Erasing on Shabbos

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Question: Erasing off my hand

On Friday, I wrote a short reminder on my hand. May I rub it off on Shabbos?

Introduction:

In a previous article, we analyzed the prohibition of writing on Shabbos. We discovered that this melacha was performed in the process of building the mishkan – either when they marked the boards, to make sure that they were placed in the proper location, or, according to another opinion, when they kept records. This does not explain why the activity of erasing, mocheik, is a melacha. Rashi (73a) explains that erasing is a melacha because sometimes the person doing the marking made an error that required correction. Thus, the erasing was in order to write the correct numbering. This leads directly to our next point:

Erasing in order to write

When the Mishnah lists the various melachos of Shabbos, it states, “There are 39 categories of melacha: Someone who plants, or plows, or reaps, or gathers, or threshes, or winnows, or selects, or grinds, or sifts, or kneads, or bakes. Someone who shears wools, or launders it, or cards it, or dyes it, or spins… someone who traps a deer, or slaughters it, or skins it… or tans the hide, or smooths it, or cuts it to size, or writes two letters, or erases with the intent of writing two letters, or builds, or razes, or extinguishes, or someone who kindles.” The amount of detail for the melacha of erasing, relative to the other melachos, stands out; most of the melachos are described in Hebrew by one word, without referencing another melacha or a quantity. Yet, when mentioning the melacha of mocheik, erasing, the Mishnah limits the melacha to someone who “erases with the intent of writing two letters.” To explain why the Mishnah uses this unusual way of describing mocheik requires some introduction:

1. When discussing the laws of Shabbos, Chazal were careful to use two terms: chayov, culpable, and patur, exempt. Chayov means that, when the Sanhedrin was fully functional, these acts were punishable, and, when performed negligently, require the offering of a korban chatos.

2. A principle germane to all the laws of Shabbos is that someone violates Shabbos min haTorah only when the action has a direct, positive result. If the act appears to be unconstructive, it is prohibited only because of a rabbinic injunction and not min haTorah. For example, digging a hole because of a need for fill dirt to cover a spill or the exposed roots of a plant is exempt min haTorah from violating the melacha of choreish, plowing. This is because creating this hole in the ground is not a positive act. Digging a holeis a Torah violationonly when it is either part of an act of plowing – in order to plant or otherwise benefit a plant –  in which case it constitutes the melacha of choreish;or when it is part of a construction, in which case it constitutes the melacha of boneh, building. In both of these instances, the hole is itself beneficial.

Erasing does not, in and of itself, provide benefit. It is considered beneficial when (1) you are interested in writing on the paper and to do so you need to erase something, or (2) when there is a mistake on the paper that you need to correct by erasure. When the erasing itself does not provide benefit, the act violates Shabbos only because of a rabbinic injunction. This is why the Mishnah states that erasing is chayov when it is performed in order to write. This type of erasing is a positive act and, therefore, a Torah violation.

–When the erasure is “positive,” but you do not intend to write anything – as in the second case mentioned above – is that chayov for the melacha of erasing? That is a dispute among poskim that we will discuss shortly.

Why two letters?

The Mishnah states that violating the melacha of erasing requires the intention to write two letters on the erasure. As the Mishnah states, someone is chayov for violating the melacha of koseiv only when he writes two letters. Writing less than two letters is not substantive enough for a person to be culpable. Since erasing alone is not considered a constructive act, the person is liable only when the erasure clears enough area to write two letters.

Note that it does not state in the Mishnah how many letters must be erased to violate the melacha. It states how much space must be erased – enough space to write two letters.

What is the halacha if someone erased just one letter, but it was large enough to write two letters in its place? Is the person who performed this act guilty of violating the melacha? The Mishnah implies that this act would be chayov.

This question is raised by the Tosefta, which states that, indeed, someone who erased a letter large enough to write two letters, is culpable for violating the melacha when his intention is to write two letters in its place. The Tosefta (Shabbos 12:7, quoted by the Gemara) notes that this results in an anomalous conclusion: “Someone who writes one large letter, even though it is as big as two letters, is exempt from having committed a transgression on Shabbos, whereas someone who erases one letter that is as big as two letters desecrates Shabbos. Rabbi Menachem berabbi Yosi said: This is a stringency of erasing that does not exist with writing.”

Erasing stricter than writing?!

The Tosefta is emphasizing that although, in general, there are more ways of violating the melacha of writing than there are of violating the melacha of erasing, this is an instance in which someone could be chayov for erasing, whereas a parallel act of writing would not be chayov.

Erasing scribble

Actually, there are at least two other instances when erasing is treated more strictly than writing. One situation is that of someone who erased scribble in order to write in its place. Since the goal of the melacha of erasing is to write, it makes no difference whether someone erased letters or scribble – in both instances he is chayov for violating the Torah’s melacha (Rosh, Shabbos 7:9; Tur, Orach Chayim 340). On the other hand, someone who scribbles does not violate the melacha of writing min haTorah, since he did not write any form of communication.

