Makeup on Shabbat – It Is Allowed!

Teshuva by Rabbi Haim Ovadia

afot, step by step:

1-3. PKS cannot be gathering the hair, because that does not fit the Talmudic label of weaving, and because there is a distinct word for that action – combing, from the root סרק. 

4-7. Rashi contradicts himself by explaining PKS in one place as combing and in another as braiding. These explanations are also unacceptable, because replacing the Talmudic words with Rashi’s commentary will produce redundancy. The Talmud will now read that braiding and braiding is forbidden (in Ketuboth) or that combing and combing is forbidden (in Moed Kattan).

8. The solution the Tosafot offer does not help much, because it narrows the definition of PKS to only the hair the is let out of the scarf, and because some of the attacks on Rashi will apply to this solution as well.

9.-11. Riv”a suggests that PKS is a face mask woven from thin threads of dough. This solution is problematic because weaving thin threads on one’s face is impractical. Applying a face mask of dough or flour is a known practice but the dough is one unit and not thin threads. More importantly, Riv”a argues that according to this interpretation, PKS is forbidden because it is like weaving, dyeing, and construction. Now, if it is indeed forbidden because of all three, the Talmud should have mentioned them all in one place, but those three are scattered between two opinions in the Babylonian Talmud and one in the Yerushalmi. Finally, the statement that “all women’s grooming is construction” is incorrect, because the Talmud specifically associated braiding with construction, based on a linguistic interpretation.

What we are left with after analyzing the argument between Rashi and the Tosafot, who were his disciples and successors, is the notion that no one really knows what is PKS or Serak. As I was analyzing those arguments, I knew I must first understand the “seat in life” of the grooming practices. It was possible that the commentators were projecting the grooming practices of their time and location into the Mishnaic text, which was written almost a thousand years earlier. The question I wanted an answer for was “what was the beauty ideal and what were beautification practices like in Mishnaic times?” Obviously, the answer should be found in the two cultures which had the greatest influence on women in the time of the Mishnah, the Greek and the Egyptian cultures. 

We will return to Egyptian practices later, but for now let us consider this: the Greek ideal of beauty was pale skin. Not reddish. Not tan. Pale! Now the question was if there is a commentator who acknowledges this practice, and indeed there is. 

The author of Korban HaEdah, R. David Frenkel, who lived in the eighteenth century, seems to have a better knowledge of ancient cosmetology practices than medieval commentators. In his commentary on the Yerushalmi he presents an opposite view of Serak which is not dye, but rather bleaches the skin. 

קרבן העדה, שבת ז:ב: איתתא דמעברת סרק על פניה כדי ללבן בשרה.

A woman who passes Serak on her face to make her skin look white.

One might now argue that the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafot have greater validity because they are closer to the source. While this is a good argument where there is evidence of oral tradition passed on from master to disciple, it is hard to apply it in a place where there is so much confusion and disagreement, which are a proof that the chain of tradition has been broken or never existed. But we have a better way to refute the argument of seniority, that of an interpretation which predates the medieval authors of the Tosafot. That explanation, which at its first phase is only partial, is found elsewhere in the Talmud (Moed Katan 9:2), in a discussion about permissible grooming on Hol HaMoed:

מועד קטן, ט:ב: אלו הן תכשיטי נשים, כוחלת, ופוקסת, ומעבירה סרק על פניה, ואיכא דאמרי: מעברת סרק על פניה של מטה.

These are women’s grooming practices: KHL, PKS, and passing Serak on her face, and some say it is passing Serak on the intimate parts of the body.

The alternative interpretation uses the euphemism “lower face” for the intimate parts, and it is yet unclear what is serak. R. Yitzhak Elfassi, aka the Rif, provides an answer:

רי”ף, מועד קטן, ג:ב: …מעברת סרק על פניה, ואיכא דאמרי ומעברת סכין על פניה של מטה.:

…passing Serak on her face, and some say it is passing a knife on the intimate parts of the body.

The Rif’s commentary is of extreme importance, for he continues the tradition of the Babylonian Geonim, who in turn had invaluable knowledge of the Talmud, a knowledge which was transmitted orally and lost on later generations. Let us consider the implications of the Rif’s commentary. 

  1. The Rif suggests that Serak has to do with hair removal, and not with applying makeup.
  2. He presents an opinion that the action is not related to the face but to the intimate parts.
  3. The disparity between this explanation and that of makeup is unbridgeable, and that disparity is an indicator that the true meaning of a text can be forgotten with time, as social and cultural norms change, and where there is no direct oral tradition.

But there is still a problem. The Rif does not explain what is Serak. Also, while the transition from “face” to “private parts” can be explained with the euphemism for the latter (פנים של מטה), how do we explain the transition from Serak to knife, if Serak is understood as rouge?

It seems that the Rif did not have to explain what Serak is because it is obvious to anyone who is familiar with Mishnaic Hebrew that the root SRK has only one meaning: to comb or scratch with a sharp object. All the occurrences of the root SRK in the Mishnah and the Talmud as a verb carry that meaning. When used as a noun, it appears in the word מסרק, which means comb, in the word סרק which means combed wool or flax, and in the term אילן סרק – a tree which does not bear fruit. The term probably stems from the shape of pine orchards, the most common such trees in Israel, which look like a comb (a famous natural reserve near Jerusalem is called המסרק – the Comb). Therefore, there is no basis for translating the term “passing Serak” as applying makeup or rouge. 

This explains why the Rif did not bother to interpret the term Serak, as well as the transition from passing Serak to passing a knife, since both comb and knife are sharp metal instruments. It also explains why the Rif omitted the prohibition of “passing Serak” from his redaction of the Talmud in Shabbat (94::2-95-1). The Meiri suggested that the Rif omitted it because it was a minority opinion, but he might have also not considered it a prohibition to comb or scratch the face in a manner which might cause hair removal. 

Finally, one more proof that serak is combing or scratching and not applying makeup, is that the term להעביר, in rabbinic literature, always refers to passing and removing, and never to putting something in place. For example, the Mishnah says that when blood is spotted on a garment, and it is not clear whether it came from the body of the wearer or from an external source:

נדה, ט:ו: שבעה סמנין מעבירין על הכתם.

One needs to be מעביר seven detergents on the spot to remove it.

We have now reached the key to the whole discussion, one which specifically applies to the Mishnah in Shabbat and to the subsequent Talmudic discussion: 

All actions mentioned in Mishnah Shabbat 10:6, in relation to the body, have to do with hair removal, including the act of applying kohl. Let us read the Mishnah again, applying a number to each action:

 1. הנוטל צפרניו זו בזו 2. או בשניו 3. וכן שערו 4. וכן שפמו 5. וכן זקנו 6. וכן הגודלת 7. וכן הכוחלת 8. וכן הפוקסת, רבי אליעזר מחייב וחכמים אוסרין משום שבות. 9. התולש מעציץ נקוב חייב 10. ושאינו נקוב פטור, ורבי שמעון פוטר בזה ובזה.

The actions are: 1. Cutting nails with one another; 2. Cutting nails with the teeth; 3. Pulling out hair from the head; 4. Or from the moustache; 5. Or from the beard; 6. Braiding; 7. Applying kohl; 8. PKS; 9. Uprooting a plant from a perforated planter; 10. Uprooting a plant from a non-perforated planter.

With that understanding, I am going to start the analysis of the Mishnah, which will provide a solution to the problem of makeup on Shabbat, by addressing those actions which are clearly understood and finding their common denominator.

Actions 1-5 deal with removing nails or hair, and actions 9-10 deal with uprooting a plant from a planter. All these are associated with reaping, cutting a living organism from its source. The debate regarding a planter is whether a plant is still connected to its source when it is in a dish, but all agree that if the planter is not perforated, this is not considered reaping since the plant is already detached from the ground. It is appropriate to mention that plant alongside hair and nails, because those are understood to be dead parts of the body, which are no longer attached to the source.

We know that action 6, braiding, deals with hair, and if we follow the common denominator, the problem with braiding will be unintentional plucking of hair. We shall for now skip number 7, kohl, and continue to the mysterious PKS, number 8. The confusion about PKS can be seen in Maase Rokeah (Shabbat, 22) by R. Masoud Hai Rokah (Smirna, 1690-1768): 

מעשה רקח, הלכות שבת, פרק כב: הרב המגיד כתב דרבינו מפרש מתקנת שערה במסרק כפירוש רש”י. ובפירוש המשנה כתב רבינו דפוקסת היא הנותנת שער על הצדעים, והיא ממין גדילת השער, ושמא דהיא היא. והרע”ב ז”ל פירש שמחלקת שער ראשה לכאן ולכאן.

