, but eventually rescinded the latter prohibition. Thus, one may not bathe or steam bathe on Shabbos, even with water heated before Shabbos. The authorities dispute whether one may enter a steam bath if one is not intending to bathe there even if one will begin perspiring while there, the Shulchan Aruch ruling leniently, whereas the Rama rules stringently (Orach Chayim 326:12).
Rav and Shmuel, whom we quoted above, interpreted the above takanah against bathing in different ways, Rav limiting the ban to washing one’s entire body at one time, because this is the usual way of bathing. However, he permits bathing in an unusual way such as by not submerging oneself completely in water and washing only part of the body at a time. Shmuel feels that since he is still bathing his entire body, this is included in the ban, although he agrees that washing less than half one’s body is permitted. The halacha follows Shmuel, and therefore one may bathe only part of one’s body in preheated hot water on Shabbos.
What about pouring water over yourself? Is this included within the category of bathing that is prohibited, or is it permitted (Rashi, Shabbos 147b s.v. dilihishtateif)?
The Gemara (Shabbos 39b) records a three-way dispute among Tanna’im (earlier halachic authorities of the time of the Mishnah) regarding this question. Rabbi Meir prohibited pouring either hot or cold water over oneself; Rabbi Shimon permitted both; whereas Rabbi Yehudah, the compromise opinion, permitted cold water but prohibited hot. The poskim dispute precisely what case these great Sages were debating. According to some opinions (Baal HaMaor), the Gemara is discussing someone who heated himself to a sweat in front of a fire, similar to taking a sauna, and then rinsed himself off. Only then did the Tanna’im dispute what is prohibited.
According to this approach, all three Tanna’im permit pouring cold water over oneself on Shabbos, if one did not first warm himself. In addition, all three Tanna’im permit standing in front of an open fire in order to develop a healthy sweat on Shabbos. Although Chazal prohibited entering a steam bath on Shabbos, they did not prohibit standing in front of an open flame where no steam is created. Presumably, this was not a common method of steam bathing, and therefore no concern existed that it would cause bathhouse attendants to desecrate Shabbos. The dispute among the Tanna’im is whether one may stand in front of a blaze until one develops a sweat and then rinse it off on Shabbos. According to Rabbi Meir, this rinsing violates the prohibition against bathing since one is washing off sweat. Rabbi Yehudah prohibits this rinsing if performed with hot water but permits cold, whereas Rabbi Shimon permits even a hot rinse, and certainly a cold one. According to this interpretation of the dispute, all three Tanna’im permit a cold shower on Shabbos.
However, most authorities explain the dispute among the Tanna’im somewhat differently, contending that it includes any case where someone is rinsing himself on Shabbos and is not limited to someone rinsing off sweat (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 326:1). According to this approach, Rabbi Meir prohibits rinsing in either hot or cold water; Rabbi Yehudah prohibits rinsing with hot water but permits cold; and Rabbi Shimon permits even a hot water rinse. Thus, according to Rabbi Shimon, one may take a hot shower on Shabbos, because the prohibition against bathing was limited to someone sitting in a bath; according to Rabbi Meir, even cold rinsing is included in the prohibition and certainly hot; and according to Rabbi Yehudah, one may take a cold shower, but not a hot one.
May we follow Rabbi Shimon’s opinion and shower on Shabbos in hot water?
No! Halacha follows Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion prohibiting a hot rinse, but permitting a cold one (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 326:1, 4).
Nevertheless, we should at least be permitted to take a cold shower on Shabbos! Isn’t that a great way to begin the Shabbos day! Yet we know that the custom is not to shower on Shabbos. We will soon explain the basis for this custom. But first, I must digress to discuss an exception to the ban against bathing on Shabbos.
MITZTA’EIR – ALLOWING A SUFFERER TO BATHE
Based on some insightful analysis, several prominent authorities demonstrate that someone who is suffering may bathe on Shabbos even in hot water, provided the water was heated before Shabbos (Shu’t Divrei Yosef #64; Rabbi Akiva Eiger in his comments to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 307:5 and 326:1). This is based on the halacha that although one may not usually ask a gentile to perform prohibited work on Shabbos, one may do so under certain extenuating circumstances. For example, one may ask a gentile to do something for the sake of a person ill enough to be bedridden (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 328:17).
When the Rambam lists activities that one may ask a gentile to perform on Shabbos, he includes having him transport hot water so that a person who is suffering may bathe (Hilchos Shabbos 6:9-10). The Divrei Yosef and Rabbi Akiva Eiger raise the following question: “What can the sufferer do with the hot water, seeing that Chazal prohibited bathing in hot water on Shabbos?” Obviously, although Chazal banned bathing on Shabbos, they only prohibited pleasure and hygienic bathing but permitted bathing to alleviate suffering. Thus, someone who is suffering or has a medical condition that is alleviated by bathing may ease his or her discomfort on Shabbos with a hot bath.
TWO MODERN HOT WATER PROBLEMS
I. MODERN HOT WATER BOILERS
However, this psak halacha does not help most North Americans, since most household water heating systems operate with a boiler that automatically replaces hot water with cold as you use it. This means that when one bathes, showers, or simply turns on the hot water on Shabbos, one is heating new water. Although some authorities permit using these systems on Shabbos because they consider it to be indirect heating of the water (grama) and unintentional (eino miskavein) (Divrei David, Chapter 87), most halachic authorities do not permit turning on the hot water on Shabbos. Nevertheless, someone who is suffering and would like to take hot baths on Shabbos may consider installing a heating system that does not heat new water when operated.
