Let me be very clear: One is forbidden to text on Shabbat.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's not clear at all why. While every major posek agrees that one is prohibited from using electronics on Shabbat, the reasons behind that prohibition are not at all clear. Few poskim suggest that electricity is Biblically prohibited, and most use of electronics a rabbinic prohibition of one type or another. Moreover, in my recent visit to the Zomet institute in Alon Shvut, I saw a number of electronic implements that the institute had designed for Shabbat use for very specific purposes (safety, security and health) that according to their poskim are entirely permitted.
So, let us suggest for the sake of argument, that Zomet creates a version of the iPhone that's only permitted for use by doctors on Shabbat. After all, very often doctors need to email specific instructions about care and treatment of their patients. Many doctors in fact use their cellphones for this purpose nowadays. Would teens be able to use those very same cellphones to text their friends? I'm not entirely sure that the answer would be (some day in the future) a resounding "no." Why? Let's look at the curious case of Shabbat makeup.
For women, and especially young women, wearing makeup on Shabbat presents a very challenging hurdle to overcome. Simply put, a woman is not permitted to paint her face on Shabbat. It's a violation of the prohibited Melachah of Tzovea - "dyeing". (A man can't paint his face on Shabbat either. But he also can't paint his face during the week either.)
This can present serious challenges to Orthodox women. Many ladies accustomed to wearing makeup during the week simply feel ugly when they go out without their makeup. Moreover, on Shabbat they're not just running out to the grocery store. They're getting dressed up, going to shul, trying to look their best. And then we tell them, "Sure, look your best. Just don't make up your face, like you usually do." In today beauty-driven culture, not putting on makeup is truly a serious hardship for many women.
And yet, the original sources are pretty clear - from the Gemara all the way up to the Shulchan Aruch. The gemara (Shabbat 95a) writes,
Rambam concurs, writing (Laws of Shabbat 9:13)רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר משום רבי אליעזר, אשה לא תעביר סרק על פניה בשבת מפני שצובעתRabbi Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, a woman may not apply red [coloring] on her face on Shabbat, because that is [considered the Melachah of] dyeing.
At face value, that sounds good. Sounds like Rambam says it's OK. But it's not. This is because when Rambam uses the term פטור - "not in violation", he's only talking about the דאורייתא level - a Torah prohibition. Wherever we find the term, it still means that the activity is rabbinically prohibited. So, according to Rambam, using makeup on Shabbat is not prohibited from the Torah, but is forbidden rabbinically.הצובע חוט שאורכו ארבעה טפחים, או דבר שאפשר לטוות ממנו חוט כזה--חייב. ואין הצובע חייב, עד שיהא צבע המתקיים; אבל צבע שאינו מתקיים כלל, כגון שהעביר סרק או ששר על גבי ברזל או נחושת וצבעו--פטור: שהרי אתה מעבירו לשעתו, ואינו צובע כלום; וכל שאין מלאכתו מתקיימת בשבת, פטור.One who dyes a string the length of four tefachim, or material from which one could weave a string of that length - is in violation [of a Torah prohibition]. And the one who dyes is not in violation, unless the dye is lasting, but dye which does not last at all, like one who applies red or lacquer on copper or brass - is not in violation [of a Torah law]. For one is applying it temporarily, and is not "dyeing" anything. And any activity that is not lasting on Shabbat - is not in violation [of a Torah law].
Shulchan Aruch codifies this rule, writing (Orach Chayyim, 303:25)
Seems pretty cut and dry. No painting the face on Shabbat. No lipstick (which is also prohibited for other reasons), no rouge, blush, eyeliner or any of the other products women use to make themselves beautiful.אסור לאשה שתעביר בשבת סרק על פניה משום צובע. ומטם זה אסורה לכחול בשבת.A woman is forbidden from applying red dye to her face because of [the prohibition of] dyeing. And, for this reason, a she is forbidden from painting her eyes on Shabbat.
