The Mishnah in Masechet Shabbos (22:5) states:
One who washes in the water of a cave or in the waters of Tiveria, and dried himself even with ten towels may not bring them (home) in his hand. However, ten people may dry themselves with one towel when they dry their faces, hands and feet and bring may bring it (the towel) home with them.
Interestingly, the Ran mentions that the topic of the above Mishnah is not the bathing or drying – both of which according to the above Mishnah would be permitted lechatchila. The Ran proves this from the fact that the second part of the Mishnah permits ten people to bathe and dry themselves with one towel. Rather, the Mishnah does not allow carrying in the first case, as the Chachamim were concerned that during this act, one may come to squeeze out the towel. This squeezing constitutes an act of kibus(laundering) which is a toladah of the melacha of melaben (whitening).
Rashi explains the Mishnah as referring to extreme cases where bathers require drying off after washing. Rashi states that even where the drying was done with ten towels - not leaving significant amounts of water in the towels – one still may not carry them home for fear of squeezing them out. Similarly, in the second case of ten people are using one towel – where it can be presumed that the towel would be filled with water there is no issue of carrying it because each of the bathers are able to remind one another against squeezing out the towels.
The Ran poses an interesting question based on another Mishnah learned this week. In Shabbos(21:2) we learn that if there was dirt on a pillow on Shabbos, one is able to wipe it off with a rag. Rashi explains that one is not permitted to put water on this pillow because it is a garment and placing water on a garment is tantamount to washing it. This leads the Ran to ask why the Mishnah forbids placing water on a garment in the case of the pillow, yet seemingly contradicts itself by allowing a person to dry themselves with a towel.
The Ran resolves the contradiction by stating that the only time where placing water on a garment is considered washing it is in the case of a dirty garment. The case of the pillow was where it was previously soiled and the water would be a cleaning agent. The towel case refers to clean towels, which would be permitted to get wet.
The Ran brings another reason why the Chachamim did not make a decree forbidding using a towel on Shabbos for fear of squeezing. The Chachamim knew that every person that bathes would use a towel upon completion. If they were to forbid using towels then essentially the Chachamim would also be forbidding bathing! The Ran states that this type of decree would not be accepted. Therefore, the Chachamim formulated their decree in the optimal way possible to ensure it would endure.
Following on from this idea, the Magen Avraham(301:58) ponders the state of people in his time. Are we still so makpid on washing that we would not accept a decree from Chachamim to forbid washing, or is it possible for us not to wash on Shabbos and therefore we should not do so, having in mind the intentions of the Chachamim? The Magen Avraham writes that since Chazal never enacted the decree (as it would not endure) it is still permitted today. However, he notes that it is recommended to dry oneself with something that has no purpose or use for the water that is transferred to it.
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