[the meaning of PKS] The author of Maggid Mishne writes that Maimonides understands PKS as combing, as Rashi also wrote, but in his commentary to the Mishna, Maimonides wrote that it means putting hair on the temples, which is like braiding, and maybe it is the same thing [as combing]. And R. Ovadia of Bertinoro explained that it means parting the hair with a comb.

This paragraph presents three different opinions, two of them by the same author. While they all understand PKS as related to hair, it is not clear what is the prohibition or how it fits the flow of the Mishnah. To solve the mystery, I turned to the only other occurrence of the root PKS in Mishnah. In tractate Maasrot (1:5), the Mishnah says that one can randomly eat fruits and vegetables in the field, without separating tithes. However, once the final step of preparing them for commercial use is taken, one must first separate tithes. For gourds and zucchinis, the Mishnah says, this step is our familiar term PKS. Let us see what the commentators say:

רמב”ם: הקשואין והדלועין שצומח עליהן כשות כמו קוצים דקים נקרא פקס… משיפקס רצונו לומר משיסיר מעליהן הכשות ויחליקם בידו.

Maimonides: the zucchinis ad gourds have a fine fuzz, like thin thorns, and it is called פֶּקֶס, PKSing those vegetables means removing the fuzz by hand.

ר’ שמשון משאנץ: שיער הצומח בהן כעין נוצה כשהן קטנים… וכשתולשן בינונים עדיין נוצה עליהן והמוכרן בשוק מסיר הנוצה ונקרא פקס.

R. Shimshon of Scanz: [PKS] is feather-like fuzz they have when they are small… when harvested at medium size they still have the fuzz, and when they are sold in the market the seller removes the fuzz, which is called פֶּקֶס

There is no doubt now that PKS means rubbing the face to remove fuzz, either by hand, with a tool, or by applying a certain chemical or paste, as we shall see later.

The only term left which apparently is not associated with hair and its removal is applying kohl. Here I had to conduct thorough research to find the connection, and with God’s help, I have found it. It is the last piece of the puzzle, and with it, the Mishnah makes perfect sense. 

Kohl – The Last Piece of the Puzzle

To understand the usage of kohl I had to go back to the cosmetic practices of ancient Egypt and Greece and try to understand their idea of beauty. It turns out that while the concern for one’s look and appearance has always been a human pursuit (and is present even in the animal world), the definition of beauty is in constant flux. In ancient Egypt it was customary to remove all body hair, while in Greece, besides the concern for pale skin, it was customary to delineate a bridge between the brows, turning them into that dreadful thing (in today’s terms), the unibrow. 

In the time of the Mishnah, kohl was used for two purposes, eyeshadow and brow pencil, and it is still used in South East Asia and other parts of the world as an eyeshadow. Kohl was also believed to improve eyesight, but the risks and side-effects were horrendous, as mentioned in the Talmud:

בבא קמא, כו:ב: הרי שהיה רבו רופא, ואמר לו כחול עיני וסימאה, הרי זה שיטה בו ויצא לחפשי.

The text deals with a slave who asks his master, who is a physician, to apply kohl to his eyes, but the procedure goes wrong and the slave loses his eyesight. According to biblical law, a master who blinded his slave or knocked out his tooth must send him free, a measure meant to deter masters from using physical force. The Talmud concludes that the servant outsmarted his master, though he had to sacrifice his eyesight. The fact that the servant would use such a tactic shows that kohl-caused blindness was quite common. Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi mentions an intriguing case:

ירושלמי, שבת ח:ג: אשה סומא באחת מעיניה וכוחלת חבירתה ויוצאת לשוק.

A woman who is blind in one eye, applies kohl to the healthy one and goes out to the marketplace.

The Yerushalmi teaches us that blindness because of kohl was common, and that women would still apply kohl to the one healthy eye, either for beauty or for medical reasons. But why did kohl cause blindness? The answer is that kohl contains lead. That realization led me to think of the other famous health hazard associated with lead – hair loss.

I believe that the action of applying kohl, mentioned in the Mishnah we are analyzing was performed to remove hair. As women delineated a unibrow with kohl, they achieved also the result of a smoother skin, though they did not that they are paying a very high price for that practice. 

All pieces of the Mishnah now fit into place: they all discuss the removal of growing things which are not attached to the source, or which are considered dead. None of the acts is forbidden by biblical law, and they are defined as Shevut, a rabbinic decree. However, the main concern of the halakhic literature with makeup, dyeing or painting, has no basis in the Mishnah.

Now that we have a clear understanding of the Mishnah, we need to reexamine the discussion in the Talmud:

שבת צד:ב-צה:א: גודלת כוחלת ופוקסת משום מאי מחייבא?  אמר רבי אבין אמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא: גודלת משום אורגת, כוחלת משום כותבת, פוקסת משום טווה.

Why are GDL, KHL, and PKS forbidden. R. Avin said in the name of R. Yose bar Hanina: GDL for weaving, KHL for writing, PKS for spinning yarn.

The question for the reason for the prohibition is presented anonymously, and R. Avin provides an answer. The answer should have been that they are all related to hair removal. The anonymous students refute R. Avin’s explanation. 

אמרו רבנן קמיה דרבי אבהו: וכי דרך אריגה בכך, וכי דרך כתיבה בכך, וכי דרך טויה בכך?

The rabbis discussed that in front of R. Avhu and asked, is this the normal manner of weaving, writing, or spinning yarn?

The fault with R. Avin’s answer is logical – there is no similarity between the acts mentioned in the Mishna and the categories of prohibitions of Shabbat. R. Avhu, in whose hall of study the argument took place, agreed with his disciples and reported a different interpretation by the same sage previously quoted, saying that KHL is for dyeing, GDL and PKS are for building.

 אלא אמר רבי אבהו: לדידי מפרשא לי מיניה דרבי יוסי ברבי חנינא, כוחלת משום צובעת, גודלת ופוקסת – משום בונה.

As mentioned in our first analysis of this paragraph, R. Avhu does not say what PKS is, and he changes the order of the Mishna, grouping GDL and PKS, and setting KHL apart [instead of 1,2,3 it becomes 2,1,3]. This, again, is unnecessary according to my interpretation, since all three deal with hair removal. The fact that R. Avhu and R. Avin report of different explanations by the same rabbi points to a fault in the transmission of the Halakha, and maybe none of the interpretation is accurate. Indeed, the Talmud argues that GDL and PKS are not related to building. The answer is based on a tangential Midrash, which in turns relies on a foreign language, in which braiding and construction sound similar. That answer does not address the act of PKS. All these questions, as well as the reliance on flimsy sources, are avoided if we explain all three acts as related to hair removal.

The next paragraph in the Talmud also proves my point. I have mentioned this paragraph earlier and left open questions about it:

רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר: גודלת כוחלת ופוקסת, לעצמה – פטורה, לחברתה – חייבת. וכן היה רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר משום רבי אליעזר: אשה לא תעביר סרק על פניה, מפני שצובעת.

R. Shimon ben Elazar says: a woman who is GDL, KHL, or PKS herself is exempt from punishment, but if she groomed another woman she is punishable. Similarly, R. Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of R. Eliezer, a woman should not pass Serak on her face, because she is dyeing [her face]. 

There are two questions here:

  1. Why is a woman exempt if she performs those actions on herself, but punishable if she does them to another person?
  2. What is the similarity between the two statements of R. Shimon ben Elazar?

The first question produced three answers. Rashi says that a woman cannot braid her own hair perfectly, and it is only when she braids her friend’s hair that it is considered construction. Similarly, R. Yaakov Yehoshua Falk, aka Pene Yehoshua, writes that braiding must be done by another person whose steady hand will achieve the desired results of beatification. Those two answers are insufficient because they address only one of the three actions, braiding, and ignore the other two, applying kohl and combing. R. Yeshaya DiTrani writes that doing it to herself is considered שינוי, an action done not in the regular way, and therefore she is exempt. This answer seems to address all three actions, but it probably refers only to braiding, because women regularly put on their own makeup. While it is true that it is more difficult to braid your own hair than to braid a friend’s hair, it is not impossible. To call braiding your own hair an irregular way of doing it, or to say that it will not turn out well, is a stretch of logic. And still the second question remains: what is the similarity between the two statements? The only commentator who addresses this question is Rashi, who writes:

רש”י, שבת צה:א: וכן – מילתא אחריתי דשבת לאיסורא.