Left-handed erasing

Here is yet another case in which erasing is treated more strictly than writing. Although we learned in a previous article that someone who writes with his non-dominant hand has not violated the Torah prohibition of writing, since this is not the usual way to write, this rule applies only to melacha activities that require dexterity. According to most authorities, erasing is not considered a melacha that requires such dexterity, and, therefore, someone who erases with his non-dominant hand violates the melacha min haTorah, assuming that he is erasing for the purpose of writing two letters (Chayei Odom 9:2; Mishnah Berurah 340:22; Shu”t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chayim 209:9). We should note that one early acharon, the Elyah Rabbah (340:11), appears to disagree, suggesting that there is no difference between writing and erasing in this regard.

Permanence

Germane to writing, the Mishnah (Shabbos 104b) teaches: “Someone who writes two letters… is chayov, whether he writes with ink, with a paint pigment, with sikra [a red dye], with tree-exudate gum, with ferrous sulfate, or with anything else that makes a permanent impression.”

This requirement – that one is chayov for the melacha only if performed with, or on, an item that results in permanent writing – holds true both for the melacha of writing and for the melacha of erasing. In other words, someone who erased writing that is temporary, or that was written on material that is not lasting, does not violate the melacha of erasing min haTorah. For example, if someone erases writing on a leaf that soon will dry up, he violates a rabbinic injunction but is not chayov (see Tosefta, Shabbos 12:7).

There is a halachic curiosity here: Since the melacha of erasing is for the purpose of writing, or alternatively, when the erasing itself creates something positive, why is this melacha violated only when erasing permanent writing? Erasing temporary writing is also necessary, sometimes, to accomplish a positive result, whether it is to write in its place or for a different positive purpose.

I have not found this question asked by the traditional authorities. It seems to me that the answer is that erasing something temporary is not significant enough to constitute a violation of a Torah law.

Erasing one letter

I mentioned above that the Mishnah implies, and the Tosefta states explicitly, that someone who erases one letter that is large enough to write two letters in its place, with the intent of writing two letters there, is liable for erasing on Shabbos. The Sefas Emes (Shabbos 75b) queries whether someone who erased a space large enough to write two letters, but his intention is to write only one letter, is chayov or not. He does not reach a definite conclusion.

Correction fluid

Using correction fluid (often called “Wite-Out,” which is the brand name of one such product), when done to enable rewriting, is prohibited min haTorah.

Coating white

The Pri Megadim (Mishbetzos Zahav 340:1) rules that if someone takes a dark piece of wood or other material and whitewashes its surface so that he can write on it, he violates mocheik min haTorah – because this act is equivalent halachically to erasing a dark surface for the purpose of writing on it.

Erasing a tattoo

One acharon discusses whether erasing a tattoo on Shabbos violates the melacha of mocheik. He rules that to do this on a Jew is a violation of Shabbos min haTorah – according to the authorities who hold that an erasure for a positive benefit other than writing is chayov. However, erasing a non-Jew’s tattoo is not a violation of mocheik, according to the Minchas Chinuch. (I am unsure how a tattoo can be erased. I have been told that there are several methods, such as using lasers to break down the ink, or rubbing salt or lemon juice and then applying some ointment.)

Ink on sikra

The Gemara (Gittin 19a) teaches that someone who writes with dark ink on top of writing that was red violates two melachos: erasing and writing. His act is considered to have erased the original red writing and then to have written in dark ink on top of the erasure.

Ches and two zayins

In the Ashkenazi script used for sifrei Torah, the letter ches is written as two zayins with a tiny cap (similar to an upside-down “v”) connecting them. The Gemara rules that someone who removes this “cap,” thereby creating two zayins, is chayov. The Bavli (104b) rules that he violated one melacha, whereas the Yerushalmi (7:2) rules that he violated both koseiv and mocheik in doing this. Similarly, the Yerushalmi holds that someone who scraped off the corner of a dalet, thereby making it into a reish, violated both melachos, koseiv and mocheik.

Crying over spilled ink

Someone spilled ink intentionally onto a written passage so that it can no longer be read. Does this constitute the melacha of erasing min haTorah? It would appear that it violates the melacha only as a rabbinic injunction, since no improvement resulted from his action (Shu”t Maharshag 2:41).

Erasing wet ink

The authorities disagree as to whether erasing ink or other pigment that has not yet dried violates the melacha of erasing min haTorah. Some contend that this is not chayov, because the writing is not yet permanent; at this stage, it can easily smear and become illegible (Minchas Chinuch, Koseiv #10; Shu”t Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim 1:65).

