Writing on Shabbos
Question #1: Writing with my mouth!?
Is writing with a pen in my mouth considered writing?
Question #2: Disappearing ink
May I use disappearing ink on Shabbos?
Writing was one of the 39 melachos performed in the construction of the mishkan. According to most opinions, writing was performed when the boards of the mishkan were marked (see Shabbos 103a,b; Rashi 73a). The Mishnah (103a) mentions that the boards were marked in order to remember exactly in which location each board was placed.
The question is: Since the mishkan’s boards were identical, what difference should it make where each board is placed? This question is already raised by the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbos 12:3), which explains that there is halachic importance that each board be in the exact same place whenever the mishkan was reassembled.
There is a minority opinion that contends that the melacha of writing is derived from the recordkeeping performed for the mishkan (see Shu’t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chayim 199:10). Since the Mishnah already mentions the marking of the boards as a source for the melacha, how and why can any commentary suggest a different reason?
The answer is that this approach was suggested in order to resolve a conundrum. There are rishonim who clearly did not use the Mishnah’s example of marking the mishkan boards as the source of the melacha of writing. The acharonim who discuss this question note the following:
When the Mishnah states that the melacha of writing is derived from the labeling of the boards, it is explaining the opinion of a minority tanna, Rabbi Yosi, who holds that there is a melacha called rosheim, or marking. The Avnei Neizer demonstrates that there are rishonim who definitely hold that the tanna kamma who disagrees with Rabbi Yosi did not derive the melacha of writing from the boards; therefore, these rishonim must have another option from which the melacha of writing is derived. The Avnei Neizer suggests that the melacha was derived from the necessity of keeping good records regarding the contributions donated to the construction of the mishkan.
In general, there are two levels for violating any of the melachos of Shabbos. There is a greater degree of violation, called chayov, which includes performing a melacha with the minimum amount necessary, called the shiur. There is also a lesser degree of violation, called patur, which includes performing the melacha activity but in a quantitatively smaller way, called pachus mi’keshiur, literally, less than the minimal amount. Patur also includes activities that are forbidden to perform because of rabbinic injunction.
What difference does it make whether something is chayov, punishable, or patur, non-punishable? There are several halachic differences that result. Here are three:
1. At the time that the Sanhedrin existed, a special beis din, composed of 23 judges, would take forceful legal action against someone who desecrated Shabbos in a punishable way, but they would not take action if the act was non-punishable.
2. Is someone who violates Shabbos negligently required to offer a korban chatos as atonement? If the act is chayov, the perpetrator is obligated to offer a korban chatos. If not, it did not cross the threshold required to offer a korban chatos, notwithstanding that it violated a Torah law.
3. Under certain circumstances, it might be permitted to ask a gentile to perform the act.
Regarding the melacha of writing, the violation of the higher degree is when someone writes two letters of the alphabet. Someone who writes only one letter has performed a non-punishable offense, unless his one letter completed a work, such as it was the last letter of a sefer Torah (Shabbos 104b).
Someone who writes one letter is not chayov for violating the melacha even when it is an abbreviation of a word. For example, in the time of the Mishnah, someone might mark a bin containing maaser produce with a single letter mem מ. Despite the fact that everyone seeing this single מ on a bin will realize that this is a code for an entire word, someone who marked the bin with a letter מ is not chayov for Shabbos desecration, but is guilty of a lesser prohibition, that of writing pachus mi’keshiur.
Notwithstanding that writing less than the shiur is deemed non-punishable, it is forbidden, and its violation should not be treated lightly.
Writing with my mouth!?
At this point, we can discuss our opening question: Is writing with a pen in my mouth considered writing?
The Mishnah (Shabbos 103b) mentions other instances in which the act is not chayov; for example, someone wrote two letters in different places in a way that they cannot be read together, or he wrote in a way that people usually do not write, such as by holding the pen in his mouth.
Writing with your mouth
We have all heard of extremely talented artists who succeed in doing things that we would consider well-nigh impossible, such as drawing paintings with their toes or with a quill held between their teeth.
