A discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the
week. For final rulings, consult your Rav.
SELECTED HALACHOS RELATING TO PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH
SOAKING SOFT CONTACT LENSES ON SHABBOS
Is it permitted to soak soft contact lenses in a disinfecting
solution or in a saline solution on Shabbos?
Recently(1), contemporary poskim were asked whether soaking
soft contact lenses on Shabbos violates the forbidden Labor of
Laundering. In order to better understand the problem, we must first
consider the following technical information:
Soft lenses are produced from a type of plastic called polymer. During
the manufacturing process, the dry plastic lens is soaked in a liquid
for several hours, completely altering its shape.
Manufacturers instruct soft lenses wearers to soak their lenses each
night in a disinfecting solution(2) for two reasons: 1) To rid them of
dirt or tears which contain microscopic germs that are absorbed into the
lenses. Tears also produce certain proteins which build up on the lenses
and cloud them if they are not cleaned on a regular basis. 2) To keep
the lens soft and pliable. For this purpose, however, the lenses need
only be soaked in a saline solution(3), not in a disinfecting solution.
In addition, the instructions call for gently rubbing the lenses after
removing them from the soaking solution in order to remove any dirt
which may collect on the surface of the lenses.
Laundering, one of the thirty-nine forbidden Shabbos Labors, is defined
as removing dirt that is either completely or partially absorbed in a
fabric. There are three stages to the laundering process, each of which
is prohibited: soaking [or spraying], scrubbing and wringing. The
laundering phase that applies to our case of cleaning soft lenses is
"soaking". There are three points regarding "soaking" which are
pertinent to our discussion:
Soaking a dirty garment in water is the first stage of Laundering and is
Biblically forbidden on Shabbos. But only absorbent materials are
included in this prohibition. Thus leather may be soaked in water, since
leather - no matter how soft - is nonabsorbent(4). Similarly, other soft
non-porous materials such as soft plastic, rubber, nylon or any other
synthetics which do not absorb are permitted to be soaked in water(5).
Contemporary poskim rule, however, that even non-absorbent materials may
not be soaked in a cleaning solution. Even though the item does not
become "soaked," it is nevertheless being "laundered," since a cleaning
solution will remove [all or part of] a stain(6).
The Rishonim disagree whether or not it is permitted to soak a clean
garment in water if one does not intend to clean it. While the majority
of the poskim are lenient, Mishnah Berurah recommends that one follow
the more stringent opinions and refrain from doing so(7).
The question posed to contemporary poskim was this: How do we classify
soft contact lenses - are they similar to an absorbent garment or are
they more similar to a non-absorbent soft material [e.g., soft leather]?
On one hand, soft lenses are made of plastic, which usually is
non-porous. But as described earlier, lenses definitely do absorb
liquids(8), making them very similar to a garment. If lenses are
classified as a soft material, then it would be permitted to soak them
in water [to keep them soft and pliable] but not in a disinfecting
solution [to clean them]. If lenses are classified as a garment, then it
would be prohibited to soak them in water as well(9).
An additional issue concerns the gentle rubbing of the lenses when
removing them from the solution. It is questionable whether or not this
is considered actual "laundering," since this action removes proteins
and other dirt which are absorbed into the lenses.
Contemporary poskim debate this and other issues concerning soft
lenses(10). They are in agreement that they may not be soaked in a
disinfecting solution, as this constitutes Laundering(11). They are,
however, undecided whether or not soft lenses should be classified as a
garment or as soft leather. Thus they only allow soaking soft lenses in
a saline solution if they have already been cleaned and they are soaking
only to prevent them from hardening(12). The poskim recommend the
1.Do not rub soft lenses clean on Shabbos.
2.Before Shabbos, the lenses should be cleaned well, using disinfecting
solution and gently rubbing them with one's fingers.
3.On Shabbos, the lenses may be soaked in saline solution [so that the
lenses do not harden] but not in disinfecting solution.
1 This discussion is based on the halachic and scientific material
presented in the prestigious Torah Journal Yeshurun, vol. 7, pg. 526-538
by Harav Y.M. Rubin. The halachic decisions are those of Harav Y.S
Elyashiv, Harav S. Wosner and Harav N. Karelitz.
2 Such as Alcon Opti-Free Express Multi-purpose Disinfecting Solution.
6 Oral ruling by Harav Y.S. Elyashiv, Harav S. Wosner and Harav N.
Karelitz, quoted in Yeshurun, pg. 530.
7 302:48 and Beiur Halachah (s.v. sheyiesh).
8 Some brands may contain up to 70% liquid.
9 See Shemiras Shabbos K'hilchasah 15:82 who permits soaking soft
contact lenses in liquid so that they do not get brittle. In note 251 he
explains that no prohibition of m'abed, tanning [processing], is
transgressed. He does not address the issue of soaking. In an oral
statement, Harav Neuwirth reports that Harav S.Z. Auerbach was not
concerned with the soaking issue "since lenses only swell and puff up
from the water; they do not actually absorb water as do threads in a
garment". It is very likely that Harav Auerbach's decision was based on
erroneous or incomplete technical information, which is why this
question was re-submitted to poskim at the present time; Yeshurun, pg.
10 Hard lenses do not present an halachic problem since they do not
absorb liquids. Cleaning and soaking them is similar to cleaning and
soaking dishes which is clearly permitted.
11 Although it can be argued that "laundering" should not apply at all
to contact lenses since the dirt is not visible to the naked eye, still
the poskim feel that this argument is not strong enough to permit
cleaning lenses. They explain that the sensitivity of lenses is such
that even small particles are significant enough to be considered real
dirt, since any build up of dirt or proteins will cloud the lenses;
Yeshurun, pg. 528.
12 This is based on the views that permit soaking a clean garment when
there is no intent to clean it, as described earlier in point 3.
Although Mishnah Berurah recommends that one be stringent and not soak
even clean garments, in our case we may be lenient since soft lenses may
be classified as "soft leather" and not as a "garment"; Yeshurun, ibid.