Enter the solution of Shabbat Makeup. Shabbat Makeup? How can there be Shabbat makeup? Didn't we just say that painting the face was prohibited? It all starts with a responsa of Rav Moshe Feinstein. Someone asked him about applying powder to the face on Shabbat, and Rav Moshe wrote (Orach Chayim 1:114),
What did Rav Moshe permit here? Did he permit Shabbat makeup? In a later Teshuva, he clarifies that he was talking about colored powders as well.וכן אסור לאשה לצבוע את פניה מדין צביעה. אבל לזרוק את הפאודער האבקה לבן על הפנים שלא מתקיים כלל, אין בזה איסור צביעה. ומלבד זה נראה שלא אסרו העברת סרק אלא מפני שהסרק נדבק יפה בעור הפנים.And furthermore, it is forbidden for a woman to color her face due to the law of dyeing. But, to throw white powder on her face that does not last at all, is not prohibited from the perspective of dyeing. Moreover, it seems that [the Sages] only prohibited dying the face because the dye clings well to the skin of the face.
In an article discussing the matter on the Star-K website, Rabbi Dovid Heber writes,
HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt"l was of the opinion that one may use powdered makeup that is not long lasting. This circumvents the problem of tzovaya. This powder is commonly known as "Shabbos makeup." Rav Moshe only allows the use of certain powders that have been carefully tested to ensure they are not long lasting. HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l disagrees and opines that all makeup may not be applied on Shabbos regardless of how long it lasts. This opinion is more widely accepted by Poskim. According to Rav Shlomo Zalman, all makeup, even "Shabbos makeup," is forbidden to use on Shabbos. One should consult a Rav to determine which opinion one should follow.The article then gives a detailed description of the proper application of the Shabbat makeup. Yet, Rav Moshe was not the only posek to offer a lenient opinion on the issue. Rav Ovadyah Yosef also ruled permissively when he wrote (Yechaveh Daat 4:28),
here as Shaindy applies the Shabbat makeup, telling you not to "dab" - which she then does, and not to paint a line over the eyes, which she also seems to do. To me, the "before" and "after" say all that needs to be said. And, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, who was known as an expert in matters of Shabbat, and wasn't unusually strict, categorically rejected the idea of Shabbat Makeup. But my opinion really doesn't matter on the issue, for a few reasons:ואף על פי שאנו אין לנו אלא פסק מרן השלחן ערוך להחמיר, אבל אין להוסיף לאסור גם נתינת פודרא שאינה מתקיימת כלל, וגם אינה נדבקת בפנים, כמו העברת סרק ואודם שפתים. ולכן יש להתיר נתינת פודרא גם צבעונית, ובלבד שלא תהיה מעורבת במשחה או קרם. וראה לרבינו אליעזר בר נתן, הראב"ן (סימן שנ"ד), שהתחשב להקל בנידון כזה, מטעם שלא יתגנו על בעליהן, בפרט לאשה הרגילה בכך. ובשל סופרים הלך אחר המיקל, כמבואר במסכת עבודה זרה (דף ז' ע"א). וכן פשט המנהג להקל והנח להם לישראל.And even though we only have the ruling of Maran HaShulchan Aruch who is strict, nonetheless we should not add [the prohibition of] place powder that does not last at all, and also does not stick to the face, as in the case of [normal] makeup and lipstick. Therefore, one may permit the application of even colored powder, as long as it is not mixed with any ointment or cream. See also the ruling of Ra'avan, who considered ruling leniently in this matter, taking into consideration the factor that [women] do not become repulsive to their husbands, especially if a woman is accustomed to this. And in matter of Rabbinic [prohibition] we follow the lenient opinion, as we find in Masechet Avoda Zara. And so the custom has spread to be lenient, and "leave it to the Jewish people."
1. Rav Ovadya Yosef and Rav Moshe Feinstein permitted it, and if one wants to rely on their opinion, their shoulders are certainly broad enough.
