Classic Reasons to Forbid Use of Bar Soap on Shabbat
Growing up, my friends and I assumed that use of bar soap was strictly forbidden. Indeed, the Rama (Orah Haim 326:10) writes that it is forbidden to wash one’s hands with soap on Shabbat. Two reasons are given for this prohibition. The Rama explains that using soap on Shabbat causes it to turn into liquid, which is in violation of nolad(creating a new entity). This is comparable to crushing ice on Shabbat, which is prohibited for the same reason (see Shulchan Aruch Orah Haim 320:9).
A second reason for the prohibition, mentioned by the Mishna Brurah (326:30), is that using soap is in violation of memarei’ah (smearing), similar to the prohibition of smoothing wax on Shabbos (see Shulchan Aruch Orah Haim 314:11).
Rav Ovadia Yosef Permits Bar Soap for Sephardic Jews
However, later when I studied in Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael and discovered the Teshuvot of Hacham Ovadia Yosef, I was shocked to find Teshuvot Yehave Da’at 2:50 where Rav Ovadia permits the use of bar soap for Sephardic Jews. He even permits use of bar soap for Ashkenazic Jews in case of need.
Rav Ovadia rejects the nolad explanation. He argues that the Shulchan Aruch follows the opinion of most Rishonim that crushing ice is forbidden only because of the concern that one may eventually squeeze fruit that is intended for its juice, since ice is also intended to be used as liquid. However, the main purpose of soap is not to serve as a liquid, and therefore, this fear is not relevant to soap. This distinction is indeed recorded by the Pahad Yitzhak where he writes that according to Maran HaShulchan Aruch, there is no prohibition to use soap on Shabbat.
In regards to the concern of Memarei’ah, Rav Ovadia argues that it is not a concern because one has no intention of smoothing the soap bar. One intends only to clean what he is washing. Rav Ovadia cites a central principle articulated by the Maggid Mishneh (Hilchot Shabbat 12:2) that when a resultant prohibited activity is entirely beyond one’s purview, it is permitted according to all opinions. The Ohr Samei’ah refers to this comment of the Maggid Mishnah as a “Marganita Tava,” precious gem for articulating such a fundamentally important point. Rav Ovadia believes that smoothing out a soap bar, is classified as one such activity where the resulting forbidden act is so beyond one’s intentions that all should accept its being permitted.
However, this is quite a bold ruling since both the Mishnah Brurah and the Ben Ish Hai record a custom to forbid use of bar soap on Shabbat. Indeed, Hacham Ben-Zion Abba-Shaul (Or LiTzion 2:35:5) disagrees with Rav Ovadia and forbids the use of bar soap on Shabbat. Although Rav Ovadia’s reasoning is cogent and unassailable, his ruling does run counter the prevailing custom among both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews.
Yalkut Yosef—A Softening of Rav Ovadia’s Decision
Rav Ovadia apparently retreated somewhat from his lenient stance in his elder years. Yalkut Yosef (Orah Haim 326) presents Rav Ovadia’s lenient view as the essentially correct view. However, he writes that even Sephardic Jews should ideally avoid the use of bar soap when possible. Moreover, in Yalkut Yosef the offer for Ashkenazic Jews to follow the lenient view in case of great need, does not even appear!
Ashkenazic Jews should not use bar soap on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Sephardic Jews, however, may use bar soap if no alternative exists to clean one’s hands. However, since Rav Ovadia’s argument permitting bar soap is so potent and persuasive, one need not extend this stringency further and apply it to conventional liquid soap. Although Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe O.H. 1:113) forbids liquid soap on Shabbat, all Jews may follow the prevailing custom to use liquid soap on Shabbat without a need to water down the liquid soap prior to Shabbat (Dayan Posen, Kitzur Hilchot Shabbat 32:4). The custom to refrain from bar soap is itself surprising and should not be extended further to liquid soap.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.