A Saline Solution
‘Its Soaking Is Its Laundering’
What connection could there possibly be between soft, shiny contact lenses and the blood of sacrifices? But the world of halacha includes every topic in the world, and contact lenses and sacrifices actually do have a common denominator in the realm of halacha.
Our sugya serves as a source for the halachic foundations regarding cleaning items on Shabbos. The Gemara discusses cleaning skins spattered with the blood of kodashim and subsequently discusses cleaning skins in general – whether there is a difference between soft and hard hides and the halachos of cleaning them on Shabbos.
One of the 39 av melachos is melaben. The essence of this melacha is whitening and cleaning raw wool. The tolados of the melachah include all types of laundering, such as soaking a garment in water, and are Biblically forbidden even if the garment is not rubbed.
The Gemara asserts that all the above only applies to fabrics. Leather (soft or hard) may be soaked in water on Shabbos. The Gemara recounts that R. Chiya b. Ashi would splash Rav’s shoes with water to clean them on Shabbos but says it is forbidden to rub leather garments (soft or hard; see Bi’ur Halachah, Orach Chayim 302:9, s.v. “Aval“). Let us examine the reasons for distinguishing between leather and fabrics and the practical implications for the care of lenses on Shabbos.
Leather is different than fabrics because the latter are absorbent materials that soak up dirt or water, which may clean them; therefore, soaking them is considered part of laundering them. Leather, though, does not absorb dirt or water in the same way. Some suggest that since leather absorbs very little, soaking it is not regarded as laundering since the leather is not really being laundered. (One may rinse soiled forks on Shabbos for the same reason; the dirt is not absorbed in them).
It’s also possible that soaking leather is not considered laundering because people are not accustomed to launder leather or because laundering it takes much time and is not regarded as a regular method of cleaning.
In any case, one must not rub leather because the prohibition of laundering applies to leather. Only the halacha of “its soaking is its laundering” does not apply.
Contact Lens Conundrum
If soaking leather is permitted on Shabbos, may we conclude that soaking contact lenses in cleaning fluid is also permitted?
We should first note that soft lenses do not resemble ordinary plastic. Although ordinary plastic does not absorb liquids, soft lenses do when exposed to air. Therefore, one may not squeeze out the liquids absorbed within them. Additionally, it is forbidden to rub them with liquid as they are thereby cleaned, just as it is forbidden to rub leather.
Furthermore, there may even be reason to forbid soaking lenses in cleaning fluid even if we assume that they resemble leather, which may be soaked according to our sugya. It could well be that leather is also forbidden to be soaked in a cleaning fluid for by so doing it becomes cleaned and whitened. The cleaning fluid of the lenses also removes the dirt that adheres to them.
The solution for people with contact lenses is to soak them in saline, a fluid designed only to preserve the lenses without cleaning them. In this way, soaking lenses resembles soaking leather in water, which is allowed on Shabbos. We emphasize that Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv ruled that someone who wants to soak lenses in saline on Shabbos should clean them well before Shabbos.
Readers who want to expand their knowledge of the topic should refer to Orchos Shabbos 13:37-40 and Birurei Halachah 5.