Writing and erasing are two of the thirty-nine melachos of Shabbos that were performed in the building of the mishkan. Each board used in constructing the mishkan was marked so that it would be returned to its correct place when the mishkan was reassembled (Rashi Shabbos 73a; Gemara Shabbos 103b). (The Talmud Yerushalmi emphasizes the importance that each board be kept in the same place [Shabbos 12:3].) The numbers written on the boards were also sometimes erased if someone made a mistake. Thus, both writing and erasing are included among the melachos, since any important activity performed while constructing the mishkan defines a category of work prohibited on Shabbos (Gemara Bava Kamma 2a).
It is noteworthy that the erasing performed in the mishkan was done specifically with the intention of rewriting. For this reason, erasing is a violation min haTorah only if one intends to rewrite (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 11:9). When erasing in order to leave a clean surface, the prohibition is only midirabanan.
Other writing was performed in the mishkan when the names of the shevatim were engraved on the choshen, and also when calculating the donations and where they were used (Shu”t Avnei Nezer, Orach Chayim 199:10). Since our parsha discusses both the manufacture of choshen and the construction of some of the mishkan’s appliances, we will avail ourselves of this opportunity to discuss some of the halachos that pertain to writing and erasing.
Writing is prohibited on Shabbos min haTorah when it is written with a permanent ink or dye on a surface that will hold the writing permanently. If the writing will not last permanently, then the prohibition to write or to erase is only midarabanan.
WHAT IS CONSIDERED PERMANENT WRITING?
Some poskim contend that writing is permanent if it will last until after Shabbos (Rambam and Magid Mishnah, Hilchos Shabbos 9:13). Others contend that it is considered permanent if it lasts the length of time people usually write notes (Rashba, Shabbos 115b, cited by Biyur Halacha 340:4, s.v. Bimashkin). According to both opinions, writing that disappears after a few hours is only prohibited midirabanan.
Writing on one’s hand is prohibited min haTorah even though it eventually disappears. This is because the writing itself would be permanent if it were not for the body’s warmth dissolving the ink. It is therefore treated as if it was written permanently and then subsequently erased by body temperature (Mishnah Shabbos 104b).
IS IT PERMITTED TO WRITE ON A FROSTY WINDOW?
Although the Torah’s prohibition is violated only with permanent writing, Chazal prohibited temporary writing. Therefore, it is prohibited to write in spilled liquid that is lying on the table, in sand, or in the frost on the window (Shulchan Aruch 340:4 and commentaries).
IS IT PROHIBITED TO WRITE LETTERS IN THE AIR?
This is permitted, since no letters are being formed at all, even temporarily (Rama 340:4).
Question: I was once told that there is no Torah violation in writing a message on Shabbos with ink that appears now, but will disappear shortly. Is this true?
As we mentioned above, there is no Torah violation in writing with ink that will disappear within a few hours. This halacha has major ramifications when dealing with the needs of a Jewish hospital. Recording data is necessary, but if disappearing ink is used until after Shabbos then the prohibition is only dirabbanan. Poskim rely on this if a hospital cannot employ sufficient non-Jewish staff.
Does writing with an ink that cannot be read violate Shabbos?
Although it would seem that this is a modern shailah and a modern invention, we will be surprised to discover that this shailah is at least 1,800 years old. The Gemara tells us the following story, “Rabbi Chiyah bar Abba said ‘The people who live in the east are very clever. When they want to send a secret, they write the message with “Mei milin” (an ink that is not automatically legible). Subsequently, they poured a specially formulated ink on the paper, and presto, the message became legible!’” (Yerushalmi Shabbos, Chapter 12).
The Gemara then asks, “If someone wrote this way on Shabbos, has he violated a Torah prohibition?” The Gemara concludes that pouring the ink violates a Torah prohibition on Shabbos because this makes the writing legible. Whether the first step violates Shabbos is disputed by the poskim. Shu”t Har Tzvi (Yoreh Deah 230) rules that it is prohibited min haTorah, whereas Pri Megadim (340:3 in Mishbetzos Zahav) rules that it is prohibited only midirabanan.
