Playing Scrabble on Shabbos
Writing is counted among the melachos prohibited on Shabbos, because each board of the Mishkan was marked in order to return it to its correct place whenever the Mishkan was reassembled. Erasing is a melacha because the numbers written on the boards were sometimes erased when a board was improperly marked (Rashi, Shabbos 73a).
Permanent writing is prohibited min haTorah, while temporary writing is prohibited only miderabbanan. “Writing” is permitted when no letters are formed at all. Thus, one may form letters in the air and one may communicate in sign language on Shabbos. Writing in an unusual way, such as with one’s weaker hand, is prohibited miderabbanan, although erasing with one’s weaker hand is prohibited min haTorah, since it is not difficult to do so. Writing on frosty windows and using disappearing ink or invisible ink on Shabbos is prohibited miderabbanan. The poskim discuss whether eating icing in the form of letters is considered erasing; the Mishnah Berurah rules that although one may bite through the letters, when cutting the cake, one should preferably slice between the letters and not through them. I will shortly explain the distinction between slicing between the letters and biting through them.
MAY I PLAY SCRABBLE ON SHABBOS? IS THIS CONSIDERED WRITING AND ERASING?
Discussing the halachic issues as to whether or not one may play the game of Scrabble on Shabbos provides an opportunity to address some other aspects of the laws of writing. As we will see, there is not only a question as to whether or not this constitutes writing, but an additional concern as to whether it could potentially cause one to write.
Two potential writing issues are involved with Scrabble. First, is placing existent letters to form words considered writing? Perhaps writing requires actually forming the letters and not merely placing letters next to one another. Similar shaylos exist with educational toys or puzzles that form words, or combination locks that open by sliding numbers or letters into a certain sequence. In all of these cases, the question is whether forming a word or a code by moving letters together constitutes writing. Similarly, if this is considered writing, does separating the letters constitute erasing?
Scrabble also involves a second shaylah: May one play games on Shabbos where the score is usually kept by writing? Is this prohibited because of concern that one might forget and write on Shabbos?
One of the early poskim, the Levush, ruled that it is a Torah violation to open and close a book on Shabbos that has words stamped on the edge of its pages (Levush 340:4). In his opinion, opening the book and thereby breaking the letters in this way violates a Torah prohibition of erasing; closing the book and reconstituting the letters violates writing.
Similarly, assembling or disassembling letters of puzzles and games is prohibited according to the Levush, since one is “writing” by moving the puzzle pieces together and “erasing” by separating them. Other poskim add that the Levush would also prohibit opening and closing a book where the page edges are decorated since this is considered erasing and redrawing the decoration (Machatzis HaShekel 340:6). According to this analysis, it is prohibited to assemble or disassemble a jigsaw puzzle or a child’s picture puzzle on Shabbos, since doing so creates a picture, which is “writing” according to this opinion.
Other poskim disagree with the Levush for two reasons:
(1) There are divergent opinions as to whether moving letters or parts of letters together is considered writing. Writing is forming letters of communication. These authorities contend that bringing existent letters or parts of letters together is not considered writing and is permitted on Shabbos.
The Levush, who contends that creating letters or words is considered writing, even if one creates them from existent letters, disputes this exact point.
(2) Opening or closing the pages of a book is not a melacha, since the book is meant to be opened and closed, just as opening or closing a door is not considered destruction and construction (Shu’t Rama #119; Taz 340:2). Opening and closing a door is considered using the door and not the building or destruction of a house. Similarly, someone opening and closing the pages of a book is using it; this is not considered erasing and writing the words on the edges.
Presumably, the Levush contends that there is a major difference between opening and closing a door, which is using it in a normal way, and opening a book with writing on its edges. The writing and erasing that takes place on the edge of the book cannot be considered the normal, integral usage of a book (because it happens incidentally to opening the book), and therefore it is an act of writing and erasing on Shabbos.
Although some poskim agree with the Levush (Magen Avraham 340:6; Chazon Ish 61:1), the majority rule leniently. The Mishnah Berurah concludes that, although the halacha is not according to the Levush, one should preferably be stringent, if one has a different book available (340:17). The same ruling might be applied to puzzles on Shabbos. An adult should preferably not play with a puzzle on Shabbos, if he has an alternate diversion. According to all opinions, one is not obligated to prevent a child from playing with a puzzle on Shabbos, although one should preferably not help him assemble the puzzle (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 443).
Rav Pesach Frank and others contend that even the Levush agrees that bringing together two complete letters does not constitute writing, because his whole argument concerns joining and separating letter fragments. The letters on the side of a book are obliterated each time the book is opened and recreated every time it is shut. However, separating two letters from one another is not erasing, nor is returning letters adjacent to each other considered writing (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Tel Harim, Meleches Koseiv #4).
SOME DIFFICULT QUESTIONS
Rav Frank’s explanation resolves several questions on the Levush’s opinion. Rashi explains that erasing was a melacha in the Mishkan because the person marking the board sometimes erred and wrote the wrong number on a particular board. Since that number then needed to be erased and corrected, erasing is categorized as a melacha (Rashi, Shabbos 73a). However, if separating letters is considered erasing, then erasing was performed every time the Mishkan was disassembled and the adjacent numbers that indicated the order of the planks were separated from one another. Since this simpler case is not mentioned by Rashi, one may infer that merely separating two numbers does not constitute erasing, and that placing two numbers of letters together does not constitute writing (Shu’t Rama #119).
