Those who reside in relatively affluent communities are accustomed to showering on a regular basis, something that was unheard of in pre-modern times. For many years there has been discussion whether showering is permitted on Yom Tov nowadays in light of this change in hygiene habits. We shall examine the traditional prohibition to bathe on Yom Tov and see whether this prohibition still applies even in contemporary times.
Background Information – MiToch, Shaveh LeChol Nefesh and Gezeirat Balanim
Three basic concepts must be clarified at first. The first is the debate between Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel regarding the law of “MiToch.” The Torah (Shemot 12:16) permits certain work on Yom Tov such as cooking, transferring fire and carrying in a public domain for the sake of Ochel Nefesh (food preparation). Beit Shamai limits this permission to food preparation while Beit Hillel expand it to any Yom Tov need.
For example, the Mishnah (Beitzah 1:5) records that Beit Shamai does not permit carrying a child, Lulav or Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) in a public domain on Yom Tov while Beit Hillel does permit such carrying on holidays. The Gemara (Beitzah 12a) explains that Beit Hillel believes that “MiToch Shehutrah Hotza’ah LeTzorech Hutrah Nami Shelo LeTzorech”, “just as the Torah permits carrying for the sake of food preparation it permits carrying for any Yom Tov need”, while Beit Shamai rejects this expansion. This concept is commonly referred to as “MiToch” and applies to other labors permitted on Yom Tov. The Halachah follows the opinion of Beit Hillel (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 518:1).
Even Beit Hillel agree, however, that the Torah permits labor on Yom Tov only for activities that are “Shaveh Lechol Nefesh,” something that is enjoyed by most people and not something that’s exotic used by only a small minority of individuals. An example of such “exotic” behavior presented by the Gemara (Ketubot 7a) is making incense, which is prohibited on Yom Tov (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 511:4). There occasionally arises some debate whether to define an activity as Shaveh LeChol Nefesh. For example, the Acharonim discussed whether smoking is Shaveh L’chol Nefesh (see Biur Halacha 511:4 s.v. Ein Osin and the chapter in the forthcoming third volume of Gray Matter where it is explained that today smoking is prohibited due to health concerns).
The third background concept is the Gezeirat HaBalanim, the “bathhouse decree.” Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 22:2) presents the issue succinctly:
“Why did the Rabbis forbid entering a bathhouse on Shabbat? Because of the bathhouse attendants who would heat water on Shabbat and claim it was heated before Shabbat (if the water was heated on Shabbat one can not benefit from the heated water as one cannot benefit from work done on his behalf on Shabbat).”
Heating Water for Bathing Purposes on Yom Tov
The Mishnah (Beitzah 2:5) presents a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai as to whether one may heat water for washing one’s hands, face, and feet on Yom Tov. Predictably, Beit Shamai forbids this due to its rejection of the idea of “MiToch” and Beit Hillel permits this activity since they subscribe to the idea of “MiToch.”
Interestingly, even Beit Hillel agrees that one may not heat water for one’s entire body on Yom Tov. Rishonim debate the reason for this. Tosafot (Beitzah 21b s.v. Lo Yeicham) explain that bathing one’s entire body is not Shaveh LeChol Nefesh as it is “fit for only finicky individuals.” Rambam (Hilchot Yom Tov 1:16) believes that it is included in the Gezeirat HaBalanim, though it appears unusual to extend this edict to Yom Tov where one is permitted to engage in many labors necessary for Yom Tov. Ramban (Shabbat 40a s.v. Ha Ditnan), however, explains that since some Halachic concerns apply to bathing on Yom Tov as well, such as the worry that one may come to squeeze water (Sechitah) from one’s hair or towel, the edict applies to Yom Tov as well.
There are two major differences between these two approaches. According to Tosafot, heating water for bathing on Yom Tov constitutes a Torah level prohibition whereas according to the Rambam it is only a rabbinic prohibition. Moreover, according to Tosafot this prohibition is subject to change as the category of Shaveh L’chol Nefesh varies in accordance with the habits of each particular generation, whereas the Gezeirat Habalanim is not subject to change, as the edicts of Chazal apply even when their reasons do not (Beitzah 5a).
This is quite ironic as normally we are stricter regarding a Torah law than a rabbinic requirement. However, it emerges in this case that there is more room for leniency with a Torah law than a rabbinic law. Thus, according to Tosafot it would appear to be permitted to bathe one’s entire body on Yom Tov since such bathing has become Shaveh L’chol Nefesh in our times. According to the Rambam, however, the prohibition remains in effect.
