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Dyeing Hides in the Mishkan – Coloring on Shabbos


Dyeing, as it was done in the preparation of the Mishkan in the desert, is forbidden on Shabbos. How were the animal hides dyed? Was the process painful for the animals? Why is the Shabbos prohibition learned from dyeing the hides and not from the preparation of tcheiles, the blue-green dye used to color wool? And for the practical ramifications: can cosmetics be used on Shabbos? Is coloring-in eyebrows permitted? What must be our concern when eating strawberries on Shabbos (besides insects)? Can bedikah cloths be used on Shabbos? And for the rare and farfetched questions: can a gentile be asked to paint camel’s feet a florescent green in order to prevent head-on collisions? Can ink be used as a money safekeeping mechanism? Of this and more, in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha we read of the various resources the Jewish nation was asked to donate for the building of the Mishkan. One of them was: “Reddened ram skins” (Shemos 25:5), to which Rashi explains: “They were dyed red after being tanned.” Later on, we are told what they were used for: “And you shall make a covering for the tent of ram skins dyed red” (Shemos 26:14). This is where we learn of the prohibition to color on Shabbos, the topic of this week’s article.

The Dyeing Process

The Mizrachi (Shemos 25:5) and Maharal (Gur Aryeh Shemos 25:5)  explain that since red-skinned adult rams are unknown animals, the color of the skins must have been manmade. The actual process of dyeing or coloring, though, is disputed: Rashi (Shemos 25:5) maintains that the hides were dyed after being tanned. But the Yerushalmi (Shabbos 7:2) maintains that they were dyed while the ram was still alive. While the Pnei Moshe explains the red color was achieved through paint, many Rishonim (Ramban; Rashba; Ritva; Meiri; Ran; Ohr Zaruah – all on Shabbos 107a; Birkas Avraham 18; Korban Ha’eida) explain that special craftsmen would use a wand to hit the rams, causing capillary hematomas – under-skin bleeding. These wounds eventually created spectacular designs on the hides.

In summary, Rashi understands that the ram skins were dyed after they were skinned and tanned. The Yerushalmi, as understood by the Rishonim, maintains that the skins were colored while the rams were alive. The Pnei Moshe understands that they were colored red while alive, while the other Rishonim understand the color resulted from the animal’s internal bleeding.

Shabbos Permissive

Knowledge of the exact process that was used in the Mishkan is very important because of the wide-range of halachic ramifications that result. For example, if the hides were dyed after tanning, only proper dyeing is a Torah prohibition, and coloring a living animal or using his own under-skin blood to create colors is not a Torah prohibition. However, according to the Yerushalmi, coloring in this manner is Torah prohibited. The Yerushalmi adds furthermore: one who hits an animal and creates a hematoma as a result, transgressed a Torah prohibition. One can ask that drawing blood, though, transgresses the prohibition of netilas neshama – killing. Therefore, why does the Yerushalmi says the violation is dying and not slaughtering? Seemingly, the Yerushalmi maintains that if the blood remains under the skin the prohibition is coloring and only  if the skin was broken the prohibition belongs to hachovel – a secondary transgression to slaughtering (a human who draws blood from an animal is considered to have killed it, which is prohibited under the prohibition of shochet – slaughtering).

The Talmud Bavli writes (Shabbos 107a) that a human who hits an animal and causes a contusion in the skin is liable. The exact liability is not mentioned.

Rashi (Shabbos 107a) mentions two reasons for liability: 1) because the blood will not be absorbed back into the body, and it is considered drawing blood from an animal, which is forbidden under the halachic prohibition of hachovel; 2) since the skin becomes colored. The Tosefos (ibid) maintain that the main prohibition is hachovel, as Rashi explained elsewhere. However, the above-mentioned Rishonim disagree, maintaining that the second explanation is also true because the Yerushalmi’s explanation follows this understanding. However, the second reason only applies if the intent was  to color the skin.