“Similarly” – he [R. Shimon ben Elazar] also said that another action is forbidden on Shabbat.

While Rashi sensed the difficulty, his answer does not solve it. The word וכן, as used in this source, could convey either similarity between the content of the two statements or between their origin, or both could be correct. In the Tossefta, both statements are transmitted by R. Shimon in the name of R. Eliezer. The word וכן could not have been used here just because it is another shabbat prohibition, since R. Shimon is cited at least twelve times in Mishnaic literature as forbidding something on Shabbat. 

Based on my analysis of the terms GDL, KHL, and PKS, I would like to offer an answer to both questions. 

  1. Since hair-removal is not deliberate but incidental, a woman is punishable only if she does it to her friend, where it could be interpreted as deliberate.
  2. The similarity is that passing Serak on the face is also related to incidental hair-removal, as the serak is either a metal comb or another type of sharp instrument.

One might refute this interpretation because the Talmud says that the problem with serak is dyeing, and to that I will say that the two words used to state that in the Talmud are a later addition. There are two reasons for my argument:

  1. These words – מפני שצובעת – do not appear in the original source, the Tossefta (Shabbat 9:13).
  2. They do not conform by the rules or patterns of Mishnaic Hebrew. Whenever the Mishna speaks of an action following the word מפני, it must be followed by a pronoun. The correct form would be either מפני שהיא צובעת, or משום צובעת. 

So, these two words were added in a later period by an anonymous redactor of the Talmud, but can one argue that applying paint, dye, or makeup to the human body falls under the category of dyeing, as in dyeing wool? The answer is a resounding no!  The following authors all say very clearly אין צביעה באדם, meaning that the concept of dyeing does not apply to the human body:

Sheyare Korban on the Yerushalmi, Maharshal (R. Shlomo Lurie), Mishnah Berurah, R. Ovadia Yosef in the name of Tal Orot, Tzitz Eliezer, and Migdanot Eliyahu.

The reason that all these poskim agreed that the prohibition of dyeing does not apply to the human body is that dyeing wool is an industrial, chemical process, which is usually done only once in the fabric’s lifetime. In that process the dye molecules bind with the fiber molecules in an unbreakable bond, and when this is done correctly, the colors do not fade. This can be clearly seen in the phrasing and categorizing of the two laws by Maimonides, who deals with dyeing in chapter thirteen of the laws of Shabbat, and with serak in chapter twenty-two:

רמב”ם, הלכות שבת, ט:יג: הצובע חוט… חייב, ואין הצובע חייב עד שיהא צבע המתקיים, אבל צבע שאינו מתקיים כלל כגון שהעביר סרק או ששר על גבי ברזל או נחשת וצבעו פטור, שהרי אתה מעבירו לשעתו ואינו צובע כלום, וכל שאין מלאכתו מתקיימת בשבת פטור.

One who dyes a thread… is punishable. This is only if the dye is durable, but dye which is not durable, for example, if one painted [a bar] of iron or copper, he is exempt, because you can clean it in time and there is no lasting impression. And any action whose results are not permanent is exempt from punishment.

In chapter 22:23 Maimonides writes:

רמב”ם, הלכות שבת, כב:כג: הצובע מאבות מלאכות לפיכך אסור לאשה להעביר סרק על פניה מפני שהיא כצובעת.

Dyeing is one of the forbidden categories of work, and therefore a woman cannot apply makeup because it resembles dyeing.

Chapter twenty-two of Maimonides’ laws of Shabbat is a part of a list of miscellaneous actions which spans three chapters (21-23), and is introduced with the following explanation: 

רמב”ם, הלכות שבת, כא:א: נאמר בתורה “תשבות”, אפילו מדברים שאינן מלאכה חייב לשבות מהן. ודברים הרבה הן שאסרו חכמים משום שבות, מהן דברים אסורים מפני שהן דומים למלאכות ומהן דברים אסורים גזרה שמא יבוא מהן איסור סקילה.

The Torah says “cease [from work]”, which means that one must cease even from actions which are not work. There are many actions the rabbis declared forbidden as Shevut, some because they resemble work and some because they might lead to biblically forbidden actions…

Maimonides listed makeup in chapter twenty-two because it only resembles dyeing. However, following the logic he used regarding metals, it should have been listed in chapter nine, since makeup does not make a permanent impression on the human body. The law should have been phrased thus:

אבל צבע שאינו מתקיים כלל כגון שהעביר סרק או ששר על גבי ברזל או נחשת וצבעו פטור, וכן אשה המעבירה סרק על פניה פטורה, שהרי אתה מעבירו לשעתו ואינו צובע כלום.

I will leave this contradiction to the commentators of Maimonides, as I only wanted to point out that defining makeup as dyeing is problematic. 

There is one last detail I would like to mention regarding Serak before we continue to other prohibitions associated with makeup on Shabbat. R. Yitzhak Zilberstein (1934- , Israel) raises a question which should have bothered generations of commentators before him:

חשוקי חמד, שבת צה:א: אשה לא תעביר סרק על פניה, וכן כתב בשו”ע (סימן שג סעיף כה). ולכאורה משמע דאשה אסורה להעביר סרק על פניה אולם איש מותר, דאם לא כן, למה כתב השו”ע שאסור לאשה שתעביר סרק על פניה? לתני רבותא טפי דגם לאיש אסור ולכתוב סתם: אסור להעביר בשבת סרק על הפנים. ומדכתב אשה משמע דלאיש מותר, וכך משמע גם מדברי המשנה ברורה.

A woman should not pass Serak on her face, and so ruled the Shulhan Arukh (303:25). This apparently suggests that only women are forbidden to do so, but men are allowed. Otherwise, the Shulhan Arukh should have written a general rule saying that applying Serak to one’s face is forbidden. Since he wrote “a woman” it means that a man is allowed [to pass Serak], and so is the opinion of the Mishnah Berurah.

R. Zilberstein continues to say that the reason men are allowed to do so is that it is not their practice, and therefore it is not considered dyeing, but that is a very weak argument. If, as Maimonides says, applying makeup to the skin resembles dyeing, because it leaves some impression on the skin, then there should be no difference between and women. The answer to R. Zilberstein’s question is that Serak has to do with hair removal and not with makeup, and since men in Mishnaic times did not shave their beards, passing Serak was unique to women. 

It is still important, however, to remember the distinction made here, because there are those who argue that even a law which relies on a mistaken interpretation is valid. Those people will say that even though I have proven that the Mishnah never spoke of makeup as dyeing, and that the words “resembles dyeing” were a later addition in the Talmud, the prohibition of “painting” one’s face has already been established and became a binding law. To those we can say that we have a proof from the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh, the Mishnah Berurah, and R. Yitzhak Zilberstein that the action per se is not forbidden, even though their ruling, according to the analysis presented above, is based on misinterpretation of the Mishnah. 

Is Makeup Writing?

To answer this question simply: no, it is not writing. An attempt was made by the Talmud to equate applying kohl with writing, but it has been rejected with the argument that this is not the manner of writing. This is further supported by the fact that while the Mishnah dealing with kohl is in chapter ten, the laws of writing are mentioned separately in chapter 12:

  משנה שבת, יב:ד: הכותב שתי אותיות… הכותב על בשרו חייב. המסרט על בשרו, רבי אליעזר מחייב חטאת ורבי יהושע פוטר.

One who writes two letters… one who writes on his flesh is punishable. One who cuts himself is punishable according to R. Eliezer and exempt according to R. Yehoshua.

The Mishnah mentions writing on skin, and we would expect it to address the issue of makeup, but as R. Yisrael Lipshitz explains in his commentary, writing specifically applies to letters or symbols:

תפארת ישראל, יכין, שם,לט: על בשרו. שחתך בבשרו צורת אותיות.

Cuts himself – marking letters on his flesh with a knife.

