What May I Not Write?
“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?”
“Someone told me that sukkah decorations should not include any pesukim. Is this true? My children bring home decorations like this from school.”
“Does a newspaper containing divrei Torah need to be placed in sheimos?”
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.
3. What items must be placed in sheimos?
The original prohibition against writing Torah she’be’al peh
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 Torah; 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 she’be’kedusha were memorized, and the only parts of the Torah 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 Parshas Toldos (or any other 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, Yeshaya, Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, and Terei Asar) 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 Yisrael. 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 60a).
What 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 that 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 283:1; Shach 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 16).
Both opinions agree that it is prohibited to publish translations of Tanach that will not be used to spread Torah knowledge (Ran, Shabbos 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 pesukim or a beracha on a talis, since writing this pasuk does not serve to teach Torah (Rabbeinu Yerucham, quoted by Beis Yosef, and Taz, Yoreh Deah 283:3. It should be noted that the Levush is more lenient, see Shach 283:6.).
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 destroyed
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 writing.
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!
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 Torah 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 Torah?
Even three words in a row are considered a pasuk that cannot be written without sufficient reason (see Gittin 6b). However, if the letters are improperly or incompletely formed or spelled, it is permitted (Shu’t Tashbeitz #2).
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 one (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 order.
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…vesimachtem” avoiding writing three consecutive words of a pasuk. This is permitted.
Any written dvar Torah has sanctity and must be treated with appropriate dignity. When it will no longer be used, one must be careful to treat it respectfully, including eventually placing it in sheimos. Reference notes that are incomprehensible on their own are not considered divrei Torah and may be placed in the regular trash (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:75).
When is something placed in sheimos?
Placing Hashem’s name or words of Torah into sheimos to bury them is considered a tragedy. Putting sefarim in genizah is permitted only when they are worn out and no longer usable.
The Gemara rules that sifrei Torah that are unusable should be placed in earthenware vessels before burial to forestall their destruction as long as possible (Megillah 26b). This teaches us that burying holy things is permitted only after they have become unusable. Other sefarim do not require being placed in earthenware before burial. It is sufficient to place them in a protective wrapping before burying them.
Quoting pesukim as a writing style
The Ramban and other authors sometimes use the words of pesukim or Chazal out of the original context, as part of their poetic style. If someone wrote a letter using a pasuk this way, must it be treated with appropriate respect like holy writings?
This question is disputed by the early authorities. The Shulchan Aruch rules that such correspondence is not considered divrei Torah, whereas the Shach rules that it is (Yoreh Deah 284:2).
The writer’s intent
Some authorities contend that if a printer or writer did not intend to make sefarim or divrei kedusha, then the item produced does not have kedusha (Shu’t Ein Yitzchak 5:7; Shu’t Masas Binyamin #100; Magen Avraham 334:24). On this basis, Rav Moshe ruled that if the name of Hashem was printed in a secular newspaper, the name has no kedusha at all. However, Rav Moshe ruled that it is preferable to cut the name out of the paper and place it in sheimos (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:172). Similarly, Rav Elyashiv ruled that one is not required to put a newspaper containing divrei Torah into sheimos. However, one should still not treat the dvar Torah with disrespect, such as by putting it directly into the trash (quoted in Ginzei Hakodesh pg. 236). This is based on the assumption that it should not be treated with less dignity than worn-out tzitzis (see Mishnah Berurah 21:7). Rav Vozner rules that one may place the newspaper inside a bag and place it in the garbage. However, he contends that a regular Torah column or Torah section should be placed in sheimos (quoted in Ginzei Hakodesh pg. 253). Apparently, he feels that when there is a regular column or section, the printer knows that he is producing divrei Torah and not just a newspaper.
Others are less strict, requiring only that the paper be wrapped up before being discarded. Others rule that any divrei Torah printed in a newspaper should be placed in sheimos (quoted in Ginzei Hakodesh pg. 154). I’ll allow each reader to ask his own halachic authority what to do.
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, contemporary authorities prohibit this practice, since the invitations end up being treated with lack of dignity, which is worse than being destroyed. 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 to demonstrate Hashem’s honor in the appropriate way!