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Bathing On Three-Day Yom Tov? Why Not?

August 22, 2013

This year, Rosh Hashana wil be on Thursday, and that means here in Israel we will have one set of the dreaded Three-Day Yom Tov, and in the Diaspora they will have three sets. Personally, I wish everyday were Shabbos or Yom Tov, and I love the opportunity to disconnect and just study, but many seem troubled by the three-day break from bathing. Indeed, the application of the halacha for many years led to this reality, but many have claimed that nowadays, the application of the halacha has changed. (Claims that because the application of the law was one way for many years, even millennia, mandates that that application remain permanently, are invalid and make a mockery of the halachic process.)

The main argument floated against bathing on Yom Tov is that advanced by the Tosafists: it is not  shaweh l’chol nefesh, something enjoyed by everyone on a daily basis, as people only bathe once a week! Of course, because most of us now bathe on a daily or almost daily basis, the Tosafists would concede that bathing is permissible on Yom Tov. The fact that the question is always asked when three-day Yom Tov rolls around answers the question. It is quite unbearable to go three days without bathing. There is a whole chapter of Orah Hayim that deals with this issue, 511, and there, in the words of the later commentators and decisors like the Mishna Berura, the realities that existed before the 20th Century are used as the basis for the rulings that because no one bathes on a daily basis, bathing should not be done on Yom Tov, whereas because everyone smokes tobacco on a regular basis, smoking is permissible on Yom Tov. It is obvious that if the Pri Megadim or the Hafetz Hayim were alive today, they would now apply the halachoth differently, and permit bathing on Yom Tov and forbid smoking outright, even on weekdays. Indeed, these are the conclusions reached by 20th century authorities who considered the question according to the new reality, like R’ Kappach and R’ Neuwirth.

Now to Maimonides. We will borrow R’ Touger’s translation from and bring the halacha with regards to the Sabbath first, because Maimonides’s laws of Yom Tov are a continuation of the laws of the Sabbath, and are basically an explanation of how certain forbidden labors of the Sabbath are permitted on Yom Tov. In other words, it is a list of exceptions to the Laws of the Sabbath.

Laws of the Sabbath 22:2

Why did the Sages forbid entering a bathhouse on the Sabbath? Because the attendants would heat up water on the Sabbath, and say that it has been heated before the commencement of the Sabbath. For this reason, our Sages decreed that one should not enter a bathhouse on the Sabbath, even to use it [merely] as a steam bath.

Similarly, they decreed that a person should not rinse his entire body with hot water – even if the water was heated on Friday. One may, however, wash one’s face, hands, and feet [with hot water that was heated before the commencement of the Sabbath]. When do the above [restrictions] apply? To water that is heated by fire. One may, however, rinse one’s entire body in the hot springs of Tiberias and the like.

It is forbidden to bathe in hot springs located in caves, for the cave is filled with hot air, and one will sweat [as in a steam bath]. Thus, it resembles a bathhouse.

Laws of Yom Tov 1:16

Bathing and anointing oneself are considered in the general category of eating and drinking. They are permitted on a holiday [as indicated by Exodus 12:16]: “Only that [labor] from which all souls will eat [may you perform]” – i.e., all the needs of the body [are permitted].

Therefore, one may heat water on a holiday and wash his hands and feet. It is, however, forbidden to wash one’s entire body. This is a decree, [instituted to prevent the use of] bathhouses.

When water was heated before the commencement of a holiday, one may wash one’s entire body with it on the holiday. This was prohibited only on the Sabbath.

Now note the following:

1. Maimonides forbids entering bathhouses. Most of us now live with indoor plumbing, and do not need to use communal bathhouses, even if there are establishments, like miqwa’oth and Gymnasia, that are bathhouse-like facilities.

2. Maimonides points out that hot spring water, or by extension, solar-heated water and, presumably, even that which was solar heated before the Sabbath, may be used for bathing the whole body on the Sabbath, and, by extension, on Yom Tov.

3. Maimonides declares that bathing is shaweh l’chol nefesh and therefore permissible on Yom Tov, despite the realities that existed at his time, which was the same as the Tosafists’, and despite that he ruled earlier that is is normal and healthy to bathe once every seven days (Laws of De’oth 4:16),  except that one should not bathe the whole body with water cooked on Yom Tov using fire.

4. The decree prohibiting bathhouses should not be applicable nowadays because society has changed. We do not have to worry that the public will have to rely on certain individuals who in turn will have to desecrate the holy days in order to do their jobs. This is not equivalent to declaring the decree void, for if society will undergo another change, it may well once again become applicable.

5. I have never understood how or why Maimonides extends the decree to Yom Tov. On the sabbath, the decree prevents individuals from getting to the point where they may come to desecrate the Sabbath, whereas on Yom Tov, the essential forbidden labor in is actuality permissible. What would be wrong if the bathhouse attendants heat up water on Yom Tov? It must be that if the attendants would be allowed to boil water on Yom Tov, they may come to do so on the Sabbath, but this would then be an argument for prohibiting cooking on Yom Tov in the home, lest one come to do so on the Sabbbath. Still, today this is a moot point.

5. Even if one were to not concede that the application of the halacha is different from the way it was in centuries past, he still has many ways to bathe his whole body on Yom Tov according to Maimonides.

So enjoy your Yom Tov. That is certainly a mitzvah.


From → halacha

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