According to Rashi (Shabbos 49b) and Tosefos the prohibition in causing a contusion comes under the title of hachovel, while the Yerushalmi and most Rishonim include the prohibition of tzoveiah-dying.

Ram Skin vs. Tcheiles

The Achronim ask why the Yerushalmi had to learn the prohibition of tzoveia – dyeing — from the complex process required to produce the red ram skins if it could have been learned from the more straightforward process of dyeing wool?

The Chaye Adam (Nishmat Adam II, 9:3) notes an additional comment in the Yerushalmi (7:2): a woman who colors her face or dyes a spool of wool is liable under the prohibition of melaben – laundering, and not tzoveia – dyeing. The Chaye Adam explains that while according to the poskim, melaben is part of the dirt removal process, according to the Yerushalmi melaben involves changing the color of a surface by whatever means – either cleaning, or coloring. The Chaye Adam proves that the Ramban follows this understanding in his halachic ruling. Therefore, seemingly, the Yerushalmi invokes the prohibition of tzoveia only when partially coloring a surface – creating designs or pictures with color, which, since they convey no meaning, serve only for decoratorial purposes. (Accordingly, coloring an entire surface is liable under the prohibition of melaben; sketching letters or meaningful symbols such as emojis – under hakosev — writing; and meaningless patterns – under the prohibition of tzoveiah.)

Korban Ha’eida (Shabbos 7:2) explains that according to the Yerushalmi, wool used in the Mishkan could not have been dyed in the desert because they had no access to the fresh chilazon blood necessary for the process. Therefore, pre-dyed wool was used in building the Mishkan. Since regular dyeing didn’t take place in building the Mishkan, it cannot serve as an av melacha (work category title) prohibited on Shabbos. The prohibition of tzoveiah, had to therefore be learned from the ram skins.

Aruch Hashulchan (OC 320:1) explains that the Yerushalmi uses the particular process of reddened ram skins to illustrate how even recoloring is prohibited such as a red-lipped lady applying lipstick. Therefore, this process of coloring the ram skins with under-skin hematomas is used to exemplify the prohibition of tzoveiah and not the obvious process dyeing of wool, which is clearly forbidden.

Animal Cruelty

The Magen Shaul (105) asks: how was it permitted to show cruelty to the rams in order to obtain the red color? While using animals is permitted, cruelty is forbidden. In light of this question is seems that the Pnei Moshe’s understanding of the Yerushalmi is the correct understanding. However, since the Rishonim’s explanation follows the Korban Ha’eida, it remains to be clarified.

The Bartenura explains that in order to create these ram skins the sheep would be treated while they were tiny lambs, so when they grew their hides would have fabulous designs. Since a ram is an adult male sheep (at least 13 months old) and the skins were collected on the same day the Jewish people were commanded to present their offerings for the Mishkan, these skins could not have been produced by Jewish people, but rather they came to them through the spoils they collected after the splitting of the Sea, or from what they took when they left Egypt. This cruel form of art was employed by non-Jewish artisans, at least a year before they received the commandment to build the Mishkan and the Jewish owners only donated the skins to the Mishkan. (See the editorial this week for the reason Hashem wanted these skins to be in the Mishkan and what they symbolize.)

Perhaps this is the reason that Rashi and Tosafos do not accept this as the process for producing the redden ram skins for the Mishkan, explaining that the ram skins were dyed after tanning. The Hafla’a (Panim Yafos, Shemos 36:6) goes even further: in his opinion the ram skins had to be colored specifically for the Mishkan. Therefore, it would have been impossible to use skins that had been colored before building the Mishkan was commanded.

