When I was a newlywed in the mid 90’s, the great babywipes controversy of the late 80’s and early 90’s was still a live memory. The general assumption in my circles was that babywipes are absolutely prohibited on Shabbos, even though most people used them anyway. My impression is that this general understanding still dominates, even though there are really four views on the subject. Interestingly, three of the four views are reported in the name of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
The reason to forbid babywipes is fairly straightforward. You are not allowed to squeeze liquid out of an object because it constitutes sechitah, which is a subcategory of the forbidden labor dash (threshing) and/or melaben (cleaning). Since babywipes contain liquid of which at least some is inevitably squeezed out during usage, its use should be prohibited. (The following discussion ignores the need to rip babywipes that are connected to each other. Doing so is problematic. I’ve never used such babywipes.)
I once heard R. Shlomo Perl (speaking in the late 90’s), a longtime teacher of the laws of Shabbos, tell the following story: R. Moshe Bick, in his day an important halakhic authority in Boro Park, permitted use of babywipes on Shabbos. One day, someone confrontational entered R. Moshe Bick’s living room to speak with him and squeezed a babywipe so the liquid would drip onto the table, screaming “Sechitah! Sechitah!” As R. Perl told the story, R. Bick grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him out the door, screaming “Mutar! Mutar!” Aside from the obvious, the need to defend the use on Shabbos of babywipes, both by R. Bick and by R. Perl, is telling. At the time, R. Perl did not offer R. Bick’s lenient rationale. R. Ovadiah Yosef is also quoted as permitting the gentle use of babywipes (link; see Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 320:38).
R. Yitzchak Ya’akov Weiss (Minchas Yitzchak 10:25 – link), in a 1986 responsum, forbids using babywipes. As he points out, you can always just wash the baby with water and dry him off. R. Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Ha-Levi 13:59 – link), in a 1990 responsum, initially permitted use of babywipes provided you use them gently, so that liquid need not necessarily be squeezed out. However, after being told (by the authors of Orechos Shabbos, see below) that it will always be squeezed out, he concludes that we must be strict and forbid the use of babywipes on Shabbos.
III. Very Wet Allowed
R. Dovid Ribiat (The 39 Melachos, p. 352 and the accompanying n. 137) quotes in the name of R. Moshe Feinstein an interesting reason for leniency. R. Feinstein reportedly concluded that since the majority of moisture rests on top of the babywipe, rather than absorbed within it, you are not squeezing liquid when using a babywipe. R. Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halakhah 14:6 – link) rules similarly. Based on this logic, R. Ribiat insists that you may only use babywipes if they are very wet. Since, in my experience, babywipes in a box partially dry out fairly quickly, according to this view you can only use the first few in the box.
IV. Slightly Wet Allowed
R. Shlomo Aviner (She’eilas Shlomo 3:114), in a 1992 responsum, permits use of babywipes if they are not very wet because then there is less of a concern that liquid will be squeezed out. In my experience, most babywipes (except for the first few in a box) have limited liquid that is not squeezed out.
V. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s View
1) Entirely Permissible
In a reply to R. Aviner’s ruling (also from 1992 and published alongside the above responsum), R. Avigdor Nebenzahl–probably R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s foremost disciple–quoted two views on the subject. He claimed that, according to R. Tzvi Pesach Frank, use of a babywipe would be rabbinically prohibited because you desire the liquid that is squeezed out of the paper. However, according to R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, babywipes are entirely permissible on Shabbos because the water is squeezed out directly into the baby’s excrement and immediately attains its status. Sechitah requires the liquid to attain an independent identity after being squeezed out. Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah (ch. 14 n. 94) also quotes R. Auerbach as permitting use of babywipes.
2) Slightly Wet Allowed
R. Nebenzahl subsequently replied again that his initial report in R. Auerbach’s name was not a ruling but only “talking in learning,” a suggested approach. R. Auerbach’s final position is that you may not use very wet babywipes. However, you may if they are slightly wet. He explicitly states that R. Auerbach agreed with R. Aviner’s ruling.
R. Shalom Yosef Gelber and R. Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin, in their Orechos Shabbos (vol. 1, birurei halakhah 7:5), report that they asked R. Auerbach about babywipes and he showed them the lenient footnote in Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah. They showed him the explanations of experts on the nature of babywipes and “they heard” that he changed his mind and ruled strictly. They similarly convinced R. Wosner to retract, which he did in writing.
4) Did He Retract?
However, R. Neuwirth, the author of Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilkhasah, is reported to have said that R. Auerbach continued permitting babywipes entirely toward the end of his life (link). Therefore, R. Neuwirth retained this ruling in later editions of his book. R. Eliezer Melamed (Harchavos Peninei Halakhah, Shabbos 14:6:4 n. 2) quotes from Or Ha-Shabbos that R. Auerbach’s descendant, R. Ch[aim?] Goldberg, a noted Torah scholar, testified that R. Auerbach permitted the use of babywipes shortly before his passing.
I suggest that, despite the esteem in which we hold the authors of Orechos Shabbos, we cannot accept this posthumous report of a retraction because: 1) it is questionable because they did not hear it directly from R. Auerbach, 2) we have contradictory testimony, and 3) the same reason that the Noda Bi-Yehudah‘s son gave (link)–the testimony, in this case indirect, is insufficient to remove a presumption.[See also this article by R. Aryeh Lebowitz – link (PDF)]