Actually, this incredible skill is not new. In the days of the Rama of Fanu, an early- seventeenth century Italian gadol, mekubal, and posek, there was a scribe who wrote sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos by holding the quill in his mouth. He wrote gorgeous sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos, but the halachic question was whether they were kosher. Some background to the issue is necessary:
The Mishnah (103b) lists many cases that are not prohibited min haTorah, including writing by holding the pen between the toes, with one’s mouth, by holding it in the joint between his forearm and upper arm (the opposite side of the elbow), or by holding a pen upside-down (thus, writing by twisting your arm backwards – don’t try it, it is a rather uncomfortable way to write). The Gemara adds that someone who writes with his weaker hand, such as a right-handed person who writes with his left hand, is patur from performing a punishable melacha.
Our opening question is now clearer. The poskim rule that just as writing in an unusual fashion does not qualify as an act of writing to desecrate Shabbos (min haTorah), sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos written this way are not written correctly and are invalid. Similarly, the Rama of Fanu ruled that the beautiful sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos written by holding the quill in the sofer’s mouth are not kosher.
Can you write by erasing?
There are circumstances in which a letter is created by erasing. For example, the Hebrew letter reish needs to be written, and at the moment its place is taken by a dalet or a tav. If you erase the extra piece and thus create a reish, have you desecrated Shabbos?
Let me explain this question in more detail: There is a principle germane to the laws of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos that the letters must be written and cannot be scraped into existence. This case shows a perfect example: someone wrote a dalet where a reish is required, then scraped off the extension and point of the dalet to construct a reish. This is referred to as chok tochos and, unfortunately, sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos so made are invalid.
The question is: Does the creation of a letter on Shabbos by chok tochos constitute writing germane to the laws of Shabbos, or does it constitute only a rabbinic violation?
Several authorities, both rishonim and acharonim, rule that a letter written by erasing violates the melacha of writing on Shabbos min haTorah (Ran, Or Zarua, Shu’t Avnei Neizer, Orach Chayim #207).
How were the boards marked?
I mentioned above the Mishnah that teaches that the boards were marked to be able to tell where each board should be placed when the mishkan was reassembled.
There is an interesting dispute between Rashi and the Rambam regarding how the boards of the mishkan were marked. According to Rashi (Shabbos 73a), each board was marked with a letter or symbol, with the two boards that were to be inserted into the same silver socket carrying the same symbol. The melacha is derived from the juxtaposition of two letters providing knowledge how to place the two boards.
The Rambam’s opinion is that the boards were numbered consecutively, using the same system we would use today to write numbers using Hebrew letters. Thus the eleventh board was mark יא and the nineteenth יט (Commentary to Mishnah Shabbos 12:3). He does not explain why we cannot derive that writing even one letter is chayov, since the first ten boards were identified with only one letter. It seems that, in his opinion, Chazal understood that one letter, which does not form a word in Hebrew, cannot be enough writing to be chayov. According to Rashi, the requirement to write two letters to be chayov is itself derived from the construction of the mishkan.
Writing other than Hebrew
Some rishonim contend that the prohibition against writing on Shabbos is violated min haTorah only when using Hebrew characters (Rabbeinu Yoel Halevi, quoted by Or Zarua, Hilchos Shabbos #76, and Hagahos Maimoniyos, Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:40 and Hilchos Tefillin, 1:70). According to these rishonim, writing in other alphabets is prohibited only because of a rabbinic injunction. Although most rishonim, including both Rashi (Shabbos 103a) and the Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 11:10), clearly dispute this, contending that writing in any alphabet is prohibited min haTorah, the Rema (Orach Chayim 306:11) rules according to the Or Zarua that writing in other alphabets is prohibited only because of a rabbinic injunction (cf. Beis Shmuel 126:1 and Magen Avraham 340:10). Upon this basis, some later poskim permit having a non-Jew use a western alphabet on Shabbos for the benefit of a Jew (See Shu’t Noda Biyehudah, Orach Chayim 2:29).
A requirement of most melachos is that the act involved must have a lasting result. For example, tying a knot that can last for only a matter of hours is not prohibited on Shabbos.
Germane to the melacha of writing, the Mishnah (Shabbos 104b) discusses this topic:
Someone who writes with ink, with a paint pigment, with sikra (a red dye), with tree-exudate gum, or with ferrous sulfate, or anything else that makes a permanent impression (is chayov).
The Tosefta (Shabbos 12:6) and other authorities add several other instances that are considered permanent: writing with pencil, coal, paint, shoe polish, tree sap, pomegranate peels, or congealed blood. (It is perhaps significant that the Rambam omits the case of congealed blood, a point raised by the Biur Halacha [340:4 s. v. bamashkin]. Biur Halacha leaves this issue unresolved.)
