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Washing One’s Face on Yom Kippur


Rabbi Daniel Mann

Question:I have great difficulty being alert if I do not wash my face in the morning. May I do so on Yom Kippur, considering that it is not for enjoyment but to allow me to function?

Answer:It is true that only washing that is considered for enjoyment is forbidden on Yom Kippur (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 613:1). Therefore, water may touch one’s skin in order to wash off dirt, to do a required washing before davening, or if one needs to pass through a body of water for an important purpose (ibid. 1, 2, 5 respectively). It is a good question why the prohibition is so limited. After all, it is not permitted to do other aveirot if it is not for enjoyment, nor to eat and drink on Yom Kippur for parallel reasons, short of pikuach nefesh (danger to human life). The simplest answer is that the innuyim (self-afflictions) of Yom Kippur, other than the prohibitions of eating and drinking, are only Rabbinically mandated, in which case it is not uncommon for logical leniencies to be built in. Several Rishonim, including Rabbeinu Tam (see Tosafot, Yoma 77a) cite these leniencies as proof that the minor innuyim are Rabbinic. The Rambam (Shevitat Assor 1:5) is among those who say that all the innuyim are of Torah origin, and the Ran explains that this is an example of Torah laws whose parameters were given over to the Rabbis to set.
With that background, we will address your specific question. The Rosh (Yoma 8:7) cites the following ruling of a Gaon: "Someone who wants to wipe his face on Yom Kippur, if he is an istanis (an easily disturbed person) and his mind is not at rest throughout the year until he wipes with water … he may wipe, but for others, it is forbidden." In addition to apparently distinguishing between applying water for pleasure and fulfilling a specific need, we also see, in this position, consideration for the subjective frame of mind of the individual. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 613:4) accepts this leniency. However, some Rishonim and Acharonim have problems with the application of the Gaon’s statement. The Maharil (Yom Kippur 1) rejects the ruling, without mentioning its proponent or why he did so. As often happens, Ashkenazic communities follow the Maharil (see Rama, OC ibid.). The Bach (OC 613) claimed that the Gaon, the Rosh (and the Tur) only meant to allow wiping with water in a case where there was dirt on the face. (The Shulchan Aruch reasoned that if there were dirt, there would be nothing noteworthy in the Gaon’s ruling and says that an istanis with a clean face is equivalent to a normal person with a dirty face- see Beit Yosef.)
The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 613:7) says that the Rosh must be understood in context, which greatly lessens the leniency’s scope. The gemara (78a) speaks about those who used to dip a towel in water before Yom Kippur and then run that towel over the face on Yom Kippur when it is less wet. (The Rama rejects this system in our times out of fear that one will squeeze the towel- OC 613:9). The Gaon ruled that a regular person could use this system only to run the towel over the eyes, a more sensitive area that needs cleaning. Only an istanis can use that system for the entire face. According to this, the Gaon is not conveying a leniency but actually somewhat of a stringency.
In any case, while Sephardim can be lenient as you suggested, Ashkenazim should not (see Mikraei Kodesh (Harari), Yom Kippur 7:11). The practical logic for Ashkenazim seems to be as follows. The refreshing feeling that wakes you up is considered washing of pleasure, even if the long term interest of that pleasure is to help you concentrate on your davening. Being hungry is also not always conducive to davening, and a physically subdued feeling is not a contradiction to the Yom Kippur spirit. Only removal of negative extraneous materials from the body and incidental contact with water are included in the leniency of lack of enjoyment. You may put your face next to an open freezer or place something cold but dry on your face, etc., which may help you (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 613:9).
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