Erasing on Yom Tov

Writing and erasing are both prohibited on Yom Tov, although kindling a fire for warmth or cooking is permitted. This has an interesting application: Is it permitted to use newspaper to kindle a fire on Yom Tov? Is burning the writing on the paper considered erasing? Certainly, this does not constitute erasing min haTorah, since you will not have any paper to write on when you are finished, and therefore the results are not considered positive, as explained above. Despite that fact, the Pri Megadim (Mishbetzos Zahav 511:2) prohibits burning paper that has lettering on it on Yom Tov, because it is considered mocheik miderabbanan.Although cooking and related food preparatory melachos are permitted on Yom Tov, erasing for a non-food purpose is not.

Only in order to write?

Above, I quoted a statement of the Tosefta that erasing a large letter so that you can write two letters in its place is chayov. As a rule, erasing violates Shabbos min haTorah because it is a preparatory melacha to writing. Is this a concept unique to the melacha of erasing, or is it part of the general rule that a melacha must have a positive result to be chayov, and erasing does not usually have, in and of itself, a positive result?

This question appears to be the subject of a dispute between major authorities.

Here is an example of a case that is affected by this dispute. Someone has a mezuzah, sefer Torah or Tefillin in which an extra letter is written. As is, it cannot be used until the extra letter is erased, but once the letter is removed, it is perfectly kosher. Thus, erasing the letter is not for the purpose of writing, but renders a tikun, a positive result. The Pri Megadim (Eishel Avraham 340:7), suggests that erasing the letter is prohibited min haTorah, whereas, according to Tosafos, as explained by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Gilyon Hashas, Shabbos 73b s.v. Vetzarich), it is not. Tosafos appears to understand that since the melacha of mocheik in the mishkan was in order to rewrite, that is the only category of erasing that is prohibited min haTorah; the Pri Megadim assumes that any erasing that produces a positive result is included in the Torah violation.

Evidence to the Pri Megadim’s position can be rallied from a passage of Gemara (Shabbos 149a) which prohibits reading a list of guests that you intend to invite on Shabbos or a list of courses that you intend to serve. This prohibition is because of a rabbinic concern that the host may realize that he invited too many guests (or have too many courses) and decide to erase a name from the list, so that the butler does not go to invite that guest. (Apparently, invitations were neither printed nor delivered before Shabbos, but were delivered orally via courier on Shabbos itself.)

The Gemara’s statement implies that the erasing would be prohibited min haTorah because it produces a positive result. If not, and the erasing is prohibited only miderabbanan, we would not make a gezeirah in this instance since the concern is only that someone will violate a rabbinic prohibition (Chazon Yechezkel 12:7; see there that he endeavors to answer the question).

Wiping ink off your hands

Is wiping ink off your hands prohibited because of mocheik?

There is a dispute among late poskim whether wiping writing or even smudges off your hands is prohibited because of mocheik. The Chayei Odom (Hilchos Netilas Yadayim 40:8) rules that if your hands are smudged on Shabbos, say, from pots, and there is a concern that washing netilas yadayim upon arising in the morning or prior to eating bread might remove the stains, it is still permitted to wash them since you are not trying to remove the smudges and it is not definite that they will be erased. (This is referred to in halachic parlance as eino miskavein without a pesik reisha.) The Chayei Odom forbids scrubbing your hands clean, because this constitutes mocheik – although he agrees that this does not violate mocheik min haTorah, but only miderabbanan, because you are not wiping off the smudge in order to write on your hands. (Indeed, if you were wiping your hands clean in order to write on them, this scrubbing would be prohibited min haTorah as mocheik.)

In a similar vein, the Minchas Shabbos (80:199) rules that on Friday you should be careful not to use ink or dyes that will remain on your hands on Shabbos. If you did use such ink or dye, and it is still on your hand on Shabbos, and you are embarrassed by it, he permits you to remove it on Shabbos because of kavod haberiyos, the basic dignity to which human beings are entitled. He quotes other authorities who prohibit removing the ink from your hands and even prohibit washing the stained parts of your hands under these circumstances, ruling that you should wrap the writing in cloth or bandages. (From a netilas yadayim perspective, this is permitted when you have an injury that you want to keep clean. It is a chiddush to apply that law to this case.)

However, the Maharsham (Kuntrus Ahavas Shalom, end of Minchas Shabbos #4) disagrees with both the Chayei Odom and the Minchas Shabbos, contending that although it is prohibited miderabbanan to erase any ink or smudges, even when you have no intent to write on that place, the rabbinic prohibition applies only to removing ink or dye, but not to removing dirt, which would usually be considered cleaning and not erasing.

Conclusion

The Torah commanded us concerning the halachos of Shabbos by giving us the basic categories that are prohibited. Shabbos is a day on which we refrain from altering the world for our own purposes; instead, the rule of Hashem becomes the focus of all of creation. We contribute to this by refraining from any activity that implies that we have control over the universe (Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s Commentary to Shemos 20:10).

By demonstrating Hashem’s rule even over non-exertive activities, such as erasing, we demonstrate and acknowledge the true Creator of the world and all it contains.