I. Glasses on Shabbos
As we trace the crystallization and evolution of specific Jewish laws, we risk missing important points if we ignore historical facts. This comes to the fore in what to many will seem a surprising debate — the permissibility, or not, of wearing eyeglasses on Shabbos. Most people take for granted that people may wear glasses outside on Shabbos even where there is no eruv. Yet, as we will see, the major halakhic codes forbid it. How did it become allowed?
In order to be permissibly worn outside on Shabbos, an item must be classified as a garment or an ornament. Ornaments, however, are sometimes rabbinically forbidden due to the concern you might take it off to show someone or that it might fall off and you will lift and carry it. Do eyeglasses fall in either of these categories?
The Rema (Orach Chaim 301:14), quoting the Beis Yosef, forbids wearing an ornamental glasses case because the glasses inside the case are not part of the ornament. This ruling raises the question why the wearing of glasses was not addressed. Is this because it is obviously allowed as a garment or ornament, or forbidden as a utensil? The Chayei Adam (56:3) forbids “wearing glasses on the nose” because they may fall and you may carry them. Clearly, he considers them to be an ornament subject to that consideration.
II. Glasses in Halakhah
The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (84:3) and Mishnah Berurah (301:44) follow the Chayei Adam‘s ruling. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 301:61) adds a different concern. He considers glasses to be a tool for eyesight, not an ornament. Even if made fancy, it is still a tool. You are never allowed to carry a tool on Shabbos and the Arukh Ha-Shulchan struggles to permit it if it is sewn into one’s clothing.
Yet, contemporary halakhic works permit the wearing of eyeglasses for those who always wear them (but not reading glasses). R. Yehoshua Neuwirth (Shemira Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah 18:16), wrote in 1979 that one may wear them. R. Dovid Ribiat (The 39 Melachos, vol. 4 p. 1402) in 1999 and R. Shalom Yosef Gelber and R. Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin (Orechos Shabbos, vol. 3 28:127) in 2009 wrote similarly. How did we get from the absolute prohibition of the Chayei Adam to today’s broad permission?
III. Permissive Views
I think there are two steps that answer this question. The first is that along the way, some important authorities disagreed with this strict ruling. R. Ya’akov Ettlinger (Binyan Tziyon Ha-Chadashos, no. 37 – link), writing in 1862, permitted, or at least did not object to those who permitted, wearing glasses that are tied from ear to ear. Decades later, in a responsum published in 1922, R. Chaim Elazar Shapiro (Minchas Elazar vol. 3 no. 4 – link) confirmed R. Ettlinger’s ruling. And not long after, R. Ya’akov Chaim Sofer (Kaf Ha-Chaim 301:65 – link) allowed it, but recommended that the pious refrain. More recently, R. Gedaliah Felder (Yesodei Yeshurun, vol. 5 p. 216 – link) in 1966 and R. Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Ha-Levi, vol. 8 no. 48 – link) in 1992 permitted wearing eyeglasses on Shabbos.
IV. History and Glasses
The second is recognizing the history of spectacles. Why was the Chayei Adam so concerned about glasses falling off? That rarely happens. And what did the Binyan Tziyon mean when he referred to glasses that are tied from ear to ear? The answer lies in the evolution of glasses, not halakhah. In the seventeenth century, glasses did not have sides. They were two lenses connected by frames with a bridge that was held on the nose (link). People wearing them had to walk with their heads tilted back to keep them from falling (see the picture above). Sides began to appear in the second quarter of the eighteenth century (link).
R. Avraham Danziger, who published Chayei Adam around the turn of the nineteenth century (perhaps in 1810), was almost certainly speaking of the glasses without sides. Presumably, the latest fashion in spectacles had not yet penetrated the Jewish community in Vilna. That explains his great concern for glasses falling off. 50+ years later, R. Ettlinger was familiar with both kinds of glasses and permitted those with sides — not those with the sides tied around the back of the head but simply with sides.
V. Glasses Today
If eyeglasses serve an ornamental purpose, which the styles of frames currently available seem to confirm, then the Chayei Adam would permit wearing glasses with sides on Shabbos. As this style became standard, the appropriate ruling changed. While the stringency was once correct, it would now be wrong to apply it. I eventually learned that R. Dovid Tevele Efrati reached the same conclusion. The Minchas Shabbos on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (84:6 – link) quotes a responsum of his with the same analysis.
However, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan‘s objection still stands. If eyeglasses are tools rather than ornaments, then even those with sides may not be worn on Shabbos. This seems to be a minority opinion. Those who quote the Chayei Adam consider glasses to be ornaments. However, there are those who prefer to be strict. For this reason, R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky reportedly refrained from wearing glasses outside on Shabbos, although told others that there is room to be lenient (Bi-Mechitzas Rabbeinu Ha-Ga’on R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky, p. 126).
In the case of eyeglasses on Shabbos, the core halakhic ruling did not change. Rather, the reality changed and a different ruling had to be applied. Only by studying the history could we determine that the seemingly new permissive ruling is really an extension of the previous stringency.
UPDATE: R. Yehudah Leib Graubart, the former rabbi of my grandparents’ town in Poland, permitted wearing glasses on Shabbos in 1918 — Chavalim Ba-Ne’imim vol. 3 no. 11: link. He holds that glasses are a garment.