R. Lipshitz makes that comment because it is clear from the Talmudic discussion of the category of writing that it only refers to intelligible writing, and according to some, only to professional penmanship. For example, in Shulhan Arukh (306:11) the Rema, R. Moshe Iserels, writes that the one is allowed to tell the non-Jew to sign for him a document on Shabbat, if it is needed for purchasing a property in Israel. He explains that this is allowed when writing in a language other than Hebrew, because only writing in Hebrew is biblically forbidden, while writing in other languages is forbidden only by the rabbis. 

We of course follow the ruling that writing in any language is forbidden, but consider this even more surprising ruling by the authors of the Tosafot (Shabbat 104:2-105:1):

תוספות מסכת שבת דף קד עמוד ב, ד”ה נתכוון: כתב בלא זיון פטור.

If one wrote the Hebrew letters [the way they are written in the Torah scroll] but did not add the little crowns on top of the letters, he is not liable [This law would apply only to the letters שעטנ”ז ג”צ, which require crowns.]

So, even though an eyeliner is a pencil, it has nothing to do with writing, and unless a woman uses it to write letters around her eyes, the prohibition of writing does not apply to it.

ממחק וממרח – Smoothing Leather and Applying Creams

The application of certain cosmetics on Shabbat is traditionally understood as falling under the much greater rubric of applying creams and ointments to the skin. This category is considered as forbidden, unless there is a pressing medical need, and thus causes serious complications to many who are in the gray zone between medical need and discomfort, such as for example dry skin, cracked lips, preventive treatment, sun lotion, and cosmetics. The act itself, however, does not appear in the list of the thirty-nine forbidden works on Shabbat, and is rather derived from the category known as ממחק – smoothing leather, which is one of the steps of leather-processing. 

How was the transition made from tanning, or leather-processing, to the application of creams and ointments to the human body? To answer that question, we must start with the tannaitic sources. The prohibition of ממרח, which is mistakenly understood as smearing or spreading, appears in the Talmud in relation to two cases. One of them is a Mishnah and the other is a Tossefta. Usually, I would list the Mishnah before the Tossefta because it is a more authoritative source, but in this case, we should start with the Tossefta, because it is the one which mentions the connection between ממרח and ממחק, while the Mishnah speaks of ממרח as a given. This shows that the Tossefta predated the Mishnah, or, better yet, that they speak of two different concepts. We will get to the exact text of the Tossefta later, but for now, we will read it in the way it is presented in the Talmud (Shabbat 75:2), as a statement of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: 

שבת עה:ב: והממחקו והמחתכו… אמר רבי חייא בר אבא: שלשה דברים סח לי רב אשי משמיה דרבי יהושע בן לוי:… הממרח רטיה בשבת – חייב משום ממחק.

One who smooths and cuts [leather]… R. Hiyya bar Abba said, Rav Ashe Told me three things in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi… one who smears a bandage on Shabbat transgress the prohibition of ממחק

The other case appears in Mishnah Shabbat (22:3): 

שבת כב:ג: …לא יקבנה מצדה, ואם היתה נקובה – לא יתן עליה שעוה, מפני שהוא ממרח.

One should not perforate [a wine jug] from the side, and if there is already a hole there, he cannot fill it with wax, because he is smearing.

Even with no previous knowledge of the laws of Shabbat, one could tell that these two cases have nothing in common. In the case of the bandage the applied material is absorbed in the bandage and has no shape of its own, while in the case of the wine jug, we deal with the act of shaping a piece of malleable material into a desired form. The reason for that difference is obvious. In the case of the bandage there is distinction between the label of the prohibition – ממחק or smoothing, and the act itself – ממרח, or smearing. In the case of the wine jug and the wax stopper, the prohibition and the act are one and the same. What we have here is the use of the same Hebrew term, ממרח, in two contexts. In the Tossefta, which speaks of a bandage, it is applying cream or oil in a thin film, which is intrinsically a permitted act, but only forbidden in the context of a bandage. In the Mishnah, ממרח is one who kneads inedible material of thick texture, such as wax or tar. 

This is how the Mishnah was understood by the Geonim: 

תשובות הגאונים, גאוני מזרח ומערב, סימן סח: כנופה לשעוה מצד זה לצד זה ולדבוקה ולסתמה הוי ליה ממרח.

Gathering the wax from one side to another, to stick it [to the jug] and tap [the hole] is ממרח

Maimonides ruled similarly (Shabbat 11:6): 

רמב”ם, הלכות שבת, יא:ו: הממרח… שעוה או זפת וכיוצא בהן מדברים המתמרחין עד שיחליק פניהם חייב.

One who smears… wax, tar, or similarly malleable materials, and makes them smooth, is punishable…

Later poskim agreed that there is no problem with smoothing or spreading a cream when the intention is not to shape a durable form. R. Avraham Dantziger, famous author of Haye Adam, writes in his Nishmat Adam:  

נשמת אדם, חלק ב-ג, כלל לד-לה: מה שכתב בש”ע סימן שי”ד סעיף י”א דמשמע דגם בשמן עב חייב משום מירוח אינו מדוקדק, דלכ”ע בשמן אינו חייב משום ממרח

The Shulhan Arukh wrote (Orah Haim 314:11) that spreading thick oil is forbidden, but that is inaccurate since all agree that ממרח does not apply to oil.

That opinion is expressed also by R. Ovadia Yosef, who usually upholds the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh, and is mentioned in the abridged Yalkut Yosef, which was culled from his writing: 

ילקוט יוסף, קצוש”ע אורח חיים, סימן שג: אבל לדעת המגן אברהם, כל שכוונתו שמשחה תבלע בגוף האדם אין בזה איסור ממרח.

According to Magen Avraham, if the intention is for the cream to be absorbed in the body, it is not considered ממרח

And more explicitly in the unabridged Yalkut Yosef:

ילקוט יוסף, שבת ב, סימן שג: לחולה מותר למרוח משחה בשבת, ואין בזה איסור אף מדרבנן משום ממרח, שהרי אינו רוצה בקיומה של המשחה, אלא להבליעה על גבי ידיו. והמיקל גם בלא חולי יש לו על מה שיסמוך.

One who is sick can apply creams on Shabbat, and it is not forbidden, even by the rabbis, because of ממרח, because he does not want the cream to stand alone but rather to be absorbed in his hands. And one who is lenient [and applies creams] even when not sick, has what to rely on.

All these poskim understand the definition of ממרח as crafting or shaping a soft material to a self-standing form. They are joined by R. Y.M. Epstein in his Arukh HaShulhan: 

ערוך השולחן, אורח חיים, סימן שיח: ומירוח אינו אלא כשממרח באצבעו יפה יפה שיהא חלק.

Smearing [from ממרח] is only when smooths it with his finger thoroughly until it becomes smooth. 

Now that we have seen that applying creams is not a problem, especially when treating illness, it is obvious then when the Talmud discusses ממרח in association with bandages, it cannot be because of the medical dressing on the bandage. What is the problem, then?  The answer is that in the Talmud the Tannaitic source is transmitted by a later Talmudic sage, and we must return to the source to fully understand the issue. Here is how the Halakha appears in the Tossefta:

תוספתא שבת, ה:ו: …אם החליקה… מגלה מקצת אספלונית מכאן ומקנח את המכה וחוזר ומגלה מקצת אספלונית מכן ומקנח את המכה. לא יקנח באספלונית [גירסה אחרת: האספלונית] מפני שבא לידי מרוח והממרח בשבת חייב חטאת

…if the [bandage] slipped… he raises one side and wipes part of the wound, and then raises another side and wipes the wound. He should not wipe with the bandage [another version: wipe the bandage], because he will end up smoothing [it], which is a transgression of Shabbat. 

When the Halakha is read in its original context, it is clear that the focus of attention is the application of creams not to the body, but to the bandage. That is because the bandage was made of leather, and the medical dressings contained animal fat or wax, which were used to seal the wound but also to smooth leather. The concern of the Halakha is that rubbing the leather bandage with materials which make it smoother falls under the category of processing leather – ממחק. As a matter of fact, this is exactly how Maimonides understands the problem with bandages:

רמב”ם הלכות שבת, כג:יא: הממרח רטיה בשבת חייב משום מוחק את העור.

One who smooths a bandage on Shabbat is punishable for processing leather.