Coloring on Shabbos

Now that we have learned the sources for the prohibition of tzoveiah, we will present several real-life scenarios:

Shabbos Makeup

The Shulchan Aruch writes (OC 303:25) that a woman may not apply makeup that colors the skin on Shabbos under the prohibition of tzoveiah. Biur Halacha cites a dispute regarding the severity of the prohibition – a full Torah prohibition, or one that is rabbinically forbidden due to its resemblance to the main prohibition. The Mishna Brurah rules (303:79) that generally used cosmetics today incur a rabbinic prohibition, because the color is not intended to remain for a long period of time (long-lasting cosmetics requires further discussion). Long-term cosmetic treatments (such as microblading or other forms of permanent makeup) are a full Torah prohibition if done on Shabbos (and may involve the prohibition of tattooing on a weekday).

In addition, the Mishna Brura notes (footnote 81) that when applying creams and cosmetics on the skin and hair one can also violate the prohibition of memare’ach – smoothing substances (see last week’s article for a discussion of the issue.)


The Shulchan Aruch (OC 320:20) rules that when eating staining fruits and vegetables (e.g. strawberries, beets, pomegranates, blueberries) one must be careful not to touch a cloth with dirty hands (another reason to eat with a fork!) because it will result in coloring the cloth. The Mishna Brura rules (320:59) that since it is not really considered coloring but rather more like dirtying (this form of color is useless and undesirable), since in the bottom line the cloth is colored, one should exercise care in the matter when possible.

Since fruit juice in not an acceptable form of makeup or body paint, no prohibition involves the stains on one’s hands or face as a result of eating the above-mentioned foods. Cloth, however, since commonly dyed, requires extra caution.

Bedikos on Shabbos

This is also the reason it is permissible to use bedika cloths on Shabbos even though the cloth becomes colored – since the reason for using the cloth is not to color it and its use dirties it, where it is done for a mitzva it is permitted. The Chasam Sofer adds another reason permitting it: the reason for using it. Since the cloth is used to check the actual color, not for coloring the cloth, using it is permitted on Shabbos.

Color the Camel

Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein shlita (Chishukei Chemed, Shabbos 75a) was presented with the following question: today, many camel owners color their camel’s feet in a florescent yellow or green to prevent collisions with cars in the dark. Could one be permitted to tell a gentile to do so in extraneous circumstances?

Chishukei Chemed answers that coloring animals is a Torah prohibition as explained in the Yerushalmi. Although Rashi understands that the hides were dyed after tanning, he writes elsewhere (Chagiga 8a) that tithing livestock is forbidden on Shabbos and Yom Tov because marking the tenth animal was done with paint and a brush, incurring the prohibition of tzoveiah. Since Chazal were concerned we would come to the Torah prohibition of tzoveiah, tithing is forbidden on Shabbos.

Therefore, since camels’ feet are painted permanently, it is a Torah prohibition and may not ask a gentile to do it on Shabbos.

Ink the Thief

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein was presented the following question by a tzedakah collector (Chishukei Chemed, Shabbos 75a): the man often had large sums of money left in his possession over Shabbos and was plagued by break ins. Since he suspected the thief was one of his acquaintances, he asked the Chazon Ish how to put a stop to it. The Chazon Ish recommended spreading ink on the handle of the box or around his coat pocket that contains the money. The inky hands would reveal the robber.

Rav Yitzchak was asked if leaving this kind of trap was permissible before Shabbos so the thief’s hands, should he try to take the money, would be dyed with ink on Shabbos.

Rav Yitzchak answered that it is seemingly permissible because people don’t usually dye their hands with ink. This, he writes, is similar to the permit to eat staining fruits, which although preferably one should be careful not to color a cloth (napkin or towel) with the juice, he need not concern himself with coloring his skin.

One could argue that since the tzedakah collector wants the thief’s hands colored it could be forbidden because body coloring is only permitted if it was done unintentionally, as in the process of eating. However, Rav Zilberstein permits it because the thief is one doing the coloring, and he certainly doesn’t want it. The tzedakah collector is not causing the thief a transgression, despite the fact that he does want the thief’s hands dyed.

He adds another reason to permit it, according to the above-mentioned approach of the Chasam Sofer – since he has no purpose in the dye itself but rather in the result of the dye – knowing who the thief is, spreading ink on an area for safety is permitted.

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