What May I Not Write?

Question #1: Invitations

“I was told that I should not include quotations from pesukim
on my daughter’s wedding invitation. Yet, I see that ‘everyone’ does! Could you
please explain the halacha?”

Question #2: Sukkah Decorations

“Someone told me that sukkah decorations should not
include any pesukim. Is this true? My children bring home decorations
like this from school.”

To answer these questions, we need to explain several halachic
issues, including:

1. The original prohibition against writing Torah
she’be’al peh
, and the later “heter” to write and publish it.

2. The concern about producing divrei Torah
that will not be treated appropriately.

The original prohibition against writing Torah she’be’al

Originally, it was prohibited to write down any Torah
she’be’al peh
(Gittin 60b), except for an individual’s personal
notes recorded for one’s own review (Rambam, Introduction to Mishneh
; see also Rashi, Shabbos 6b s.v. Megilas). The Oral Torah
was not permitted to be taught from a written format. Torah she’be’al peh was
meant to be just that — Torah taught completely without any written text.
Thus, Moshe Rabbeinu taught us the halachos of the Torah orally,
and Klal Yisrael memorized them. Although each student wrote
private notes for the sake of review, the Oral Torah was never taught from
these notes.

The prohibition against writing Torah she’be’al peh included
writing midrashim, prayers and the texts of berachos, as well as
translations and commentaries of the Written Torah, since all these are
considered Torah she’be’al peh. In those times, all these devarim
were memorized, and the only parts of the Torah that were
written were the pesukim themselves.

The Gemara (Gittin 60b) records this halacha
as follows: Devarim she’be’al peh, iy atah resha’ie le’omram bichsav,
“You are not permitted to transmit the Oral Torah in writing.” The Ritva
(ad loc.) explains that this is because divrei Torah taught verbally are
understood more precisely, whereas text learning is often misunderstood.

Another prohibition forbade writing the books of Tanach except
when writing a complete sefer (Gittin 60a). Thus, one could not
write out a parsha or a few pesukim for learning, although it was
permitted to write an entire Chumash, such as Sefer Shemos.
Similarly, one could not write out part of a sefer of Navi to
study or to read the haftarah. In order to recite the haftarahs
regularly, every shul needed to own all of the eight Nevi’im (Yehoshua,
Shoftim, Shemuel, Melachim, Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel,
and Terei
) to read the haftarah from the appropriate sefer.
Similarly, a person who wished to study Shiras Devorah or the prayer of
Channah had to write the entire Sefer Shoftim or Sefer Shemuel.

Why do we no longer abide by this prohibition?

Chazal realized that it was becoming increasingly
difficult for people to learn Torah and to observe certain other mitzvos,
such as reading the haftarah. Therefore, they ruled that the prohibition
against writing Torah must be superseded by the more vital need of keeping
Torah alive among the Jews. This takanah was based on the pasuk, Eis
la’asos laShem heifeiru torasecha,
which is understood to mean “It is the
time to act for Hashem since Your Torah is being uprooted” (Tehillim
119:126). In order to facilitate Torah study, they permitted writing individual
verses and teaching Oral Torah from written texts. (We will refer to this takanah,
or heter, as “eis la’asos.”)

The first part of the Oral Torah to be formally written for
structured teaching was the Mishnah, edited by Rebbe (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi) at
the end of the period of the tanna’im (circa 3960/200 c.e.). To quote
the Rambam, “Rebbe gathered all the laws and explanations that had been
studied and interpreted by every beis din since the days of Moshe
Rabbeinu and organized the Mishnah from them. He (Rebbe) proceeded to teach
publicly the scholars of his generation from this text, so that the Oral Torah
would not be forgotten from the Jewish people. Why did Rebbe change the method
that had been used previously? Because he saw that the numbers of Torah
students were decreasing, the difficulties facing the Jewish people were on the
rise, the Roman Empire was becoming stronger, and the Jews were becoming
increasingly scattered. He therefore authored one work that would be in the
hands of all the students, to make it easier to study and remember the Oral
Torah” (Introduction to Mishneh Torah).

