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Shabbat Parashat Shemot 5772

Ask the Rabbi: Salt to Absorb Spilled Wine on Shabbat

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I have heard that if one spills red wine on a tablecloth, it is good to put salt on it to absorb the wine. Is that permitted on Shabbat, since the salt is only absorbing, not cleaning?


Answer: The prohibition of melaben (literally, whitening, but, for our purposes, laundering) comes in various forms. We will investigate if this use of salt fits into one of the prohibited ones.

Melaben applies to cleaning fabrics and not to removing external dirt on top of hard surfaces. Whether a certain means of removing filth is permitted can depend on the surface from which it is being removed. For example, one may pour some water over a dirty leather object, but this is forbidden for a fabric, while one may wipe the fabric with a cloth (Mishna, Shabbat 142b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 302:9). In discussing this distinction, the gemara (Zevachim 94b) says that regarding fabric, “soaking it is laundering it.” Since a tablecloth falls under the category of fabric, putting water on it when it has become soiled is forbidden.

Removing liquid from a fabric might also be forbidden. The Rambam (Shabbat 9:11) says that squeezing water out of a garment is included in the prohibition of laundering. The Rishonim disagree as to whether this applies to all liquids or only to water, which is what is normally used in the laundering process (see Kesef Mishneh ad loc.).

Removal of dirt from a garment by means of shaking it out is also a matter of dispute. The gemara (Shabbat 147a) says that it is forbidden to shake out a garment on Shabbat. Tosafot says that this is talking about shaking out water from the garment, which makes it part of the laundering process. Rashi says that the prohibition applies even to shaking off dirt, and the Rama (OC 302:1) says that one should try to follow the strict opinion. The gemara, though, says that the prohibition applies only to the type of garments that one is careful to wear without the material that is shaken off.

With this background, let us now discuss removing wine by absorbing it with salt. Simply absorbing a big wine spill with a napkin or even a cloth rag is permitted (see Mishna Berura 302:60). This is on the condition that one is careful not to press on the tablecloth in a manner that would squeeze liquid out of it and not to squeeze the rag afterward (see Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 12:37-38).

In some ways, doing so with salt seems even better, as one places the salt in a manner that is less likely to squeeze the tablecloth, and it is not feasible to squeeze the salt afterward. However, our research indicates that the salt does not only absorb excess surface liquid. Rather, it draws out the wine that has already been absorbed in the tablecloth and would not be absorbed by, say, a paper towel. This is specifically why the “home remedies people” say that salt prevents the stain from setting and even removes at least some of it, which requires more than just absorbing surface liquid. From the world of halacha, as well, we know that salt is put on meat to draw out the blood from deep beneath the surface. On the other hand, we have seen that not every action that helps make a fabric cleaner is forbidden. In some ways, the salt acts similarly to water, which stops the dirt from setting, and “encourages” some of the dirt to come out (more complete results are reached through agitations/scrubbing).

With a dearth of classical sources on this or exactly identical cases, our gut feeling (based on the halachic precedents) is that putting on the salt is applying a stain remover to a fabric and is forbidden. A similar gut feeling may be what brought Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited and accepted by Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 15:(74) and Orchot Shabbat 13:20) to say that it is forbidden to put talcum powder on greasy clothes to soak up the fat. As our case seems to be equivalent, we concur with that ruling and recommend soaking up what one can with paper towels on Shabbat and treating the tablecloth after Shabbat.

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