Another question resolved by Rav Frank’s approach requires an introduction. Someone who violates Shabbos negligently must bring a korban chatas if he wrote two or more letters. Although writing less than two letters is also forbidden min haTorah (Rashi, Shabbos 74a; however cf. Rashbam, Bava Basra 55b), it is not considered significant enough to require a korban. Yet, there is one situation where one is obligated to offer a korban for writing only one letter on Shabbos: when someone writes the last letter of a book, thus completing it, because in this instance the single letter is very significant (Shabbos 104b).
This Gemara is difficult to explain according to the Levush’s position. Since the Gemara is teaching a novel concept, it should have taught the most novel insight possible, which (according to the Levush) is that someone moving one letter closer to another thereby completing a book desecrates Shabbos. By omitting this case and mentioning the case of someone writing the last letter of a book, the Gemara implies that moving the last letter closer is not considered writing on Shabbos, presumably because moving letters together is not considered writing (Taz 340:2).
THE SOLUTION TO THE QUESTION
As we mentioned, Rav Pesach Frank answers these questions by theorizing that even the Levush agrees that bringing together two complete letters does not constitute writing. The Levush is discussing only creating or destroying letters by bringing together or separating parts of letters, such as happens when one opens or shuts a book. However, separating two letters from one another does not constitute erasing, nor does returning them so that they are adjacent constitute writing (Shu’t Har Tzvi, Tel Harim, Meleches Koseiv #4).
According to this approach, even the Levush would agree that spelling words while playing Scrabble does not violate Shabbos, since the letters are complete to begin with. He would, however, prohibit assembling a puzzle where letters are created, but he would be unconcerned about assembling a puzzle in which each letter is on a different piece of puzzle.
Incidentally, this may be the reason why the Mishnah Berurah distinguishes between slicing cake between the letters and through the letters. He may hold that slicing between the letters is not an act of erasing and therefore is permitted, since the letters are not obliterated in the process. However, slicing through the letters is an act of erasing, since it obliterates a letter.
IS THERE ANY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRAVEL AND STANDARD EDITIONS OF SCRABBLE?
In the travel edition of Scrabble, the letters lock in place. Does this have any effect on the halacha?
Some poskim rule that it is prohibited to attach lettering firmly to a paroches on Shabbos (Magen Avraham 340:10 as explained by Igros Moshe). According to this approach, firmly attaching a written item is also considered a form of writing. Although not all poskim agree, it seems that one should follow this approach (Minchas Chinuch; Nishmas Adam). This precludes using a game where letters or numbers snap firmly into place, and prohibits playing Travel Scrabble on Shabbos.
Some combination locks are set up so that they lock or unlock when numbers or letters are rotated until they read a certain code. Will this be a problem according to the Levush?
According to what we explained above, these locks are permissible, even according to the Levush, since the code is formed by moving entire letters and numbers (Shu’t Tzitz Eliezer 13:44).
I borrowed a damaged siddur that has letters torn through the middle. May I place the two parts of the page together on Shabbos in order to read it, or does this constitute writing, since I am “fixing” a broken letter.
At first glance, it seems that this case is dependent on the above-quoted dispute. According to the Levush it should be prohibited to place the two halves of the page together, since one then makes the word legible. However, some poskim contend that even the Levush permits moving two parts of a torn page together, if the word is legible anyway (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:75). In their opinion, the Levush prohibits only creating a letter or word that is otherwise illegible.
Until now we explained the first of the two issues involved in playing Scrabble. Now we will discuss the second shaylah — scorekeeping. May one play games on Shabbos where the score is usually kept by writing? Is this prohibited because of concern that one might forget and write on Shabbos?
Chazal created many gezeiros (Rabbinic prohibitions) out of concern that one may write or erase on Shabbos. For example, they prohibited selling or renting items on Shabbos, lest one record the transaction (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 23:12). Similarly, it is prohibited to weigh or measure on Shabbos (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 23:13), to marry (Beitzah 36b), to perform a pidyon haben (Shu’t Rivash #156; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 339:4), or to make financial calculations in one’s head (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 23:18). All of these are prohibited out of concern that one may jot down some of the information on Shabbos.
Incidentally, even though acquiring things is normally forbidden, someone who finds an ownerless object on Shabbos may keep it, provided, of course, that he does not violate carrying or moving muktzah (Pri Megadim, 371:7 in Eishel Avraham; R’ Akiva Eiger, glosses to Magen Avraham 339:6; Sdei Chemed Vol. 2 pg. 220). Since there is no buyer and no seller, Chazal were not concerned that he would write anything.
Chazal also prohibited reading financial documents on Shabbos because one might correct them. Similarly, Chazal forbade reading a guest list or a menu of what one intends to serve on Shabbos, because one might realize that he does not have enough food and erase an entry (Shabbos 149a; Rambam 23:19).
Among these prohibitions was a takanah prohibiting playing games where writing is part of their regular activity (Chayei Adam 38:11). Therefore, one may not play Scrabble or any other game where people usually keep score. Poskim permit playing chess on Shabbos, even though some people write down their moves. This is permitted because most people do not write down their moves.
The melachos of writing are a prime example of how a person must be fluent in all the halachos of Shabbos in order to understand its far reaching ramifications. Who would have imagined that even after proving that Scrabble is not included in the actual melacha of writing, it is nevertheless forbidden because of a decree that one might write in order to keep score? Studying the halachos of writing and the other melachos of Shabbos help us to appreciate Shabbos more, and get the maximum joy out of this special day.