Bleaching, the av melachah of melaben, is forbidden on Shabbat.1 Some authorities maintain that the av melachah is laundering, not bleaching,2 but the dispute is merely academic, because all agree that any activity which cleans or refines fabric is included in melaben. The question is merely which activity is the av and which is the toladah.

According to the Talmud, “With regard to clothing (or any absorbent material) soaking is considered laundering.”3 This indicates that a) melaben is transgressed simply by soaking unclean cloth in water, even without scrubbing or removing a stain, and b) soaking is only problematic with absorbent materials like clothes, but does not apply to non-absorbent materials like rubber or leather.

Practically, this means that if a garment has dirt or a stain on it, one may not put any liquid at all4 on the stain in order to treat it.5 If a non-absorbent material gets dirty, like muddy shoes, one may only pour water on the dirt but may not scrape or rub it off.6

Per some authorities, even wetting a clean garment with water transgresses melaben,7 because the garment has a fresher look after it has been soaked and therefore melaben has been performed. The halachic consensus is that one should be stringent to follow this interpretation.8 The question then arises, how is it that on Shabbat we dry our hands on clean towels and clean up spills with napkins? If one may not even wet a clean garment, how are these activities permitted?

The answer lies in the fact that the intention of melaben is to enhance and refine a material. In these cases, the intention is quite the opposite—the towel or napkin is being used to absorb the dirty liquid.9 This dispensation is called derech lichluch - wetting something whereby it becomes dirty.Moreover, disposable napkins never really pose an issue of melaben because they aren’t used more than once and one has no interest in cleaning them.

Removing dirt or stains from a garment can be an issue of melaben even without using water, since the garment looks more presentable when the dirt is removed. For example, dusting off a felt hat with a hat brush should be avoided on Shabbat.10 If one finds a dry stain on his or her clothing, he or she should not rub it against another part of the garment or a brush, etc. One may, however, scratch it out with one’s nail.11

Squeezing wet fabric is also forbidden under melaben, since it is part of the laundering process.12 As such, when using a towel to wipe up a spill, one should make sure not to press the towel down or soak it to the extent that liquid will be squeezed out when picking it back up. Drying dishes is permitted since the dish towel doesn’t get soaked with water, but one should not dry drinking glasses or dishes which are narrow, because it is likely that one will have to squeeze the towel to get it inside; in the process some liquid will be expressed from the towel.13

Melaben in the Mishkan

Bleaching wool was part of the process of making tapestries for the Mishkan.

Common Activities to Avoid

  • Wetting a stain on one’s clothing with water
  • Using a sponge when rinsing the dishes14
  • Pretreating clothes with stain remover