HaMeiri agrees with him in his commentary on the Talmud:

בית הבחירה, שבת עה:ב: להחליקה להיות תשמיש שלה נוח לו כענין ממרח רטיה.

To make it smooth so he can use it with more ease, as with smoothing a bandage.

Even though Maimonides clearly says that the problem with bandage is smoothing the leather of which it is made, most modern poskim do not mention it when discussing application of creams. I believe it is for two reasons. One is that we are used to think of bandages as made of fabric and not of leather, while in the past leather was a much common material for bandages because of its greater durability. The other reason is that the two cases which were none distinct, that of the bandage and that of shaping wax, have been amalgamated into one law, maybe because wax and animal fat were used for bandages. Here is the full text of the Halakah which was earlier quoted with some omissions: 

רמב”ם, הלכות שבת, יא:ו: הממרח רטיה כל שהוא או שעוה או זפת וכיוצא בהן מדברים המתמרחין עד שיחליק פניהם חייב משום מוחק, וכן השף בידו על העור המתוח בין העמודים חייב משום מוחק.

One who smears a bandage of any size, or wax, tar, or similarly malleable materials, and makes them smooth, is punishable because of מוחק – leather processing. Also, one who rubs leather which is stretched between poles is punishable because of מוחק. 

Maimonides merged here the law dealing with bandages with the one dealing with sealing a wine jug. This halakha is problematic for several reasons: 

In chapter 23:11, Maimonides mentions this Halakha again, but phrases it differently: one who smears a bandage on shabbat is punishable because of מוחק, therefore one cannot seal a whole with wax, for fear that he will be ממרח, he cannot even use animal fat, for fear that he will end up using wax. It is atypical for Maimonides to be redundant, and the reasoning is unclear. How is sealing a whole with wax similar to processing leather. Some of the commentators suggested that the prohibition of sealing a hole is because of construction, but it seems that Maimonides listed the Halakha twice following the order of the Talmud. The difference is the Talmud discussed bandages and sealing holes [in wine jugs] separately, while Maimonides merged them in two separate places. 

Maimonides compares smearing a bandage to rubbing stretched leather, and the only way to see a similarity is if the bandage is made of leather. In that case, the problem is with smoothing the material and not with shaping the ointment or oil put on it. If this is so, there is no similarity to the cases in the middle, those of shaping wax and tar.

Finally, and most importantly, Maimonides ties all actions in chapter 11:6 to the prohibition of ממחק, processing leather, but the that word is mentioned in the Talmud (75:2) only regarding bandages, while in the discussion of sealing a hole with wax (Mishnah Shabbat 22:3), only the word ממרח, smearing, is mentioned. 

In conclusion, the only way applying creams or oils to the human body would be forbidden is if one applies such a large amount which can be perceived as self-standing. It is therefore permitted to apply any cosmetics, sun-lotion, stick or roll-on deodorants, Vaseline, lip balm, lipstick, etc., since they are all spread in a thin layer on the body and cannot stand independently. 

New Insights, Circumstances, and Facts

After presenting all the sources and their analysis, there would still be those who argue that since the Halakha has been accepted in the past and was not challenged by the poskim or the community of women, it cannot be changed now. As a matter of fact, I have heard from several women (including my wife) that they have grown accustomed to the prohibition and would not want to change their practice. This is understandable and should be respected as their choice, but to the first argument we answer that Halakha must always consider new facts, understandings, and circumstances. We have already presented new understandings by analyzing the concerns of Halakha regarding the different categories of work on Shabbat which might be transgressed by applying makeup, and we have seen that none of them has a solid basis, or that they stemmed from a mistaken reading of Tannaitic texts. Now let us consider circumstances and facts. 

Social Circumstances

As I have shown here, the original prohibition in the Mishnah was against actions which might cause hair removal, which was the most common cosmetic treatment of the time. The prohibition was later expanded to include all types of personal grooming, mainly for women. I would like to preset here sources which show that the majority of women at that time did not apply makeup regularly, and therefore argue that whereas in the past women accepted the practice, today it has become a גזירה שאין הציבור יכול לעמוד בה – a prohibition which is beyond the capacity of the community to follow. Since this rule applies even to the decrees made by Tannaitic sages, there is no doubt that it can be used in the case of applying makeup on Shabbat, which has no solid source in Tannaitic literature. 

So how have times changed? In the past, many women could not afford the luxury of using cosmetics because they were expensive, and because the physical daily wok (of both men and women), did not leave much time for it. Today, while there are still levels of grooming and beauty treatments which are offered only to affluent women (and men), cosmetics are cheap and accessible to almost everyone. This is probably the reason that in the last fifty years there is a quite uproar among women against the prohibition of using makeup on Shabbat. One Talmudic source, in tractate Nedarim (66:1), demonstrates the role of affordability: 

תלמוד בבלי, נדרים סו:א: מעשה באחד שנדר מבת אחותו הנייה, והכניסוה לבית ר’ ישמעאל וייפוה.  אמר לו ר’ ישמעאל: בני, מזו נדרת? אמר לו: לאו, והתירה ר’ ישמעאל. באותה שעה בכה ר’ ישמעאל ואמר: בנות ישראל נאות הן, אלא שהעניות מנוולתן.

There was a man who made a vow to not benefit from his niece [who was supposed to get married to him, but he found her unattractive]. They brought her to the house of Rabbi Ishmael and beautified her. Rabbi Ishmael asked him: My son, did your vow apply to this woman? The man said: No. Rabbi Ishmael declared the vow null and void. Rabbi Ishmael then cried and said: the women of Israel are beautiful, but poverty destroys their beauty. 

The practice of marrying one’s niece was very common in the past, especially if the woman was an orphan. In this story the man refuses to marry his niece because he finds her unattractive and it takes the women of Rabbi Ishmael’s household to convince him that he is wrong. This is the classic Cinderella story dressed in Halakhic garb, as the woman was hard working and poor, and could not afford the time or money to take care of her appearance. 

Another evidence that beauty treatments were not for all is found in tractate Moed Kattan (9:2):  

תלמוד בבלי, מועד קטן, ט:ב: אלו הן תכשיטי נשים… עניות טופלות אותן בסיד, עשירות טופלות אותן בסולת, בנות מלכים בשמן המור… ולמה סכין אותו? שמשיר את השער ומעדן את הבשר.

These are women’s beauty treatments… poor women apply [to their faces] lime, wealthy women apply fine flour, and royalty uses myrrh oil. Why do they apply it to the skin? Because it removes hair and makes the skin softer.

This source tells us that poor women, who were possibly the majority, would use lime as a treatment for hair removal. Lime is the common name for calcium oxide (CaO) a chemical compound which is still used in the cosmetics industry, and though it is in a much more refined way then in antiquity, there are those who clamor against it. It is for a good reason that only poor women used in in the past, since its vigorous reaction to water can cause severe irritation. Inhaling lime in powder form may cause coughing and breathing problems and lead to burns, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, and those qualities made it a weapon in the hands of the Roman army. 

The Talmud continues the discussion of women’s grooming practices, and tells a horrifying tale of extreme beauty treatments and pushy parents: 

רב ביבי הוה ליה ברתא, טפלה אבר אבר, שקל בה ארבע מאה זוזי. הוה ההוא נכרי בשבבותיה דהוה ליה ברתא, טפלה בחד זמנא ומתה.

Rav Bibi had a daughter. He treated her for hair removal in stages, one organ at a time, and got four hundred coins for her [dowry]. A non-Jewish man who lived in Rav Bibi’s neighborhood treated his daughter similarly but applied the chemicals to her whole body at once, and she died.

While there are still, unfortunately, deaths associated with beauty treatments, they are rare and result from procedure most people cannot afford (I know of two cases, one was liposuction and the other plastic surgery). In the past, however, the hazards of lime were present and immediate, and they were associated with the most common beauty treatment, hair removal, so a prohibition against grooming would not have been something that women would not tolerate. Today, most cosmetic products are safe and in case they cause slight skin irritation, hypoallergenic substitutes are easily available.