This dispute has an interesting ramification. If this writing is prohibited only midabbanan, writing that cannot be read immediately does not violate a Torah violation. Processing the writing afterwards or adding chemicals to make it legible does not make it a Torah violation of Shabbos. Thus, according to Pri Megadim taking a photograph on film recording information on a computer disk does not violate Shabbos min haTorah. According to Har Tzvi, it would seem that it does desecrate Shabbos min haTorah.
PHOTOGRAPHY ON CHOL HAMOED
Another difference in halacha between these poskim would be whether taking photographs is permitted on Chol HaMoed. In general on Chol HaMoed, one is prohibited from doing melacha activities unless they fulfill some Yom Tov or Chol HaMoed need or they are to avert financial loss. Notwithstanding these rules, it would appear that according to Pri Megadim, one would be permitted to take photos on Chol HaMoed since there is no melacha being performed. It would seem that this lenience would not exist according to Har Tzvi, and photography would only be permitted on Chol HaMoed if it somehow enhances the Yom Tov. According to both opinions, developing the photographs would not be permitted on Chol HaMoed unless Yom Tov was thereby enhanced.
LET THEM EAT CAKE
Is it permitted on Shabbos to eat cake that has letters iced on top, since I am erasing the letters when I eat it?
Again, a seemingly very contemporary shailah goes back hundreds of years. The rishonim record a Shavuos celebration for which cakes were prepared decorated with the letters of the alef-beis and certain tefilos and words of bracha. In a special Shavuos ceremony, these cakes were served to the young children who were just beginning to learn Torah. The children would read the letters and the brachos, and then they would be rewarded by serving them the special cake (Rokayach #296). The question asked why eating the letters does not violate erasing on Yom Tov, since writing and erasing is prohibited on Yom Tov just like Shabbos (Mordechai, Shabbos #369).
Various reasons are suggested why this minhag does not violate the halacha. Some contend that eating is not considered an act of erasing (Taz 340:2), whereas others contend that the melacha of erasing does not apply to food (Shu”t Maharshag 2:41).
Others permit eating the cake for a more complicated reason that requires an introduction. Although eating the cake must result in the erasure of the letters, the person eating did not have intention of erasing. This is halachically categorized as a situation of a “psik reisha,” meaning that a prohibited consequence will definitely result from an act that is otherwise permitted. A psik reisha is usually prohibited; thus in this case, although eating the cake would otherwise be permitted, its consequence, the erasing, is problematic.
Although a psik reisha is usually prohibited, when combined with other mitigating factors it is sometimes permitted. In this instance, there are several different reasons why no melacha min haTorah applies. Although the activity should still be prohibited midirabbanan, when several such mitigating factors combine, we are lenient.
The rationale behind this “heter” is that Chazal forbade activities so that one should not violate, chas v’shalom, a Torah law. However, when there are several different reasons why the Torah law is not violated, there was no need to prohibit this activity.
When someone eats letters, there are three different mitigating factors, each of which on its own removes the erasing from being a Torah violation.
First, the Torah law of erasing on Shabbos is violated only when one intends to write on the erasure, as mentioned above. Obviously, someone who eats letters cannot write subsequently on the “erasure.”
Second, Torah laws are violated only when the melacha has a positive result. In the case of erasing, a positive result would be that one can now write on the erasure, or that a mezuzah that was invalid is now rectified by the erasure. However, eating the cake does not result in any positive results from the erasure.
Third, this is not the way one usually erases. The halacha is that doing any melacha in an atypical way lessens the prohibition from a Torah violation to a Rabbinic injunction.
