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Hand Lotions on Shabbos


Hand lotions are popular products, particularly during the winter when dry hands can benefit from moisturizing. Can they be applied on Shabbos? The answer is not as clear cut as some may think.

The presumed prohibition is memarei’ach, a sub-category of the Shabbos labor memachek. Memarei’ach means spreading. The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 316:11) rules that you may not rub your foot on spit on the ground on Shabbos because that smooths the dirt. The Magen Avraham (ad loc., 24) infers that you may rub the spit on a tiled floor. He asks why this is not a prohibited act of memarei’ach, since you are spreading the spit across the floor. His answer makes all the difference to our question.

The Magen Avraham explains that memarei’ach only applies when you intend to spread one item on top of another. Here, you want the spit to be absorbed by the floor rather than remain on top. Memarei’ach is a forbidden act of spreading a substance on top of another that that smooths it out, creates a smooth surface above it. Significantly, the Mishnah Berurah (ad loc., 49) rules according to this Magen Avraham.

Moisturizers come in both lotions and creams, the former being thinner and less viscous (link). Based on the above logic, R. Nachum Rabinovich (Si’ach Nachum, no. 20) rules that you are allowed to apply non-medicinal lotions on Shabbos. For his purposes, he determines that a handcream or vaseline (קרם ידיים או וזלין) is a lotion if it is a liquid that emerges from its tube with very little pressure, it immediately dissolves and is absorbed into the skin, and does not create a visible layer on the skin. Similarly, R. Shlomo Aviner (She’eilas Shlomo 3:123, 4:98) permits applying skin lotion on Shabbos if you make sure that it is completely absorbed into the skin.

However, R. Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halakhah, Shabbos 6:5 – link) argues that users of hand lotion desire a thin layer on top of the skin that softens it. Therefore, he contends that it is dissimilar from the case of spit on a tiled floor and is forbidden.

In three responsa, R. Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 1:112-114 – link) invokes the prohibition of memachek: toothpaste, liquid soap and lipstick. If we assume that R. Feinstein really meant memarei’ach, we can infer from the second case that he would probably prohibit hand lotion. Although, as R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik reportedly said (Nefesh Ha-Rav, pp. 168-169), R. Feinstein’s rationale is extremely difficult to understand.

R. Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah ch. 23 n. 58) quotes R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach as permitting hand lotion if it is fully absorbed. He also quotes some who said that the Chazon Ish leaned toward leniency on this. R. Neuwirth points to a contradictory ruling by the Chazon Ish and generally argues for stringency on this issue.

Setting aside the strict views of R. Feinstein and R. Neuwirth, I am at a loss to understand the debate. Is it whether hand lotion does, in fact, absorb completely into the skin? Or is it how much of a layer is necessary to be considered non-absorbed, a visible layer or just a desired layer of any depth?

(See the related post on toothpaste: link)


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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

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11 Responses

  1. purell says:

    What would you say to the current trend of using antibacterial cleansers. Would that be permitted on the Sabbath?

  2. Jacob says:

    R. Gil:

    The debate regarding creams, lipstick, etc. (where there is a desire for residual matter to stay on the skin) is understandable. What I don’t understand is how liquid soap would be a problem, where there is no desire whatever for any soap residue, but it is rather immediately washed away. Many Sepharadim (see R. Ovadia Yosef in Shu”t Yehave Daat 2:50) permit using even hard soap on Shabbat, let alone liquid soap, and in that teshuva, ROY cites a teshuvat haRambam (Freiman no. 139) who states unequivocally that using soap is permitted).

  3. Gary says:

    A related question:

    Is one allowed to use products such as hair gel on Shabbat?

  4. Bob Abrams says:

    This is the kind of stuff that gives ortohodoxy a bad name in the less than frum circles

  5. memareach says:

    The machlokes is whether memareach is defined by the maaseh (act of “shmearing”- R. Moshe Feinstein) or the totzaah (is there a smooth later left behind. The Rambam implies the latter.

  6. Y says:

    Thank you very much for this post. I am happy to see that some major poskim approve of lotion if it is absorbed. I struggle with this issue because I have very dry skin. I think the stricter positions say that all lotion is forbidden but oil is OK. The problem is that oil is not a good moisturizer!

    What if you have a slight amount of eczema and putting lotion on it will help heal it? Is that forbidden on Shabbos because it is healing a minor wound, even though it is common among those without eczema to apply lotion?

    To answer a previous comment, I believe liquid soap is accepted by most halachic authorities.

    I suppose it would also be useful to have a post about toothpaste and whether special “Shabbos toothpaste” is necessary if one is to brush one’s teeth on Shabbos.

  7. shachar haamim says:

    What would you say to the current trend of using antibacterial cleansers. Would that be permitted on the Sabbath?

    To my mind it is ‘p’shita’ that one can use an alcohol rub lotion especially after changing a baby’s diaper or coming in contact with other materials which could be dangerous or spread illness or disease.

  8. purell says:

    It might be dangerous not to pick out bones from fish, but we are still required not to do borer.

  9. purell says:

    True. My point is that a Posek need be consulted for questions like this. If your Posek says OK, then go right ahead. Yet Halacha does sometimes trump health/hygiene. I would like if someone has a relevant Pesak, not a Sevorah.

  10. emma says:

    along Y’s line, can you define “non-medicinal”? if your eczema is already cracked, is it medicinal? what if your skin looks normal now but will crack if left unmoisturized for a day?


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