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1352: Va'yigash 4th of Tevet 5771 11/12/2010

Question: Are we allowed to brush our teeth on Shabbat using a toothbrush and toothpaste?

Answer:

Toothpaste

With respect to using a gel on Shabbat, there is a difference in principle between anointing, which is permitted, and the forbidden labor of spreading a paste. This is prohibited by Torah law, and it applies to viscous materials such as wax and tar (Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 11:6). On the other hand, it is clear that one is permitted to anoint himself or herself with oil on Shabbat, as is explicitly stated in the Mishna (Shabbat 14:4), by the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 11:20), and by the Shulchan Aruch (327:1). The Aruch Hashulchan summarizes the law as follows: "Anointing is not prohibited on Shabbat. The only thing that is forbidden is to spread materials that will be absorbed into the skin, because of the prohibition of 'nolad,' or for materials that can be smeared." [327:1].

The problem is with intermediate materials, between a liquid that is used for anointing and very viscous materials that can be spread on a surface. In the Talmud, the rabbis disagree about spreading a thick gel (Shabbat 146b). The Rambam rules that this is forbidden, and that the word "mishca" in the Talmud refers to fat (Hilchot Shabbat 23:11). Rashi, on the other hand, interprets "mishcha" as "thick oil." According to both Rashi and the Rambam, the prohibition is a rabbinical decree. The difference in principle between a gel and wax is the difference between material that can be spread, which involves a Torah prohibition, and material that will be absorbed by the body.

The Shulchan Aruch quotes Rashi's commentary (Orach Chaim 314:11), and this means that it is necessary to define "thick oil," which is prohibited. The Mishna Berura explains as follows: "Since this can be spread somewhat, it might be exchanged." This implies that the strict halacha is referring to extremely thick oil, which might indeed be confused with wax or similar material. Magen Avraham notes that there is no fear of spreading if the ultimate objective is to have the liquid absorbed into the ground (316:17). That is, spreading is specifically an act of adding a new layer and not putting on material that will be absorbed into the surface. From this, the Maharsham concluded in his book "Daat Torah" that one is permitted to spread a gel that will later be absorbed into the skin.

In view of the above considerations, it is clear that toothpaste is not defined as a spread for the purposes of halacha, since there is no intention (or possibility) of leaving it as a coating on the teeth. This is what was written by Rabbi C. Na'eh in "Ketzot Hashulchan" (138).

Drawing Blood

With respect to bleeding during brushing the teeth, there is a difference between two cases. A person who regularly bleeds while brushing his teeth (for example, because of a gum infection) can be considered as taking an inevitable action with undesired consequences, something that is forbidden by rabbinical decree. The other case is a healthy person who normally does not bleed when he brushes his teeth, and in this case he is allowed to brush. This corresponds to the rulings by "Seridai Eish" (2:28) and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Yavia Omer (4:30).

Rinsing the Brush

Seridai Esh permits this, and he explains at length that it is a case of an inevitable result that is forbidden by rabbinical law, which the Magen Avraham permits (253:41). He notes that the material which is washed out of the brush is discarded. He also compares the brush to a sponge with a handle, to which the law of wringing out does not apply (see Rambam 22:15).

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef agrees that this is permitted, based on the law of a double doubt: First, it is not clear if an inevitable result based on a rabbinical decree is forbidden or not, and if it is prohibited perhaps the law follows the opinions of the Rashba and the Ritva, that there is not even a rabbinical decree which prohibits wringing of hair on Shabbat.

Healing on Shabbat

The Ketzot Hashulchan explains that brushing the teeth is not a medical procedure but rather a common behavior that people perform.

Weekday Activity

Ketzot Hahulchan discusses whether brushing the teeth should be prohibited as a weekday activity, similar to the prohibition of cleaning clothing with a brush. But it seems to me that the two cases are not comparable at all since brushing the teeth is a daily action and is not specifically related to the weekday. In Yavia Omer, Rabbi Yosef brings other reasons to reject the opinion of the Ketzot Hashulchan.

Some rabbis have suggested that cleaning the brush with running water is prohibited because this is preparing the brush on Shabbat for use on a weekday. But this is not reasonable, since cleaning the brush is a hygienic matter that is required as part of the respect for Shabbat.

Summary

As far as I can see there is no prohibition involved in brushing the teeth on Shabbat. It is written in "Shemirat Shabbat K'Hilchata" that the custom is not to brush teeth on Shabbat. In my humble opinion, this can be refuted, since there is no such hard and fast custom – especially in view of the fact that several prominent rabbis permit brushing the teeth. In my youth, I was taught by my mentor Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein that Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik brushed his teeth on Shabbat using toothpaste (even though his brother Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik prohibited this).

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