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 511:1-2) clearly considers the Rambam’s approach. Rav Yosef Karo permits bathing one’s entire body on Yom Tov if the water was heated before Yom Tov, if the bathing is not done in a bathhouse. The Rama forbids bathing even outside the bathhouse. Mishnah Berurah (511:18) explains that the Gezeirat Habalanim forbids bathing on Yom Tov to the full extent as Shabbat, whether or not the bathing occurs in a bathhouse.
Accordingly, the prohibition to bathe one’s entire on Yom Tov applies even today, since both the Shulchan Aruch and Rama consider the Rambam’s opinion. Indeed, most Rabbanim today forbid bathing one’s entire body on Yom Tov. For example, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 14:7, does not permit bathing on Yom Tov even though in footnote 21 he considers the fact that bathing today has become Shaveh Lechol Nefesh. Similarly, Yalkut Yosef (5:Moadim p.482) does not offer blanket permission to bathe nowadays despite the greatly increased frequency of bathing.
Moreover, bathing is problematic today even for Sephardic Jews who follow Rav Karo, as one’s insures that the water used for bathing was heated before Yom Tov by shutting off the boiler before Yom Tov. Most families would not want to do this, since hot water available for washing one’s hands and face would not be available for the entire Yom Tov if the valve is turned off before Yom Tov.
Possible Exceptions to the Prohibition
There is, though, possible flexibility regarding the application of the Gezeirat Habalanim. The primary area of leniency is presented in the context of women immersing in a Mikveh on Shabbat and Yom Tov evenings. Two major eighteenth century Poskim, Teshuvot Noda Bi’yehudah (O.C. 24) and Teshuvot Chacham Tzvi (number 11) forbid immersing in a Mikveh whose water is heated even before Shabbat or Yom Tov. They permitted immersion only in lukewarm water, which the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 326:3) defines as water that people do not commonly regard as warm, even though the water is still a bit warm (for further discussion, see Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata 14:1 footnote 3). These authorities believe that the edict was issued only in regard to hot water and not lukewarm water (although Beit Meir to Yoreh Deah 197 who believes it applies even if the water is only lukewarm).
Nonetheless, by the nineteenth century Teshuvot Divrei Chaim (O.C. 2:26) notes common practice is for women to immerse even on Shabbat and Yom Tov evenings in fully heated Mikva’ot, as approved by the leading rabbinical authorities. Two reasons are offered to justify this practice. Rav Akiva Eiger (commenting on Shulchan Aruch 307:5 and cited in Bi’ur Halacha 326:1 s.v. B’mayim) permits bathing in hot water even on Shabbat (if the water was heated prior to Shabbat) in case of great discomfort. He believes that the edict was not intended to apply in such circumstances. Since women find it very difficult to immerse even in lukewarm water, the edict does not apply. A second reason is that since the immersion is for the sake of Mitzvah, the Gezeirah was not issued in case of Mitzvah.
Application to Showering on Yom Tov
One may combine the three lenient approaches regarding Mikveh, to showering on Yom Tov. If one is bathed in sweat on Yom Tov (such as from dancing in a hot room on Simchat Torah) then it is permitted to shower in lukewarm water. In such a situation one is in great discomfort which interferes with the Mitzvah of rejoicing on Yom Tov and therefore is justified in bathing in lukewarm water on Yom Tov. Indeed, Rav Yosef Adler reports that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik permits showering on Yom Tov in at least such circumstances even if the water is heated on Yom Tov, since today bathing has become Shaveh L’chol Nefesh. Rav Hershel Schachter told me that he would also permit showers in at least such circumstances on Yom Tov.
However, in such a situation one must take care to avoid squeezing water from one’s hair or towel. One must also avoid using bar soap (Mishnah Berurah 326:30) and removing hair or loose nails or skin.
Yom Tov Sheini
One should not distinguish between the first day of Yom Tov and the second day of Yom Tov (for those who do not merit living in Eretz Yisrael) in this regard and rule more leniently for the second day since it is only a rabbinic obligation. The Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 511:11) rejects such an approach as degrading to Yom Tov Sheini, a day whose dignity Chazal strove mightily to preserve (Shabbat 23a).
Showering and bathing on Yom Tov remains forbidden except for exceptional circumstances.