Thursday, December 20, 2007

Brushing Teeth on Shabbos

This past Shabbos my eight-year-old son had a friend sleeping over. At night, I told my son to go brush his teeth with toothpaste and I told his friend not to brush his teeth. My son quickly went for the issue dearest to his heart, "That's not fair." Then he went for the piety argument, "It's assur." I quickly explained to him that we follow Rav Soloveitchik (and Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Chaim Regensburg) who allowed it while his friend probably follows Rav Moshe Feinstein who did not allow it. But I also told him that I'll write something explaining the issues, even though he probably won't understand it. So this is for Shmuly.

There are two main issues in brushing teeth on Shabbos – using a toothbrush and using toothpaste. It is, of course, possible to brush with a toothbrush but without toothpaste or with toothpaste on one's finger without a brush. This first installment will deal with using a toothbrush and the next installment with using toothpaste.

As always, follow your family custom and/or ask your local rabbi.

I. Bleeding

Click here to read moreThere are a few potential halakhic problems with using a toothbrush on Shabbos. The first is whether one may use a dry toothbrush because if can cause bleeding. Causing bleeding is prohibited on Shabbos. Therefore, brushing with a toothbrush should be forbidden unless one is fairly certain that it will not cause bleeding. This is the position of the Minchas Yitzchak (3:48, 50). However, the Seridei Esh (2:28) argues that one has to differentiate between an action that will definitely cause a forbidden result, which is a pesik reisheih and is forbidden, and an action that might cause a forbidden result, which is permitted. For example, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 303: 27) forbids brushing one's hair because the brush will definitely pull out hair but the Rema allows one to brush with one's fingers because that does not necessarily pull out hair. For most people, brushing teeth does not always cause bleeding and is therefore permissible like brushing one's hair with one's fingers.

II. Squeezing

Another issue is using water on a toothbrush. The concern is that brushing with a wet toothbrush causes the water to be squeezed out, and squeezing (sechitah) is prohibited on Shabbos. The Minchas Yitzchak (ibid.) accepts this reason. R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:112) merely writes that it is best to be concerned for this position. The Seridei Esh writes that there is no issue of squeezing for a few reasons. First of all, the nylon bristles of a toothbrush do not absorb water so the prohibition is only on a rabbinic level, like hair (Shabbos 128b). Therefore, the inevitable act of "squeezing" during brushing is a pesik reisheih on a rabbinic prohibition which, the Seridei Esh says, is permitted based on Magen Avraham (253:1). R. Chaim Regensburg (Mishmeres Chaim, no. 9) points out that the Magen Avraham cannot mean what the Seridei Esh claims it means because elsewhere (314:5) he quotes this position in the name of the Terumas Ha-Deshen and argues on it. However, R. Regensburg suggests that in our case—which is a double rabbinic prohibition (squeezing a non-absorbent item in an indirect way-ki-l'achar yad)—everyone would agree with the Terumas Ha-Deshen.

Additionally, the Seridei Esh argues, there are two types of prohibited squeezing on Shabbos: squeezing that is a subcategory of extracting (mefarek) and that is a subcategory of cleaning (melaben). That is widely acknowledged. When squeezing as an act of cleaning, it doesn't matter that the water is subsequently unused because regardless of that the cleaning was still done. However, when squeezing as an act of extracting, the discarding of the water is significant and renders the act permissible (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 230:18). When brushing teeth, the water is not used to clean the toothbrush and is quickly discarded. Therefore, it should be permissible.

III. More Squeezing

There is a further reason to permit and that is the case of a sponge. One may not use a sponge because of squeezing, unless it has a handle (Shabbos 143b). Rashi and the Rambam explain that the handle enables a user to utilize the sponge without squeezing out water. However, the Ra'avad explains that even if one squeezes with this kind of sponge it is permissible for another reason. The Seridei Esh points out that according to the Ra'avad one may use a toothbrush with a handle. However, the Minchas Yitzchak disputes his understanding of the Ra'avad based on a Chazon Ish.

The Seridei Esh cites the case of a towel (Shabbos 40b) that is permissible to use and we are not concerned about potential squeezing because, as the rishonim explain, if so we would prevent all washing on Shabbos. Just like most people cannot handle being unable to wash at all on Shabbos, so too they cannot handle being unable to brush their teeth on Shabbos and therefore we should permit using a toothbrush. R. Regensburg points out that the two cases are dissimilar in that the towel is only about allowing regular use and being unconcerned with potential squeezing while with the toothbrush the regular use is the squeezing.

R. Regensburg points out that we permit something that is prohibited by a double rabbinic prohibition (shevus di-shevus) when there is great public need (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 307:5). The public, he argues, has a great need to brush their teeth and therefore the double rabbinic prohibition of squeezing a non-absorbent item in an indirect way should be permitted.

R. Regensburg also points out that the Avnei Nezer (1:157) proves that according to Rashi and Rabbenu Tam, there is not even a rabbinic prohibition to squeeze a non-absorbent substance. On a rabbinic prohibition, he argues, we can be lenient like their position.

(B"n, more to come)

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