Dyeing, the av melachah of tzoveya, is forbidden on Shabbat, and includes activities which involve adding color to something to improve its appearance. Painting, coloring, and dyeing are all examples of tzoveya.

Many food-related activities should seemingly be prohibited under tzoveya. For example, putting a tea bag into hot water changes the color of the water. Indeed, some authorities maintain that this may be an issue and suggest that instead of putting the tea bag into the hot water, one should pour the hot water over the tea bag, which has less of an appearance of coloring the water.1 Most halachic authorities, however, maintain that coloring foods is not an issue of tzoveya,2 because the coloration which occurs is incidental, unlike tzoveya in the Mishkan where fabrics were dyed to a specific color. When food is intentionally colored, like when decorating a cake, doing so may be an issue of tzoveya.3

One only transgresses the Biblical prohibition of tzoveya when the coloring is done in a lasting manner where it won’t fade or be easily wiped away.4 If it will fade or be easily wiped away it is a rabbinic transgression. A classic example of this is women’s cosmetics. Blush, makeup and lipstick5 fade soon after they are applied and are easy to wipe off,6 which means that applying them on Shabbat is a rabbinic prohibition.7 It is not clear from the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch how long the coloring must last before fading for it to be classified as a Biblical transgression versus a rabbinic one. According to some authorities the color only needs to last until the end of Shabbat,8 while others say that it needs to last for a more significant period of time.9 There are certain cosmetics which may be applied on Shabbat and one should consult a rabbi to determine which products are permitted to use.

Shulchan Aruch Harav10 maintains that tzoveya can be an issue even when one has no intention to color something, and even when the coloring is undesired. Therefore, if a person’s hands are dirty, he or she should first wash off the dirt before wiping their hands on a towel, because otherwise the towel becomes colored by whatever was on the hands. One may, however, use a rag which is intended to clean up dirt. The rationale11 is that things like towels are usually dyed and so even when one colors it in an undesired manner it has the appearance of regular tzoveya. One may be similarly lenient with the use of disposable towels. Other authorities, however, say that there is never an issue of tzoveya in this instance, because one is actually dirtying the towel, not coloring it.12

Tzoveya in the Mishkan

Wool needed to be dyed to be used as curtains and drapes.

Common Activities to Avoid

  • Coloring in a picture
  • Wiping up food spills with a quality towel
  • Putting on makeup