We see that Rebbe instituted the first formalized use of a
text to teach the Oral Torah, because of the new circumstances confronting klal
. After Rebbe’s days, Chazal gradually permitted writing down
other texts, first Aggadah (ethical teachings of the Gemara),
later the entire Gemara, and still later, the explanations and
commentaries on the Gemara.

As a very important aside, we see from the end of the quoted
Rambam, “to make it easier to study and remember the Oral Torah,” that
even though it is now permitted to write down the Mishnah, it is still important
to know the entire Oral Torah by heart.

In the context of the rule of eis la’asos, the Gemara
tells us the following story:

Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakeish (amora’im in Eretz
Yisrael shortly after the time of Rebbe) were studying from a Talmudic
anthology of ethical teachings, a “sefer Aggadah.”

The Gemara asks, “How could they study from such a
book, since it is prohibited to learn Torah from a written text?” The Gemara
replies, “Since it is now impossible (to retain all the knowledge of the Torah
without a written text), ‘it is the time to act for Hashem, since Your Torah is
being uprooted,’” (Gittin 60a). We see that the Gemara initially
assumed that it was still prohibited to study Torah from a written text, except
for the study of Mishnah. The Gemara responded that the prohibition had
been further relaxed because it had become even more difficult to learn Torah
than it had been in the days of Rebbe.

The Gemara relates a similar episode concerning the
recital of the haftarah. As mentioned above, it was originally forbidden
to write part of a book of Tanach, and, therefore, every shul
needed to own scrolls of all the Nevi’im in order to read the haftarahs.
However, as communities became more scattered, making this increasingly
difficult, the Gemara permitted the writing of special haftarah
books that contained only the haftarah texts, but not the text of the
entire Nevi’im. This, too, was permitted because of eis la’asos (Gittin

What else is permitted because of eis la’asos?

We see that in order to facilitate Torah learning, Chazal
permitted the writing of the Oral Torah and parts of the books of the Written
Torah. To what extent did they override the original prohibition?

This is a dispute among early poskim, some contending
that it is permitted to write only as much as is necessary to prevent Torah
from being forgotten. According to this opinion, it is prohibited to write or
print even tefillos that include pesukim when they are not
intended for learning Torah (Rif and Milchemes Hashem, Shabbos
Chapter 16). This opinion also prohibits translating Tanach into any
language other than the original Aramaic Targum, because proper
translations constitute Torah she’be’al peh. In addition, this opinion
prohibits the printing of a parsha of Chumash in order to teach
Torah, since one could write or print the entire sefer (Rambam,
Hilchos Sefer Torah
7:14; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 283:2).

Other poskim permit the writing of any Torah that one
uses to learn. Thus, they permit writing a single parsha in order to
teach Torah (Taz, Yoreh Deah 283:1; Shach, Yoreh Deah 283:3) and
the translating of Tanach into any language. These poskim rally
support to their opinion from the fact that Rav Saadya Gaon wrote sefarim
in Arabic, including commentaries on Tanach (Ran, Shabbos,Chapter

Both opinions agree that it is prohibited to publish
translations of Tanach that will not be used to spread Torah knowledge (Ran,
Chapter 16).

How does this prohibition affect us?

All of the opinions quoted above prohibit writing disparate
parts of the Written Torah and any of the Oral Torah in situations where there
is no Torah benefit. For this reason, early poskim note that one may not
embroider a pasuk or a beracha on a talis, since writing
thisdoes not serve to teach Torah (Rabbeinu Yerucham, quoted by Beis
and Taz, Yoreh Deah 283:3. It should be noted that the Levush
is more lenient, see Shach, Yoreh Deah 283:6.).

Another concern

There is an additional
reason why one should not embroider pesukim on a talis. Since the
talis could be brought into an unclean place, it is not proper to have a
pasuk written on it.

A third concern – causing the words of Torah to be

To explain this concept, we must first introduce a
surprising statement of the Gemara: Ko’sevei berachos kesorfei Torah,
“Those who write berachos (to enable people to recite them) are
considered as if they burnt the Torah” (Shabbos 115b). What does this Gemara
mean? We would think that these individuals have performed a tremendous
mitzvah, since they have enabled people to recite berachos correctly!