One more factor which has significantly changed over time is women’s visibility and social interaction. In the past women would go out mostly to work, either in the field or in the marketplace, and not to socialize. Social circles were small and tight, mostly family and close neighbors, and therefore not so judgmental. There are still observant people who long for these days, as the Shawls Women of Jerusalem can attest (they wear burkas and make their daughters wear them also), and as I have heard from a fellow Angelino who praised Muslim women for their modesty. A famous ruling which regulates women’s mobility and social interaction is found in the codex of Maimonides. His statement refers even to places where women used to cover their whole body when going out: 

רמב”ם, הלכות אישות, יג:יא: גנאי הוא לאשה שתהיה יוצאה תמיד פעם בחוץ פעם ברחובות, ויש לבעל למנוע אשתו מזה ולא יניחנה לצאת אלא כמו פעם אחת בחודש או פעמים בחודש כפי הצורך, שאין יופי לאשה אלא לישב בזוית ביתה.

It is repugnant for a woman to be constantly outside or in the streets. The husband should prevent his wife from doing so and he should only let her go out once or twice a month, according to need, since the beautiful thing for a woman is to sit in the corner of the house. 

When discussing this paragraph, I have heard from many, including observant and well-educated people, that the call for of hiding women from the public eye was limited to Maimonides’ Muslim world. Unfortunately, there are many sources which show that this was always common (see here a sample of Ashkenazi poskim from the 12th to the 20th century), and as folktales such as Rapunzel and Bluebeard demonstrate, also across cultures and religions. One such example can be found in the writings of R. Yeshaya HaLevi Hurwitz, aka the Shelah (16th C):

של”ה, שער האותיות, אות צדי”ק, ב: ומכל שכן האשה שהיא מחויבת להיות צנועה ביותר, שיהיה כל כבודה פנימה, ותסתיר עצמה מכל אדם שבעולם בכל מה דאפשר, ועיניה תמיד למטה, ודיבורה בנחת, ולא יראה, ולא ימצא, ולא יהיה מגולה מכל גופה אפילו במשהו, שלא תכשיל שום אדם במראית עין.

A woman must be extremely modest and keep her glory indoors. She should hide herself from everyone as much as possible. Her eyes should always turn downwards, she should speak softly, and should be [like Hametz on Pesah] unseen and unfound. Even the slightest area of her body should not be uncovered, so she should not cause a sin to men who will think of her. 

By the twentieth century, things have changed significantly, and so we find R. Y.Y. Bloye (Jerusalem, 1929), one of the leaders of the Neturay Karta isolationist sect, lamenting that women abandoned the ruling of Maimonides:

פתחי חושן, חלק ט, ירושה ואישות, הערות: יש בדברים אלה משום תוכחת מגולה להבין עד כמה נפרץ הדבר בזמננו, והמכשולים שבהם.

This is an open rebuke to make people understand how breached this rule is today and how many obstacles it causes.

By contrast, one of the greatest Ashkenazi poskim of the 20th century, R. Eliezer Waldenberg, acknowledges the social changes:

ציץ אליעזר, ט:נ: דבזמן הקדום לא היתה האשה רגילה ללכת ברחובות קריה והיתה יושבת בירכתי ביתה, וכדברי הרמב”ם… וכן נפסק ברמ”א באה”ע סי’ ע”ג סעי’ א’… בזמן הזה שהמציאות לא כן, אלא האשה אינה יושבת בירכתי ביתה כבזמן הקדום ורגילין יותר בראית אשה ברחוב.

In antiquity women would not walk in the streets and would sit in the corner, as Maimonides writes… The Rema ruled similarly (Even HaEzer 73:1) … today reality is different, women do not sit in the corner of the house as in ancient times and it is more common to see women in the streets. 

Medical Facts

The last factor I would like to present here has to do with health hazards associated with the ways women circumvent the prohibition to apply makeup on Shabbat.

Applying heavy makeup before Shabbat and then sleeping with it is not healthy for the skin and can temporarily damage the eye.

Permanent eyeliner causes loss of eyelashes and disruption of the tear film, which can lead to dry eyes. In general, tattoos anywhere on the body can result in uveitis. 


  • The only prohibition in Tannaitic literature regarding personal grooming is avoiding actions which might lead to hair removal.
  • The terms כוחלת and מעברת סרק were misunderstood as referring to makeup.
  • In antiquity, only wealthy women were able to afford personal grooming and even they would stay mostly indoors among close family. 
  • Today, many observant women suffer because of the prohibition, and their suffering, on and because of Shabbat is contradictory to the concept of Oneg Shabbat and the statement of the rabbis that Halakha must consider the verse: its paths are pleasant. The problems caused by the prohibition include, but are not limited, to: 
  1. Avoiding social activity, including with close family and friends.
  2. Damage to self-esteem and confidence.
  3. Developing resentment towards, and even abandoning, the observance of Mitzvot.
  4. Using cosmetics regularly but feeling like sinners.
  5. Tension with their husbands.
  6. Sleeping with heavy makeup which irritates the skin and eyes.
  7. Turning to permanent makeup which might be considered a tattoo and involves serious health hazard.

It is therefore possible to rule now that all manners of personal grooming are allowed on Shabbat, though professional application of makeup, by a friend or by a paid person should be avoided. Those women who wish to maintain their practice and avoid using makeup on Shabbat can do so, but they should not look down at those who act differently, and they should also consider offering their daughters this option which they never had. 

Appendix – Readers Weigh In

I started writing this article per request of an observant woman who had difficulties with the prohibition. Before writing it, I asked my readers to tell me how they feel about it, and I offered four questions as reference points. Here are the questions followed by readers’ responses (edited slightly for typos). Most readers chose to stay anonymous and the answers are presented in the order they were received: 

1. Does the prohibition of using makeup on Shabbat ever causes you inconvenience? 

2. Do you know of anyone who has become less observant because of the prohibition? 

3. Have you tried or considered applying permanent makeup (which can last 3-5 years)? 

4. Do you think that women should not complain about not being able to put makeup on Shabbat? 

# 1: My Answers:

  1. Yes, because to dress up without any makeup just doesn’t look “polished” or “finished”.
  2. I know people who say they are shomer shabbat, except makeup. That seems kind of sad to me.
  3. No, but there are 24-hour lipsticks.
  4. No comment.

# 2: Shabbat [From Friday night until Saturday night] is the one day we spend with our spouses. Some of us are not as pretty as we were when we were younger, and we have issues with insecurities, and issues with husbands. We don’t want to look our worst on the one day we spend with our spouses. 
We are Shomer Mitzvot and don’t knowingly violate Shabbat other than with wearing makeup, but we don’t think we are correct. 
I would never wear permanent makeup because taste, skin tone, and appearance all change, so permanent makeup would never be an option. I don’t wear makeup every day, but I do when with my husband, and some spouses have made comments about our appearances.  Thank you for addressing this! 

 # 3 [ from a teacher and a Rabbi’s daughter]: 

This is my Shabbat make-up routine. I usually put on a lot of makeup on Friday night so that certain things will last the entire Shabbat, like mascara, eye liner, lipstick and lipliner (the items that are prohibited from use on Shabbat). I then hope that it stays for Saturday morning.  On Saturday morning I fill in with the items that (I’ve learned) are allowed, such as powders and oils (i.e. certain foundations, blush, eye shadow and eyebrow filler powder). Half the time, the lipstick doesn’t stay, but the rest usually does. The only issue I have is with the second day holiday when almost everything is off. It’s also not so comfortable or healthy to sleep with makeup on, but I’ve gotten used to it. 

# 4: I think it’s a very big inconvenience not to wear makeup on Shabbat. When we’re invited to someone’s house or even inviting people over I think we’re too stressed to make sure everything is perfect and don’t remember to apply makeup that will last for the next day. I also think they don’t last at all. Also, I like to sleep with a clean face and no chemicals on my skin, so I would rather not apply Shabbat makeup on Friday for Saturday than wear makeup. 
I lived in Israel for three years and even found kosher Shabbat makeup, but it doesn’t work and it’s all powder, so it burns your eyes… anyway I think it’s something that became very hard and honestly I stopped following the law and just apply makeup, because I can’t walk out of my house with no makeup on, especially on Shabbat when I’ll be seeing tons of people.

# 5: I often wonder what’s right on this. My main question is what is make up? I understand lipstick and eyeshadow to be makeup, but is foundation or under eye concealer makeup? I also don’t understand the prohibition of brushing teeth [H.O. – it is not forbidden]. I assume we can use hairspray (though now that I think about it, I don’t know!) and people use deodorant in some ways, and these are all different types of makeup. Also, people use Chapstick, so what does it matter if it also has a color added to it and is like lipstick? Anyway, I look forward to your writings on this! 