Therefore, since the erasing is unintentional, performed not in order to write, destructive, and an unusual way to erase, the resultant indirect erasing is permitted. This is the rationale applied by many poskim to explain the Shavuos custom cited above. According to this approach, it is permitted to eat the icing on a cake that includes lettering without concern over whether one is breaking the letters in the process.
However, others rule that although one should not eat these pieces of cake, it is permitted to serve the cake to the children and allow them to eat it themselves (Mordechai, Shabbos #369). Halachically, I need not prevent a young child do a prohibited activity that he is doing for his own benefit (Gemara Yevamos 114a). According to this approach, only a child would be permitted to eat the letters on the cake but not an adult (Rama 340:3).
Mishneh Berurah follows a compromise position between these two opinions, permitting someone to eat the cake while disregarding where the letters are, but suggesting that when slicing the cake that one cut between the letters and not through a letter. As we will explain, cutting between the letters is not considered erasing according to most opinions.
MAKING AN IMPRINT IN LIFE
Most shoes and boots have a manufacturer’s trademark or name engraved on the heel. Is it permitted to traverse snow or mud on Shabbos, knowing that I am making an imprint while I walk? Isn’t this writing on Shabbos?
The contemporary poskim discuss this shailah, and permit it for the same reasons that one was permitted to eat the lettering on the cake. Since I am not intending to write, it is not the normal way of writing letters, and the results are damaging rather than productive. There is another mitigating factor here in that the writing is temporary. Since the situation is more extenuating than eating cake, they rule that one is permitted to walk on snow or mud and ignore the imprint made by the shoe or boot ()=.
WHAT AN EXQUISITE MOUTH-WRITING YOU HAVE!
The following tshuvah shows up in fifteenth= century halacha literature. A scribe was writing exquisitely beautiful sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos. Unfortunately, this scribe had lost his hand in an accident and had taught himself how to write beautiful graphics with his quill in his mouth. Certainly, the scribe was an incredibly talented individual, and many people were using sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos written by this scribe. However, the shailah was raised whether these were kosher.
A great posek of the era, Rav Menachem Azaryah of Fanu (Shu”t # 38) ruled that all the Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos written by this scribe were invalid. His reasoning is that halacha recognizes only items written with one’s stronger hand. For this reason, someone who places a quill in his mouth on Shabbos and writes has not violated a Torah prohibition, since this is not the way people usually write (Mishnah Shabbos 104b). (It is prohibited midarabanan to write this way on Shabbos.) Thus, even if someone has taught himself how to write beautifully by holding the pen in his mouth, it is not considered writing by the Torah, and does not fulfill the mitzvah of “writing” sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos.
Similarly, a right-handed person who writes with his left hand is not considered writing. For this reason, the Gemara rules that someone who writes with his left hand has not violated a Torah prohibition of writing on Shabbos (Shabbos 103a). (Again, this is prohibited midarabanan.)
A WRITING COURSE
Elisheva plans to attend a seminar related to the latest advances in her profession as a speech therapist. Part of the seminar will be given on Shabbos. May she ask one of the non-Jews attending the class to take notes for her?
According to most poskim this is prohibited on Shabbos or Yom Tov, since a Jew may not ask a non-Jew to do work for him that would be prohibited min haTorah for a Jew to do himself. This is because the non-Jew becomes your agent, and I am not permitted to have an agent work for me on Shabbos, even if the agent is not Jewish. Thus, it appears that Elisheva will not be able to have notes taken for her by her non-Jewish colleague.
However, there is a very simple solution to this problem. If Elisheva pays the non-Jew to do the work and specifies that it makes no difference whether the non-Jew performs the work on Shabbos or a weekday, then there is no halacha problem at all, even if the non-Jew did the work for you on Shabbos or Yom Tov. The reason is that once you pay the non-Jew do to the work, they are no longer working as your agent, but because they have their own interest in doing the work. I am still not permitted to ask them to do the work specifically on Shabbos, but as long as they have the option to do the work on a different day, there is no problem if they do the work on Shabbos (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 5:36).
To be continued…