This statement was authored at the time when it was still
prohibited to write down the Oral Torah. At that time, it was forbidden to
teach any halachos in written form, even the correct text of a beracha.
Everything had to be taught orally. Therefore, the Gemara states that by
writing a beracha, even without the name of Hashem (Shu’t Tashbeitz
#2), one is violating the halacha by teaching Torah she’be’al peh in

But why is it considered like “burning the Torah”?

This Gemara
introduces a new prohibition. Someone who writes prohibited Torah works is
considered culpable afterwards, if those divrei Torah become consumed by
a fire! Writing unnecessarily, which results in subsequent destruction, is akin
to burning Torah.

We know that it is prohibited to erase or destroy the Name
of Hashem (Shabbos 120b), and that this prohibition includes erasing or
destroying words of Torah and all other holy writings, including notes of Torah
classes, stories of Chazal, sefarim for learning, “benschers,”
etc., even if they do not include Hashem’s Name (Shu’t Tashbeitz
#2). Therefore, even small benschers, tefillos haderech and similar
items published with abbreviated names of Hashem are still considered divrei
imbued with kedusha. For the above reason, one must treat
these items with proper care and dignity and place them in sheimos when
they become unusable.

It is also prohibited to cause an indirect destruction of
words of the Torah or to produce divrei Torah that might subsequently be
destroyed. This prohibition exists whenever there is insufficient reason to
write and publish the divrei Torah. For this reason, the Gemara
states that someone who wrote berachos when it was prohibited to do so
is held responsible, if the words of Torah are subsequently destroyed.

Although, nowadays, we are permitted to write and print berachos
and siddurim to enable people to recite them properly, it is
forbidden to produce these items unnecessarily. It is certainly prohibited to
put pesukim, parts of pesukim, or divrei Torah in places
where it is likely that they will be treated improperly. Both of these reasons
preclude writing pesukim on Sukkah decorations, unless one can assume
that they will be properly cared for.

How much of a pasuk is considered to be divrei

Even three words in a row are considered a pasuk that
may not be written without sufficient reason (see Gittin 6b). However, if
the letters are improperly or incompletely formed or spelled, it is permitted (Shu’t

For this reason, some people print on invitations the
following, Naaleh es Yerushalayim al rosh simchaseinu, “We will place
our memories of Yerushalayim above our celebrations.” This is permitted,
because it is not a quotation of a pasuk, although it is similar to the posuk
in Tehillim 137:5.

There is another solution that may be used: rearranging the
words of the pasuk so that they are not in the correct order. When doing
this, one must be certain that one does not have three words in the proper

I once received an invitation which stated on the cover, Yom
zeh asah Hashem nismecha venagila bo,
“This day was made by Hashem. We
shall rejoice and celebrate on it.” The person who prepared this quotation had
done his halachic research. Although very similar to the pasuk, “Zeh
hayom asah Hashem nagilah v’nismecha bo
” (Tehillim 118:24), the
words of the original pasuk were transposed in such a way that there
were no longer three consecutive words together!

Some authorities permit printing pesukim if marks are
placed between the words, or if the words are not in a straight line. They feel
that these arrangements of words do not constitute pesukim (cf. Shu’t
Tashbeitz #2 who disagrees).

Some producers of “lulav bags” are meticulously
careful not to quote three words of the pasuk in order. Thus, they
write, “Ulekachtem lachem… kapos temarim…usemachtem” avoiding writing
three consecutive words of a pasuk (Vayikra 23:40). This is


Perhaps people who print pesukim on invitations rely
on the fact that this is considered mere poetic writing style, or that the
printer has no intent to produce divrei kedusha. However, recent
authorities prohibit this practice. In Sivan 5750/June ’90, an open letter
signed by the poskei hador warned that advertisements, invitations,
receipts, signs, and raffle tickets should not include pesukim or parts
of pesukim, except when the pasuk is written as part of literary
style, with no connection to its context.

We live in an age of proliferation of written material. Many
pamphlets have the positive value of spreading Torah. We must be careful to
show our honor to Hashem by treating pesukim and divrei Torah
with proper respect. May we always merit demonstrating Hashem’s honor in the
appropriate way!