By Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen
Excerpted from his new book Shabbat: The Right Way (Urim Publications) pages 116–118.
Q: May one shower with hot water on Shabbat and Yom Tov?
Halachic research indicates that bathing is prohibited on Shabbat and Yom Tov regardless of whether a violation of Shabbat or Yom Tov laws took place. The Talmud (Shabbat 40a) states:
At first, people used to wash in [cistern] water that was heated on the eve of Shabbat. Then the bath attendants began to heat the water on Shabbat, maintaining that it was done on the eve of Shabbat. So the [use of] hot water was forbidden, but sweating [a steam bath] was permitted. Yet still they used to bathe in hot water, saying: We are perspiring [taking a steam bath]. So sweating [steam bathing] was forbidden, though the thermal hot springs of Tiberias were permitted. Yet they bathed in water heated by fire, saying: We bathed in the hot springs of Tiberias. So they forbade the hot springs but permitted cold water. But when they saw that this [series of restrictions] could not stand, they permitted the hot springs of Tiberias, while sweating [taking a steam bath] remained as before [prohibited].
Clarifying this rule, the Talmud reports that washing specific parts of one’s body, such as one’s face and hands, were not included in the prohibition. Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch specifically notes that the prohibition is applicable to the bathing of one’s entire body, even if this is done limb by limb. Therefore, immersion in a bath of hot water heated even on Friday afternoon would be prohibited because of the rabbinic decree. The codes add that one may not even pour water over one’s body (Orach Chayyim 326:1). The Aruch ha-Shulchan notes that this latter process was prohibited even though it was not the normal mode of bathing; for once an injunction was set up, he contends, the sages did not make a distinction between the normal modes of bathing and other ones (lo pelug; Orach Chayyim 326:2). It is apparent that this relates to showering, which is, in essence, water poured over the body. Today, showering is as popular a mode of bathing as immersing oneself in a bathtub.
One cannot contend that the original prohibition did not include showering because it was not a conventional mode of bathing at the time. Indeed, the Talmud specifically states that bathing in the hot springs of Tiberias was made permissible, because without such permission the Jews would have had no acceptable means of bathing with hot water on Shabbat (see Rashi). This indicates that hot showers was also prohibited. Accordingly, any form of bathing with hot water, even with hot water heated prior to Shabbat or without any violation of Shabbat (such as an automatic heater) would be prohibited. (My own feeling is that the decree would extend to immersing one’s entire body in a heated swimming pool.)
However, Ha-Rav Akiva Eiger provides a loophole. He contends that a person who is in pain may bathe on Shabbat even if he is not ill. Therefore, the decree did not apply to a person who would feel pain or anguish if he did not bathe. Such a person may use hot water with no violation of Shabbat (Glosses, Rav Akiva Eiger, Orach Chayyim 326:1).
Concerning Yom Tov, the Talmud records an incident in which bathing with water heated on Erev Yom Tov was prohibited (see also Tosafot: Le-motzei). Indeed, based upon the Talmud itself, without further research or analysis, a general approach was to assume that showering or bathing with hot water on Yom Tov was prohibited because of the rabbinic decree. Yet what is the reason for this prohibition?
On Shabbat, it is forbidden to heat water. Therefore, the use of hot water, even if it was heated before Shabbat, was prohibited in order to prevent heating water on Shabbat itself. However, on Yom Tov we may heat water for drinking or cooking purposes. In addition, there is a rule that states that when an item is permitted for purposes of food, it is also permitted for non-food purposes (mi-toch). By this logic, since one may heat water for a meal, it should also be permissible to heat water for a bath.
Here are two responses to the above. 1. Rabbenu Asher, citing the Riva, contends that on Yom Tov one may only perform those activities that most people practice (shaveh la-kol). However, if a given activity is performed only by a small group of people, it is prohibited even on Yom Tov (Rosh, Shabbat, Chapter 1).
First, according to the Rosh, only very sensitive people were accustomed to bathing their entire bodies every day, while the daily bathing of limbs (such as the head, face and legs) was common practice. Second, the Aruch ha-Shulchan notes that the Rambam does not list the above theory. According to the Rambam, bathing with hot water on Yom Tov is prohibited because of the fear of violating Shabbat laws. Yom Tov was simply included in the ban (495:19).
There are serious questions as to whether the first theory applies in our day. The Shmirat Shabbat ke-Hilchata notes that today, almost all people have private bathrooms and daily bathing is common. Since it is no longer reserved for the wealthy or the extremely sensitive, it should be permitted on Yom Tov.
Also, it is permissible to heat water on Yom Tov in order to wash one’s head. If that action is permissible, then one may also bathe in the same hot water, because the faucet that one opens in order to wash one’s head uses the same process that runs a bath or shower. It also may be possible to challenge the Rambam’s position somewhat because it is not customary to forbid an activity on Yom Tov because of a possible violation of Shabbat. (The response to this is it may have been forbidden on Yom Tov because of the prohibition of sechita – wringing or squeezing – on that day.)
It is still customary that many religious Jews who smoke do so on Yom Tov. Although smoking is certainly not the general custom, the rabbinic world does not protest against those who smoke on Yom Tov. The halachic position of the smokers is that it is necessary for them to smoke even on Yom Tov. This rationale should also apply to the people who bathe every day. It is necessary to feel clean (Shmirat Shabbat ke-Hilchata, Chapter 14:7, n. 21).
Therefore, a person who seeks to bathe with hot water on Yom Tov should be directed to shower, since showering appears to be somewhat different from the type of bathing covered by the original rabbinic decree. Also, if the person has perspired a great deal and is in great discomfort or pain, this supersedes the decree, according to R. Akiva Eiger.
(The above discussion does not apply to a mikveh that is used for the performance of a mitzvah. The use of warm or hot mikva’ot is a separate issue. Also, contrary to previous generations, many current Rabbis prohibit smoking as dangerous to health and, therefore, also prohibited on Yom Tov.)