Mr. T and I were on our way to pick up iBoy from school when we got into an in-depth conversation about the use of loose-leaf teas and French presses on Shabbat. (Don't ask me why, but this is our life -- halacha, kashrut, movies, jokes, bliss!)
I'm a big coffee drinker, and Mr. T is a big tea drinker. The main things that can come up with tea and coffee on Shabbat are borer (separating) and bishul (cooking). Let's start with tea, and I want to mention that all of these "rules" are for Shabbat only and are not necessary to observe on holidays where cooking is allowed.
There are varying opinions about tea on Shabbat, and the Star-K takes the most hard line approach to tea on Shabbat, saying,
One should not use tea/herbal bags or loose teas on Shabbos. This is because tea is part of that group of foods known as kaley habishul, or easily cooked foods. These foods are considered so sensitive to heat since they will cook in circumstances that other foods will not.
Why? Because from picking to factory processing, tea isn't cooked, but rather dried and then packaged in tea bags or sold loose-leaf style. Thus, there are problems with bishul because the water that comes out of your standard urn or hot water pot on Shabbat is hot enough to "cook" the tea leaves, which is forbidden on Shabbat. The way that we avoid this problem is by using multiple kelim or vessels to make the tea. Essentially you have your hot water pot (this is your kli rishon or first vessel), a kli sheni (second vessel), and a kli shlishi (third vessel).
Tea-Making Choreography: The hot water goes from the hot water pot into the kli sheni after which you pour it into the kli shilishi where you put your tea bag.
Why? The idea here comes from Rav Moshe Feinstein z"l, who ruled that by the time the water goes from your hot water pot (kli rishon) to the cup for your tea (kli shlishi), the water is no longer at a temperature that can cook tea leaves.
That being said, you also have to worry about borer (separating) once you've steeped your tea bag and your tea has hit the perfect color/flavor. Why? On Shabbat, borer is forbidden, but only when you're removing bad from good. What does this mean? It means that if I have a bowl of mixed nuts and only want the cashews, I am absolutely forbidden from sitting and removing every nut so only cashews are left in the bowl. I can, however, sit and pick out the cashews as much as I want. So when we apply this to tea, removing the tea bag would be removing the bad -- or what we don't want -- from the good, which is the tea we wish to drink. If the tea bag in your cup is annoying you to no end, you can go ahead and remove it, but only with a spoon and you have to make sure not to squeeze the tea bag as you take it out (that also being a Shabbat prohibition). If you're feeling wary about even this, go ahead and pour your tea into another cup, because in this instance you'll be taking the good from the bad and all is well in the world (except for your sink, which will quickly fill with tons of cups).
For the super paranoid/strict, tea essence seems to be the rule of the road. Mr. T prefers to do tea essence, not because he's super crazy religious, but because it tends to be a bit easier. It took me a long time to really get what "tea essence" was, but if you think of it more as "tea concentrate," you'll be in a good place.
Essentially, you brew tea very strongly before Shabbat, then use the concentrate/essence on Shabbat mixed with water to dilute it to the strength of a normal cup of tea. (Some people also do this with a French press for coffee, but that will be the next installment.) The problem here is how to keep your essence hot over Shabbat if you want hot tea, which would require you to put it on a blech or hot plate throughout Shabbat without removing it because you can't put liquids on to heat up on Shabbat. Oh the problems!
My advice? Learn the choreography, drink your tea fast so the tea bag doesn't bitter your tea, and do it often enough that it becomes old hat!
Stay tuned for the next installment, which is on the use of the French press on Shabbat!