2. Women already use Shabbat makeup, and take it for granted that it's permitted.
In my Hilchot Shabbat class at Orot, one of the students gave her model lesson on this issue (I actually wrote this piece with the aid of her sheets), and nearly all of the students took it for granted that using this type of makeup is permitted on Shabbat. Moreover, here in Israel there aren't brands of makeup with "hechsherim" like you can get in America. They just buy powdered makeup and apply it with a brush. This, I think, leads us to the most important part of Rav Ovadia's leniency: the last three words - הנח להם לישראל - "leave it to the Jewish people."
He doesn't even finish the sentence or explain what he means. Rabbi Howard Jachter, on his excellent website explains:
The point of departure for the lenient approach is that the prohibition to apply Serek (the cosmetic discussed by the Gemara) is only rabbinic in nature.Thus, Rav Ovadia ruled leniently in this matter for three reasons:
We should note that this is a typical approach of Poskim who seek to present a lenient approach in case of great need. The first step is to demonstrate (if possible) that there is no possibility of violating a Biblical prohibition. Thus, the first step of the lenient argument regarding cosmetics is to prove that the prohibition to apply Serek is only rabbinic in nature and thus there is more room to be lenient than had it been classified as a biblical prohibition...
In this context Rav Ovadia Yosef explicitly states a motivation for adopting a lenient approach to this issue. In Teshuvot Yabia Omer he states that his concern is “Shema Titganeh Ishah Al Baalah”, that domestic tranquility might be disturbed. The source for this idea is the Gemara (Shabbat 64b), which records that Rabi Akiva permitted wives to wear makeup even when they are Niddot, in order to promote Sh’lom Bayit (domestic tranquility) between husband and wife...
In Teshuvot Yechave Da’at, Rav Ovadia refers to the oft-cited Gemara (Pesachim 66a) that states regarding an area of uncertainty with respect to the Halachot governing Korban Pesach, “leave it to the Jewish People, if they are not prophets then they are the children of prophets”. Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. B’nai) adds “and [therefore] observe what they (the Jewish people) do” and that will resolve the uncertainty. Rav Ovadia applies this principle to this situation, as he notes that many women who are meticulously observant rely on the lenient approaches of Rav Moshe and the K’tzot Hashulchan.
We should note that this principle of “if they are not prophets then they are the sons of prophets” applies only to an area of uncertainty in Halacha and only to the practices of those who carefully observe Halacha. The sin of the golden calf clearly demonstrates that it is not an all-embracing principle.
1. It's not a Torah prohibition
2. It's a case of great need
3. People were doing it anyway
Sometimes, the poskim really do follow the people. If there's enough cause and the issue isn't clear-cut, the posek has "wiggle room", and current practice can influence halachic decisions. This type of psak is not for the narrow-shouldered. It takes a person of the stature of a Rav Ovadia Yosef to make this kind of ruling.
Let's return to the issue of texting on Shabbat.
Texting is such a new phenomenon that most adults simply can't relate to using texts as a primary source of communication. Sure, I text, but it's a pain in the neck to me. All those little buttons. I'm not good at it and can never get the spelling right.
The same is not true of young people today. My wife's students are so good at texting that they do it during class, in their pockets, without looking. (Yes, it's really disturbing.) I can't imagine texting someone on Shabbat. Apparently, many young people can't imagine not texting on Shabbat. Using Rav Ovadia's criteria, what about texting?
1. Is it a Torah prohibition? Most poskim say that electronics are only rabbinically forbidden.
2. Is there great need? I don't think so, but apparently the teenagers do.
3. Are people doing it anyway. Apparently they are.
The fact that this is a behavior that we take for granted as prohibited doesn't mean that this will always be true. So, is texting on Shabbat prohibited? Yes it is, without a doubt.
I'm just not so sure that it will be in another fifty years. Or less.