On the other hand, the Mishnah also mentions several types of writing that are deemed temporary and therefore only rabbinic violations of Shabbos. The Mishnah (103b) records the following instances of writing that qualify as temporary: “Someone who wrote with liquids (Rashi explains this to mean a berry juice with a black color), with fruit juices, with mud (or, alternatively, he used his finger to mark lettering in dust [Rashi]), with the residue left in an inkwell, or with any other substance that does not last is patur.”
Two great recent authorities apparently were involved in debating this exact question. Sometime in 1977, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach paid a house visit to the posek of the eidah hachareidis, Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, and the two great authorities began discussing the question concerning how long a period of time must writing last to be considered permanent. Notwithstanding that both great leaders viewed one another with utmost respect, they disagreed very strongly over the halachic conclusions to be drawn from the evidence.
In a previous article discussing the laws of dyeing, we discussed how permanent you must color something to violate the laws of Shabbos min haTorah. Most authorities contend that violating the law min haTorah requires that the color last only to the end of Shabbos. Germane to the laws of writing, many authorities rule that the definition of permanent is the same: Any writing that will last until Shabbos is over is prohibited (see Shu’t Minchas Yitzchok 7:13-15). However, other authorities rule that writing is more lenient than dyeing, which means that the length of time that a written message needs to last to violate a Torah prohibition is longer than the length of time required for a dye (Minchas Shlomoh 1:91:11; Rashba, Shabbos 115b; Biur Halacha, 340:4 s. v. Bemashkin).
Why should writing require a longer amount of time to be prohibited min haTorah than dyeing?
In writing, the goal is to provide communication, either to yourself as a reminder, or to someone else. If a person is writing a reminder, he probably needs the information to last for a few days, and therefore writing in a way that will not last this long does not violate the Torah prohibition.
I have in my possession a pen called a Shab-eit. This product was manufactured to assist security or medical personnel who are required to write on Shabbos because of pikuach nefesh situations. The instructions on the pen quote the words of the Mishnah, “Someone who wrote with liquids, with fruit juices, with mud, with the residue left in an inkwell, or with any other substance that does not last is patur,” with the notation that usage of the Shab-eit is prohibited miderabbanan on Shabbos. The package insert explains that state that anything written with the pen will become hard to read and will completely disappear within a few days, depending on the type of paper on which it is written. They note that, based on the company’s experience, the writing will remain on regular writing paper for about three days, and therefore use of the Shab-eit is advised for medical and security personnel required to write things on Shabbos because of life-threatening emergencies. The recommendations are to write on Shabbos in as limited a way as one can using this marker, and after Shabbos to rewrite or photograph what was written. They also suggest checking before Shabbos to see how long it lasts on the type of paper that will be used. As I discovered, on some types of paper this ink will disappear within hours, potentially rendering it useless.
The package includes a note that using this pen on Shabbos in the above-mentioned circumstances is based on piskei halacha of Rav Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach and Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, whose responsa on the subject they reference.
The Mishnah (104b) teaches: “Someone who writes on his own skin is chayov. Someone who scratches on his skin: Rabbi Eliezer rules that he is chayov, whereas the Sages rule that he is patur.”
What is the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages?
According to most opinions (Rashi on Rif, Ran, Reshash), they are discussing someone who took a pin or thorn and “wrote” by scratching some letters or a brief message into his skin. Rabbi Eliezer considers this to be an act of writing, whereas the Sages rule that he is exempt from a Torah violation for writing since this is not considered a normal way to write (Rambam, Ran). The halacha follows the Sages that he is exempt from a Torah violation (Rambam), although this is prohibited on Shabbos as a rabbinic injunction. It is also a valid question why this is not chayov for the Shabbos violation of drawing blood. I hope to answer this question in a future article.
The Torah commanded us concerning the halachos of Shabbos by giving us the basic categories that are prohibited. Shabbos is a day that we refrain from altering the world for our own purposes, but instead allow Hashem’s rule to be the focus of creation by refraining from our own creative acts (Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s Commentary to Shemos 20:10). By demonstrating Hashem’s rule even over non-exertive activities such as writing, we demonstrate and acknowledge the true Creator of the world and all it contains.