Question: May one wear a protective (i.e., surgical or N95) mask outside on Shabbos in a place without an eruv?
Short Answer: According to both Rav Asher Weiss shlita and Rav Hershel Schachter shlita, one may wear both masks outside on Shabbos in a place without an eruv.
I. The Eruv
As a general rule, one of the 39 m’lachos that are forbidden on Shabbos is hotza’ah. This prohibits a person from carrying any object out of his house and into the street, which likely has the status of a karmelis, an area that is neither a public nor a private domain into which the Rabbis prohibited carrying on Shabbos. An eruv enclosing the town (together with an eruv chatzeiros, a topic beyond the scope of this article) removes this prohibition, as the town is now legally considered a r’shus ha’yachid (loosely, a private domain). However, an eruv cannot remedy an area that is deemed a r’shus ha’rabim (loosely, a public domain).
Thanks to the heroic efforts of many chashuve rabbanim in the early days of Kew Gardens Hills, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l ruled that the eruv in Kew Gardens Hills is acceptable, as the neighborhood is a karmelis and not a r’shus ha’rabim (see Igros Moshe 4:86). However, the eruv in other communities, such as Flatbush, are subject to a dispute whether they are considered a r’shus ha’rabim, which is also beyond the scope of this article. Other cities do not have an eruv at all.
II. Carrying In a Place Without an Eruv
The Orchos Shabbos (Vol. 3, 28:117-189), based on the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 301), sets forth the basic rules for carrying and wearing various items outside on Shabbos in a place where there is no eruv.
A person may wear any item that is considered “clothing” (malbush) or an “adornment” (tachshit) even in a place where there is no eruv. These are not considered forbidden “loads” (masui) because they are viewed as part of the body (and m’vutal).
Nevertheless, some items that are considered clothing/adornment are still rabbinically prohibited because there is a possibility that they will fall off or the person will accidentally remove them, causing him to carry them while not wearing them, which is certainly prohibited, as they are not serving as clothing/adornment when not being worn.
Many practical examples fall into the above-mentioned categories. For example, a gartel may be worn on top of a jacket in a place without an eruv, even where the person is already wearing a belt under his jacket, as the gartel is considered an item of clothing that the person is wearing. See Orchos Shabbos (ibid, citing Igros Moshe Orach Chayim 2:76).
Another example is slippers. The Rama (Orach Chayim 301:16) writes that one may go outside wearing “house shoes” in a place without an eruv. There is no concern that the slippers will fall off, as they are fastened tightly. Nevertheless, the Rama cites opinions that are strict. The Mishnah B’rurah (ibid. 61) cites an additional reason to be lenient. Since a person does not customarily walk around outside barefoot, if the slippers fall off, he will immediately put them back on his feet and will not carry them in his hands at all. The Orchos Shabbos (ibid) relies upon this opinion and rules that it is likely permitted to wear slippers nowadays outside in a place without an eruv. He notes that the Steipler agreed with this opinion, as well.
A third example is gloves. While they are certainly an item of clothing, they are frequently removed by the wearer (i.e., to shake someone’s hand or to pick something up). The Mishnah B’rurah (ibid, 141) writes that the custom is to be lenient, especially nowadays where our cities are likely only a karmelis (and not a r’shus ha’rabim), but concludes that a scrupulous person should be stringent.
IV. Purim Masks
What about Purim masks on Shabbos? The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 301:20) explicitly writes that it is prohibited to wear face masks that are worn in order to “scare the children” in a place without an eruv. The Mishnah B’rurah (70) explains that it is prohibited because it is not considered clothing (or an adornment).
The sefer Gam Ani Od’cha (Rav Gamliel Rabinovich, citing Rav Moshe Chaluoh, 9:13) deduces from here that it is forbidden to wear a Purim mask on Shabbos of Purim M’shulash, as it is not an item of clothing. See also Avnei Derech (11:110).
V. Gas Mask
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein shlita (Nes L’hisnoses, siman 4) asks whether a gas mask can be worn on Shabbos in a place without an eruv? He suggests that it is permitted to wear, because it is no different from any other clothing item, such as a rain hat, which protects the wearer from an outside force, be it rain or a gas bomb, chas v’shalom. He argues that it is very different from a Purim mask, which is not protecting the wearer at all. Rather, it is like eyeglasses that are deemed an article of clothing and permissible.
In a fascinating footnote, he cites an unnamed gaon who queried whether Moshe Rabbeinu, who wore a mask to protect the B’nei Yisrael from being harmed by the spiritual glow emanating from Moshe’s face, was permitted to wear this mask on Shabbos without an eruv. On one hand, this mask was protective gear that should be permitted, but on the other hand, it is only protecting others, but not the wearer himself. He leaves this question unanswered.
VI. Application to Surgical or N95 Masks
Presumably, the answer to whether a surgical or N95 mask may be worn outside on Shabbos in a place without an eruv is dependent on this framework.
While an N95 mask, which protects both the wearer and others, is likely permissible, a surgical mask that is used primarily to protect others (and not the wearer – see https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover.html), is a trickier question. Is a surgical mask considered permitted clothing (or an adornment), or is it a forbidden load that does not serve to protect the wearer?
Rav Asher Weiss shlita, in his recently released Minchas Asher pamphlet on coronavirus (siman 9) rules that all masks are likely permitted based on the halachah on bandages. A bandage is permitted because it protects the wearer and thus constitutes clothing. Moreover, there is no concern that the wearer will remove the mask outside because of coronavirus.
Notably, when I emailed Rav Weiss shlita to inquire whether the halachah is changed based on the footnote of Rav Zilberstein and the fact that a surgical mask primarily protects OTHERS and not the wearer, a member of his Beis Din responded that: “We wear masks to protect ourselves and others. We know nothing about Moshe’s [mask].”
However, Rav Weiss shlita concludes in his pamphlet that even if it is permitted, one should determine if it is truly necessary, as one can leave a mask before Shabbos in both locations (i.e., his house and where he is heading), or if walking around the block, can avoid coming close with others or talking to others while walking, thereby alleviating the needs for a mask.
Similarly, R’ Hershel Schachter shlita permitted one to wear a surgical mask outside in a place without an eruv. He is cited on OU Torah as ruling that “a surgical mask can either be considered an article of clothing (since it is placed right against the face), or it can be viewed as a tachshit (an adornment that protects the body). Either way, it may be worn outside on Shabbos even if there is no eruv. Under the current circumstances, there is no concern that one might remove the mask, forget, and continue carrying it in the street.”
Next Week’s Topic: May one daven next to his wife and daughters at home or must they erect a m’chitzah if davening together?