Ask the Expert: Shower on Shabbat

Can I rinse off on the holy day?

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Question: A friend of mine told me that some people don’t shower on Shabbat. Why not? Is showering work?
–Delia, Rochester

Answer: It depends on how hard you shower, Delia. Just kidding! Actually, it might depend on your water heater, and your level of personal hygiene.

Allow me to explain: In pre-modern times, people didn’t bathe very often. Once a week or so was pretty standard, so it was relatively easy for the rabbis to suggest that you take your weekly shower before Shabbat, and not during Shabbat. And hey, Shabbat is only 25 or so hours long, so it’s not completely unreasonable to ask people to stay out of the shower for those hours even now. But of course, we’re talking about Jewish law here, so it’s a lot more complicated.

The main issue with bathing on Shabbat has to do with hot water. In order to get hot or warm water to bathe in, the water has to somehow be heated, and heating up liquids is prohibited on Shabbat, not because it’s considered work, but because the Torah specifically prohibits building a fire on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3).

Now, you might be thinking: but when I take a hot shower, I’m not heating anything up–the water comes out of the tap hot. It’s true, most of us live in houses or apartments that have hot water tanks, with lots of hot water in them. When we turn on the hot water, some of that tank is tapped, and we get a nice steamy shower. But when some of the water in the tank is used, it refills with more water, and that water then has to be heated. So, if you use hot water on Shabbat, you’re causing cold water to be heated up somewhere down the line.

the expertOn the face of it, it looks like bathing in hot water on Shabbat is a no-go according to Jewish law. But many modern rabbis have dealt with the plain fact that bathing today is far more common than it was when the Talmud was written, and many people are very uncomfortable when they can’t bathe for even one day. As far back as the early 19th century, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, of Hungary, wrote that someone who was in pain as a result of not bathing, could bathe, even in warm water on Shabbat, provided the water had been heated before Shabbat (Glosses, Rav Akiva Eiger, Orakh Hayim 326:1). Rabbi Eiger’s is a minority opinion, but today many rabbinic authorities will sanction bathing in cold water on Shabbat if it will relieve someone’s discomfort, particularly on a hot day. (Iggerot Moshe OH 4:74)

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