(By the way, many hotels, hospitals, dormitories and similar facilities use a coil system to heat water that is even more problematic, since it heats the water that you are about to use when you turn on the faucet. This system constitutes a clear Torah violation of cooking on Shabbos.)
II. MIXING HOT AND COLD WATER
Nowadays, using the hot water generally means turning a faucet dial that draws both hot and cold water which mix in the faucet or pipe. If the hot water heats the cold water to yad soledes bo (usually assumed to be 113 degrees Fahrenheit), one has violated Shabbos by cooking the cold water. Thus, anyone taking a bath must also be certain to avoid heating cold water to this temperature on Shabbos.
At this point, we can discuss some of the questions asked above:
If someone has an infected toe, may he soak it in hot water on Shabbos?
May someone bathe on Shabbos to alleviate a minor medical condition?
Soaking an infected toe or finger can be accomplished with water from the urn or kettle and certainly may be performed on Shabbos. Bathing or showering for a medical reason may be performed as long as one does not heat any new water in the boiler, the pipes or the faucet. If the person is ill enough to be considered bedridden, one may ask a non-Jew to turn on the water for the bath or shower, and the patient would now be permitted to bathe in the water. (One should ask a shaylah whether he may turn off the water afterwards by himself [see Orchos Shabbos, Chapter 1 footnote 199].) One may certainly bathe or shower in cold water for a medical reason, even if not bedridden.
WHY DID YOU SAY ONLY FOR A MEDICAL REASON?
As mentioned above, the halacha follows the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah who permitted rinsing oneself in cold water on Shabbos. Therefore, it should be permitted to take a cold shower or bath on Shabbos. Indeed, according to the conclusion of the Gemara, there is nothing wrong with bathing in cold water on Shabbos. However, early Ashkenazic poskim record a custom not to bathe in cold water due to a variety of reasons, including that one might carry (if one bathed outdoors in an area without an eruv) or squeeze water out of one’s hair or towel (Magen Avraham 326:8). This is established Ashkenazic custom, that, except for tevilah in a mikvah, one does not bathe on Shabbos. Why should this be true if the Gemara is lenient?
THE POWER OF MINHAG
The term minhag, usually translated as custom, actually includes many different categories, some of relatively minor halachic significance, and others of major importance.
The following story (Pesachim 50b) demonstrates the power of minhag: “The people of Beishan (a town in the north of Israel) had a custom that they did not travel from Tyre to Sidon on Friday, even though it was the local market day. They asked Rabbi Yochanan whether they were still required to observe this practice, claiming that the earlier generation who established this custom was wealthier and could manage without the income from Friday’s market day, whereas they were now hard-pressed financially and unable to support their families without this additional income. Rabbi Yochanan required them to continue observing the minhag established by their parents, citing the pasuk, Shma bni musar avicha ve’al titosh toras imecha, “Listen my son to the discipline of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother” (Mishlei 1:8): Once a community accepted a practice, even those born after the custom was established are obligated to observe it.
Another example is the observance of two days of Yom Tov in chutz la’aretz. This is actually a minhag, although one who violates it is strictly censured. Similarly, an Ashkenazi who eats kitniyos on Pesach violates a severe prohibition, even though he is technically violating only a minhag. According to many poskim, violating a minhag of this nature incurs a Torah violation, since it is halachically equivalent to a vow (Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayim 453:4; 551:23).
Similarly, Ashkenazic Jews accepted a minhag to not bathe even in cold water on Shabbos because of the above-mentioned concerns. (Even following Ashkenazic practice, it is prohibited only to bathe all or most of one’s entire body, but one may wash less than half one’s body.) Sefardim never accepted this minhag, and may therefore take a lukewarm or cold bath or shower on Shabbos. They should, of course, be careful not to squeeze out hair or a towel.
WHAT ABOUT A COLD SHOWER
Even though Ashkenazim accepted the custom not to bathe in cold water on Shabbos, some poskim rule that the prohibition includes only bathing on Shabbos, but not showering. In truth, some of the reasons quoted by the Magen Avraham apply to cold showers also, since one might squeeze out one’s hair or the towel whether one is bathing or showering, whereas the other reason mentioned, that one might by mistake carry on Shabbos, applies only to someone who bathes outdoors, and applies less to someone who showers indoors.
In his teshuvah on the subject, Rav Moshe Feinstein concludes that, although some authorities might permit cold showering on Shabbos, one should not follow this leniency, since it violates accepted practice (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:75). However, one who is mitzta’eir may take a cold shower, since the custom mentioned by the Magen Avraham does not apply. Furthermore, Rav Moshe permits taking a cold shower on Shabbos during a heat wave (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:74:rechitzah:3).
Thus we can answer the following question also:
May someone bathe or rinse themselves on Shabbos because they are uncomfortable, such as on a Shabbos when it is 105 degrees in the shade?
Someone who is mitzta’eir from his current physical condition may take a cold bath or shower if it will alleviate his discomfort. A Sefardi is permitted to take a cold shower or bath on Shabbos under any circumstances.
These halachos include three levels of halachic observance: Torah law (not to heat water on Shabbos), Rabbinic Law (not to bathe in hot water lest it cause Shabbos desecration), and minhag (not to bathe in cold water, also lest it cause Shabbos desecration). This provides us with an opportunity to observe Shabbos on many levels, expressing our appreciation for its kedusha.
Note: For a discussion of the permissibility of showering on Yom Tov, see “May I Take a Nice Hot Shower on Yom Tov?”