# 6: Do you mean make up that lasts 3 to 5 days? You wrote years. I wear makeup.  I feel very strongly that I can’t be bothered to deal with minutia of having to deal with Shabbat makeup. Not wearing makeup is not an option.

#7 Laura E. Adkins, Deputy Editor, Scribe: 

I was just speaking with a rebbetzin friend about this topic this Shabbat, and the answer to #1 for virtually every Orthodox woman is YES. Groups abound with info on the longest lasting products designed to stay in place for 25-73 hours required on Shabbat and Yom tov. #2, no, and #3 seems to transgress the prohibition of tattooing.  

#4 I think is the opposite. Like many teshuvot on women’s issues, it’s easy for a rabbi to forego the sensitivity required to speak and write on such a topic. For many women (frum and not), physical appearance is tied into self-worth, and those who write teshuvot lambasting the Shabbat makeup powders designed to circumvent the prohibition against dyeing often write them as if they were speaking on something like the proper size of a sukkah rather than an issue that individuals take very personally. 

# 8: Permanent makeup is, of course, a form of tattooing. So, to me, that falls more into the area of Torah prohibition than rabbinic prohibition….and I would then conclude that it is completely impermissible. And although it is safer than it used to be, my understanding is that there are still medical risks to permanent makeup, which I would find another issue.

# 9: I don’t recognize the prohibition against wearing makeup on Shabbat. For some women, especially those battling illnesses or those who suffer from the belief that they are not attractive, this issue is so serious that they will not be seen in public without makeup. I think that it is difficult for many men to understand how deep-seated the issue of not being found attractive is for women, and I don’t mean attractive by men. I mean in women’s own sense of self. So, in fact, I feel comfortable with the notion that to dress in one’s best and to wear makeup is hiddur mitzvah in Shabbat observance. But again, this is only my opinion! Sending you many blessings and much appreciation,

# 10: [this is from a man] Shalom, I feel the prohibition causes an inconvenience. At least from my prospective as a man who doesn’t wear makeup. My wife will stress out on Friday evening trying to make sure she remembers to put on makeup. When she learned that she could shower after Shabbat started, that lifted a stress, and I think that makeup is in the same boat. I know of women who have opted for permanent makeup because of the prohibition, which seems extreme to me. Would they have elected for such a procedure if there was no prohibition?

# 11: [this is also from a man] From my understanding of Torat Moshe – Parshat Bereshis – Shabbat is the enjoyment of freedom without concern for production (nor fixing) of food, clothing, and shelter. Furthermore, I understand that halacha tries to avoid judging women – partly because they already excessively judge themselves. As for makeup, recalling our mothers in pre-matan-torah Egypt – serving their mates fish and adorning themselves (makeup) –> [H.O. according to Midrash] I would expect that halacha should not address makeup as a shabbat example nor as a shabbat category related to food, clothing, shelter – rather as an individual woman’s assessment of her situation with her spouse… it is a judgement outside the scope of halacha authority – neither to prohibit nor to require. … perpetuation of Bnai Yisroel overriding any gezerah related to fundamentals of Shabbat.

# 12: I grew up in Brooklyn in the 40’s and 50’s. I would attend the shul that was in the Yeshivah of Flatbush, where I went to school. I never saw a grown woman, nor any of my high school friends, without lipstick on Shabbat. I remember only one friend who used actual make-up (blusher, toner, powder, etc.) I would imagine many adults did, but I was too unsophisticated to discern. I’m sure they “powdered their noses”, and going out without lipstick was unthinkable, it was like a married woman not wearing a hat to shul. A lot of the no-makeup movement, I believe, began as a secular statement of women in the 60’s, along with “burn the bra” movement, back to nature, etc. And my impression is of the young women who wear snoods or tichels, they don’t wear makeup any day.

# 13: Replying on questions:

# 14: Many moons ago I attended Beth Yaakov school in NY…  I Had a teacher who came from Europe and said in class: ” A married woman could use makeup on Shabbat if it makes her feel good”. Forward 40 years and I cannot apply that logic today due to more ‘enlightenment’. No, I don’t know of anyone who became less observant, but she may use it as an excuse though. Today’s makeup market is full of options for 24-hour application, hence no need to be drastic about it. Long lasting makeup is readily available. For up-to-date, intelligent and common-sense ladies, complaint cannot come into question.

# 15: I cannot present myself with no makeup on Shabbat. I have acne issues and blotchy skin and dark circles under my eyes and if I wear no makeup, people perceive me as being ill. Also, as I wear makeup during the week, and look better with it, how could I show up on Shabbat and look sickly. That would greatly decrease the joy of Shabbat for me and cause others to worry about me. I am unable to follow this prohibition unless I were to stay home on Shabbat. I have considered [permanent makeup] for my eyebrows but have not done it. I would not do any other permanent makeup as anything else would mean being stuck with a color that doesn’t necessarily work with the clothing I may wear on any particular day. I think that women should not be forced to go without makeup on Shabbat as I feel it is against hiddur mitzvah. To diminish my appearance on Shabbat would detract from Shabbat. 

# 15: 1. Always. 2. Myself. Consciously I apply makeup for events such as sebbets [family celebrations on Shabbat in the Syrian community] etc. on shabbat, knowing I am violating shabbat. 3. No. 4. No

# 16: It’s been many years since I’ve heard anyone talk about this. I remember something about liquid eyeshadow/eyeliner being an issue, but not non-liquid. I also remember someone bringing up the issue of lipstick as being assur [forbidden], to which I noted that I had been to 770 in Crown Heights on shabbat, and the Lubavitcher woman who was giving a talk on shabbat afternoon was wearing lipstick, so I used that as a ‘proof-text,’ so to speak. That aside, I see putting on makeup in the same category as getting dressed up — a way of honoring shabbat.

# 17: I think that if makeup makes a woman feel like it’s work for them, then don’t do it. But if it’s something that makes a woman feel like a prettier version of herself, and if she wants to present herself even nicer for Shabbat, then she should be able to. Not sure if that sounds ridiculous but I really do believe that both how we act and how look represent HaShem, and if that’s what helps her, so be it. I don’t think it’s harming anyone or anything 

# 18: My aunt doesn’t leave her house on Saturday EVER because she’s embarrassed to be seen without makeup. If her children want to see her, they have to come to her house. Since she won’t go to shul or sebbets, she doesn’t bother getting dressed on Saturday and spends all day in her pajamas. It’s far from a special day for her…

# 19: 1. Yes, there are times when the prohibition is inconvenient, especially when entertaining guests. I wear my best on Shabbat and no makeup makes me feel somewhat unfinished. 2. No. 3. No, permanent makeup doesn’t seem healthy to me. 4. I think Jews should be able to complain about any halachah that they feel is a burden. There’s no halachah that says we can’t complain when we are unhappy, as long as we complain respectfully. 

# 20: 1. I don’t understand why people think “I’m not going to do ‘X,’ therefore I might as well not do ‘the rest of the alphabet’ either. 2. Makeup is not dye. Dye is permanent color (removable only with extreme effort or chemical bleach). It’s a temporary color that actually just sits on top of the skin. Back in the 1950s (give or take) lipsticks did actually stain the skin (and many other things — I’m told my brother, at a very young age, found a brand new lipstick and used it up on furniture, walls,… none of the solvents that my father brought home from the lab could fix the problem — my parents had to repaint a room…).


