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Shabbat Parashat Vayigash | 5768

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Question: I often have itchy dry skin. Is it permitted on Shabbat to relieve the itch by scratching if, based on experience, I know that some flakes will fall off?
Answer: The classic examples of the melacha of gozez (shearing) on Shabbat are the removal of hair and nails from a live or dead human or animal (see Rambam, Shabbat 9:7). However, one gemara (Eiruvin 103a) mentions warts and another (Shabbat 94b) removing strands of partially detached skin as Torah-level prohibitions. This would ostensibly be the case regarding removing dry skin. In fact, the Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata (35:32) rules that removing a dry wart and dry skin are similarly forbidden. Similarly, one is not allowed to purposely remove dandruff (which is another form of dry skin) that is still attached to the scalp (ibid. 14:43).
However, several mitigating factors are relevant to your case. Firstly, there is at most a rabbinic violation if the wart is dried out (Eiruvin 103a). The gemara (Shabbat 50b) says that one is permitted to remove [some types of] scabs on Shabbat. There are different possible distinctions between that which is forbidden (rabbinically) and that which is permitted. These include whether the matter to be removed grew from within the body and whether it comes off itself over time.
The gemara regarding warts says that if one removes them by hand there is only a rabbinic prohibition even if it is not dried out because the normal way to remove warts is to use a utensil. This is likely not to apply to dry skin, along the lines of the Biur Halacha (to 340:2) who raises the possibility that it is normal (and forbidden from the Torah) to remove strands of skin by hand. However, if one used an elbow or otherwise did things unusually there would once again be reason for no more than a rabbinic issue.
A further mitigating situation, which likely applies to dry skin and not to warts, depends on gozez’s basic definition. We accept the predominant opinion that gozez applies whether one needs that which is removed (e.g., wool for fabric) or whether the removal improves the surface from which it is taken (ibid.). However, scratching off dry skin does not normally help in either regard, thus providing yet another reason that there is no Torah prohibition.
In order to turn the mitigating factors into a lenient ruling, we need to employ an important general rule. One may do an action even if it may bring on a prohibited result because of his lack of intention for that result (davar she’eino mitkaven). Admittedly, when it is definite that the prohibited result will occur (p’sik reishei) it is strictly forbidden (Shabbat 103a). Whenthe problematic result is forbidden only rabbinically some are lenient, but the accepted opinion is that it is still forbidden (Mishna Berura 316:18). However, when there are two reasons why there is no Torah prohibition, then most authorities permit a p’sik reishei at least when the result is not desired (ibid.:14; see Sha’ar Hatziyun 316:18; Yabia Omer VI, Orach Chayim 36). We have demonstrated that there are at least two reasons that scratching dry skin is not a Torah prohibition. After consultation with a dermatologist (who happens to be the respondent’s brother) it appears that it is not in the interest of the person who itches to have the skin removed. It certainly does not seem to be a p’sik reishei that attached skin that it is helpful to remove will come off.
If one wants to be machmir, he can refrain from scratching, especially considering that the dermatologist said that it is, as a rule, better not to scratch in the first place. Certainly one can try to scratch lightly and/or with an elbow. However, in a case where the discomfort of the itch makes it difficult to control himself, the laws of Shabbat need not be the thing to hold one back.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated in loving memory of
R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
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