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Shabbat Parashat Vayeilech 5776

Ask the Rabbi: Washing Hands with Soap on Yom Kippur

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Is it permissible to wash one’s hands with soap after leaving the toilet on Yom Kippur or only with water?

 

Answer: It is a matter of debate whether afflictions other than eating and drinking, such as rechitza (washing hands with water) and sicha (classically, smearing the skin with oil) are of Torah origin or are Rabbinic (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 611). Rechitza is permitted when it is not for enjoyment but to remove dirt (Shulchan Aruch, OC 513:1). The hygienic need for washing hands after use of the toilet is no less significant than of dirt.

Your question is a good one because sicha is more stringent than washing. The Yerushalmi (Yoma 8:1) says that sicha is forbidden even when it is not for pleasure. The gemara (Yoma 77ab) does permit putting oil on chatatim (a type of skin disorder) or for the needs of the sick. Our questions are: 1. Is using soap sicha? 2. If so, does the need for soap justify its use?

The gemara (Yoma 76b) talks of sicha in reference to oil. Tosafot (ibid. 77a) assumes that it applies also to smearing animal fats on the skin. Apparently, the two main ingredients in solid soap are vegetable oils and animal fat (although liquid soaps, which we use because of melacha, are more diverse). Yet soaps seem to be fundamentally different, in that the point of sicha is usually to have the skin absorb the substance. This is also evident from the gemara’s (Yoma 76b) portrayal of sicha as being like drinking. In contrast, soap is intended to be applied and soon thereafter removed with only a tiny amount being absorbed. However, we do find very mainstream Acharonim, including the Mishna Berura (554:28) and the Aruch Hashulchan (YD 117:29), who assume that using soaps is sicha. The context of the latter is a discussion of whether it is permitted to use non-kosher soaps, which depends on how far we take the equation between sicha and drinking. On that topic, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Da’at IV:43) adds to other reasons for leniency, the idea that using soap is “less than regular sicha, as it is immediately washed away with water.” I do not know that he meant that such “less than regular” sicha is permitted on Yom Kippur, but the statement corroborates the salience of our distinction and adds at least slightly to the grounds for leniency.

Why is sicha stricter than washing (i.e., it is forbidden even without intention for enjoyment)? The Magen Avraham (614:1) says that it is because sicha generally provides greater enjoyment. Rabbeinu Manoach (Shvitat Assor 3:9) says that since most people wash off dirt with water, using oil looks like it is being done for enjoyment. Similarly, Tosafot Yom Hakippurim (Yoma 77b) says that since one can use water, the higher level of sicha was not permitted without special need. Since soap is rarely used for enjoyment, people are unlikely to be confused of his intentions, and it has a function that water does not provide, logic would seem to allow its use for hygiene just like water. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that anything that is under the category of sicha is forbidden even when it does not share the reasons for stringency. The Mishna Berura (554:28) might imply this, as does the common ruling/practice to forbid roll-on deodorant on Yom Kippur.

Still, the above makes it easier to permit the use of soap based on need. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 614:1) says that it is permitted to do sicha for a sick person. It is logical (albeit, arguable) that it should be similarly permitted to take action to prevent disease, which health experts say soap does. Certainly, circumstances impact the degree of need to use soap. It also seems hypocritical for one whose use of soap is inconsistent to pick Yom Kippur to be careful about it. However, we believe that halacha permits use of soap on Yom Kippur in cases where a basic level of hygiene calls for it. One should use simple, not luxurious, soap, and it is even better to dilute it to the point that it has a water-like consistency (see Dirshu 614:1 in the name of Ohr L’tzion).
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