  1. Prof. Menachem Elon speaks of the paralysis of Ashkenazi Halakhic creativity:
    מנחם אלון, מעמד האשה, עמ’ 430-431: עם פרוס האמנציפציה בסופה של המאה השמונה עשרה בארצות אירופה, בטלה האוטונומיה השיפוטית שממנה נהנתה הקהילה היהודית בכל שנות גלותה; כתוצאה מכך נתמעטה באופן משמעותי היצירתיות המאלפת בכל תחומי המשפט העברי, שנהגו לפיו בחיי המעשה על ביטול האוטונומיה השיפוטית; שהרי היצירתיות מקורה וגדולתה בצורך לפתור בעיות ושאלות העולות מתוך המציאות של חיי יום יום ושעה שעה. גורם נוסף שהביא לתוצאה זו הוא, שמשפשטה ההשכלה בחלקים גדולים וניכרים של קהילות ישראל בארצות אירופה, רבים מחכמי ההלכה הלכו והחמירו בפסיקתם ונמנעו מלחדש, שלא כדרכה של ההלכה בימי קדם. לא כך היו פני הדברים ביהדות ספרד, חכמי מרוקו וסביבותיה… גדולי ההלכה שבארצות המזרח המשיכו לפתור בעיות אלה בדרכה של ההלכה מני אז: בדרך הפרשנות, בדרך התקנת התקנות, במנהג ועוד, היצירתיות נמשכה ולעתים אף גדלה יותר מבימים עברו… יצירתיות שיש בה משום פתרון ולא משום החמרה.
    18th century emancipation in Europe ended the judicial autonomy which Jewish communities had for centuries; as a result, the creativity within Jewish Law dealing with everyday life has greatly diminished, since the origin and greatness of creativity in Halakha is the need to address problems and questions which rise from the daily reality… another factor in the diminishment of creativity is the reaction to the spreading Enlightenment which caused many Poskim to become stringent and avoid innovation, unlike previous generations. Among Sephardic Jews things were different… the great legislators continued solving problems in the traditional way of halakha: through hermeneutics and legislation, so creativity not only continued but was intensified… and it provided solutions and not stringencies.
  2. Otzar HaMikhtavim, 3:1881.
  3. ספר כלבו סימן לא: ובאמת הנשים אסורות לקלע שער אחד ולגדל, ועכשיו שנהגו לעשות כן ואין מי ימחה בידן, לפי שמוטב שיהו שוגגות ואל יהיו מזידות, שאי אפשר למנען, כדי שלא יתגנו על בעליהן.
  4. It is interesting to note that while the Rif was consistent with his interpretation of the term, others interpreted in two completely different way, according to the context of the discussion (Shabbat or Hol HaMoed), without giving any explanation as to the reason for disparate interpretations. One glaring example are the rulings culled from the writings of R. Yeshaya bar Eliyah Di-Trani, of 13th C Italy, aka Ria” z: 1 פסקי ריא”ז מסכת שבת, פרק י: לא תעביר אשה סרק על פניה, שהוא מין צבע שמאדים הבשר ודומה לצובע; 2. פסקי ריא”ז, מועד קטן פרק א: מעברת סרק על פניה, וכן מעברת סכין על פניה שלמטה.
    The first quote is from tractate Shabbat: A woman cannot pass serak on her face. Serak is a dye which reddens the face and it is like dyeing on Shabbat. The second is from Moed Kattan: A woman can pass Serak on her face, and she can also pass a knife…
  5. רש”י, שבת צה:א: לעצמה פטורה שאינה יכולה לבנות יפה, ואין דרך בנין אלא אשה לחברתה שרואה ועושה.
  6.  פני יהושע, שבת נז:א: לעצמה פטורה, והיינו משום דקליעת שער צריך אוֹמֶן יד על ידי חבירתה כדי ליפותה.
  7.  פסקי ריא”ז, שבת פרק י: לעצמה פטורה לפי שהוא דרך שינוי, אבל לחברתה חייבת.
  8.  שיירי קרבן שבת, ז:ב: ועדיפא מיניה הוה ליה למימר דאין צביעה באדם.
  9.  בביאורי המהרש”ל על הסמ”ג (מלאכת צובע) כתב:… “והא דמסיק האשה לא תעביר סרק וכו’, זהו דרבנן דאפילו לר’ אליעזר אינו דומה כל כך לצביעה ממש דאין שייך צביעה באדם.
  10. משנה ברורה, שג:עט: דאין צביעה מדאורייתא על עור האדם.
  11. ילקוט יוסף, שבת ה, הערות, שמ:ד-ה: ובספר טל אורות (מלאכת מוחק דף ע ע”ג) הקשה, מדין צביעה שכתבו הפוסקים דאין צביעה על בשר האדם, מפני שהזיעה מעבירתו.
  12. ציץ אליעזר, טו:כה: דאפילו העברת סרק ע”פ אשה ג”כ אינו אלא מדרבנן דאין צביעה מדאורייתא על עור האדם ע”ש ובביאו”ה, ובדרבנן הא מותר בכלאחר יד וע”י שינוי וכנ”ל.
  13. מגדנות אליהו, ב:קמא: צביעה אין הפעולה עצם הצביעה אלא בדבר הנצבע שהוא מקבל הצבע, והפנים של האשה אינו בר צביעה שיעמוד ויתקיים.
  14. See for example R. Shmuel HaLevi Wosner. The distinction he makes is that paint makes no impression on metal but some impression on skin: שו”ת שבט הלוי, א:צט:  לשון הרמב”ם פ”ט הי”ג, אבל צבע שאינו מתקיים כלל כגון שהעביר סרק או ששר ע”ג ברזל או נחשת וצבעו פטור שהרי אתה מעבירו לשעתו ואינו צובע כלום, היינו, שהברזל אינו מקבל כלל צבעים אלו וכיון שכן מעיקרא לא צביעה היא אף לא צביעה לזמן, משא”כ באשה המעברת סרק על פניה דעכ”פ צביעה היא לזמן, אף שאינו מתקיים זמן ארוך.
  15. Here are several sources which prove that bandages were made of leather: תוספתא פסחים, ג:ב: עריבת העבדנין שנתן לתוכה קמח שלשה ימים קודם לפסח הרי זה צריך לבער, אחרים אומרים, כיון שנתן לתוכה עורות אין צריך לבער. הקילור והאספלנית ורטייה שנתן לתוכה קמח אין צריך לבער. תוספתא, כלים, בבא בתרא פרק ו [פרק כד], הלכה ט: …ובעור, איספלוני טהורה, מלוגמא ורטייה טמאה. ר”ש מסכת כלים פרק כח, ג: איספלנית – רטייה. ודרכה להנתן על הבגד או על העור ואחר כך ממרחין על המכה ומתוך שעושה אותה מחלב ושעוה… נמאס הבגד והעור ומתבטל. מהר”ם א”ש, שו”ת פנים מאירות, ב:קפט: חילק הרמב”ם בשעורין, דגבי עור בעינן לכתוב עליו קמיע כמו לענין הוצאתו, ורטיה חשובה ממחק, די לה כדי לתת על המכה ובכל שהוא חשיבא.
  16. The amalgamation could have resulted from focusing on the word which appears in both Talmudic discussions – ממחק.
  17. רמב”ם, הלכות שבת, כג:יא: הממרח רטיה בשבת חייב משום מוחק את העור, לפיכך אין סותמין נקב בשעוה וכיוצא בה שמא ימרח, ואפילו בשומן אין סותמין את הנקב גזירה משום שעוה.
  18. There are those who claim that one is not allowed to use lip balm, lipstick, or soap because of ממחק. That is based on misinterpreting the word as erasing, and while it is true that when processing leather the material used for the processing would be eroded, the concern was never about that but rather about the enhancement of the leather and making it ready for use. See for example Responsa Ginnat Veradim: גינת ורדים, אורח חיים, ג:יד: בסבון לא מכוין לנולד זה כלל, דאינו חושש רק לנקות את ידיו בלבד, ולא ניחא ליה שיעשה בסבון מים ומותר הוא לכתחלה.
  19. רש”י, נדרים, לז:ב: בנות… לאו אורחייהו למיפק אבראי; מרדכי, בבא בתרא, רמז תרלח: האשה שקבועה בבית משום דכל כבודה בת מלך פנימה; ספר חסידים, סימן תקעח: כבודם של נשים ונערים להחבא בפנים; ספר הרוקח, הלכות חסידות, שורש קדושת הייחוד: אפילו בחול אינה יוצאת לרשות הרבים מפני שהעם מסתכלין בה, שלא ניתן תכשיטין לאשה אלא להתקשט בתוך ביתה שאין נותנין פירצה לפני הכשר; שבט הלוי, ד:א: בענין הצניעות מה שנשים לומדות ומרגילות עצמן לנהוג מכונית, הנה מן הנסיון למדתי שהוא דבר שראוי לאסרו איסור גמור, כי עצם הלמוד גרם כבר וגורם לפריצות.
  20. A conversation with Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Rubin, an ophthalmologist who has seen many such cases among observant women.
  21. See Bavli Sukkah 32:1-2; Yevamoth 15:1; Ibid. 87:2; Gittin 59:2;

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