Writing the Wrong Way
Question #1: Writing in the Air
“May I communicate with someone on Shabbos by making the motions of writing the letters?”
Question #2: Frosty Writing
“May I write my initials on a frosty window on Shabbos?”
Question #3: Asking a Gentile to Write.
Elisheva plans to attend a seminar related to the latest advances in her profession as a speech therapist. Part of the seminar will be given on Shabbos. May she ask one of the non-Jews attending the class to take notes for her?
Writing and erasing are two of the thirty-nine melachos of Shabbos that were performed in the building of the Mishkan. Each board used in constructing the Mishkan was marked so that it would be returned to its correct place when the Mishkan was reassembled (Rashi, Shabbos 73a; Gemara, Shabbos 103b). (The Talmud Yerushalmi [Shabbos 12:3] emphasizes the importance of each board being kept in the same place.) The numbers written on the boards were also sometimes erased, if a mistake was made. Thus, both writing and erasing are included among the melachos, since any important activity performed while constructing the Mishkan defines a category of work prohibited on Shabbos (Bava Kama 2a).
It is important to note that the erasing performed in the Mishkan was done specifically with the intention of rewriting. For this reason, erasing is a violation min haTorah only if one intends to rewrite or intends to effect some other direct, positive result (Rambam, Hilchos Shabbos 11:9; however, cf. Tosafos, Shabbos 73a s.v. hakosheir.)
Other writing was performed in the Mishkan when the names of the shevatim were engraved on the choshen, and also when calculating the donations and where they were used (Shu’t Avnei Nezer, Orach Chayim 199:10). Since our parsha discusses the donations and the construction of the Mishkan and also discusses the writing on Luchos, we will avail ourselves of this opportunity to discuss some of the halachos that pertain to writing and erasing.
Writing, when it is written with a permanent ink or dye on a surface that will hold the writing permanently is prohibited on Shabbos min haTorah. If the writing will not last permanently, the prohibition to write or to erase is only miderabbanan.
WHAT IS CONSIDERED PERMANENT WRITING?
Some poskim contend that writing is permanent if it will last until after Shabbos (Rambam and Magid Mishnah, Hilchos Shabbos 9:13). Others contend that it is considered permanent if it lasts the length of time people usually write notes (Rashba, Shabbos 115b, cited by Bi’ur Halacha 340:4, s.v. Bemashkin). According to both opinions, writing that disappears after a few hours is prohibited only miderabbanan.
Writing on one’s hand is prohibited min haTorah, even though it eventually disappears (Mishnah, Shabbos 104b). This is because the writing, itself, would be permanent, if it were not for the body’s warmth dissolving the ink. It is therefore treated as if it has been written permanently and then subsequently erased by body temperature.
IS IT PERMITTED TO WRITE ON A FROSTY WINDOW?
Although the Torah’s prohibition is violated only with permanent writing, Chazal prohibited temporary writing. Therefore, it is prohibited to write in spilled liquid that is lying on the table, in sand, or in the frost on a window (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 340:4 and commentaries).
IS IT PROHIBITED TO WRITE LETTERS IN THE AIR?
This is permitted, since no letters are being formed at all, even temporarily (Rama 340:4).
Question: I was once told that there is no Torah violation in writing a message on Shabbos with ink that appears now, but will disappear shortly. Is this true?
As we mentioned above, there is no Torah violation in writing with ink that will disappear within a few hours. This halacha has major ramifications when dealing with the needs of a Jewish hospital. Recording data is necessary, but if disappearing ink is used until after Shabbos, the prohibition is only miderabbanan. Poskim rely on this, if a hospital cannot employ sufficient non-Jewish staff.
Does writing with an ink that cannot be read violate Shabbos?
Although it would seem that this is a modern shailah and a modern invention, we will be surprised to discover that this shailah is at least 1,800 years old. The Gemara tells us the following story, “Rabbi Chiyah bar Abba said ‘The people who live in the East are very clever. When they want to send a secret, they write the message with “Mei milin” (an ink that is not automatically legible). Subsequently, they pour a specially formulated ink on the paper, and presto! The message becomes legible!’” (Yerushalmi, Shabbos, Chapter 12).
The Gemara then asks, “If someone wrote this way on Shabbos, has he violated a Torah prohibition?” The Gemara concludes that pouring the ink violates a Torah prohibition on Shabbos because this makes the writing legible. Whether the first step violates Shabbos is disputed by the poskim. Shu’t Har Tzvi (Yoreh Deah 230) rules that it is prohibited min haTorah, whereas Pri Megadim (340:3 in Mishbetzos Zahav) rules that it is prohibited only miderabbanan.
This dispute has an interesting ramification. If this writing is prohibited only miderabbanan, writing that cannot be read immediately does not violate a Torah violation. Therefore, taking a photograph on film or recording information on a computer disk does not violate Shabbos min haTorah (Har Tzvi).
PHOTOGRAPHY ON CHOL HAMOED
Another difference in halacha between these poskim would be whether taking photographs is permitted on Chol HaMoed. In general, one is prohibited on Chol HaMoed from doing activities considered melacha unless they fulfill some Yom Tov or Chol HaMoed need, or they will avert financial loss. These rules notwithstanding, it would appear that according to Pri Megadim, one would be permitted to take photos on Chol HaMoed, since there is no melacha being performed. It would seem that this leniency would not exist according to Har Tzvi, and photography would be permitted on Chol HaMoed only if it somehow enhances the Yom Tov. According to both opinions, developing the photographs would not be permitted on Chol HaMoed, unless Yom Tov was thereby enhanced.
LET THEM EAT CAKE
Is it permitted on Shabbos to eat cake that has icing in the form of letters on top, since I am erasing the letters when I eat it?
Again, a seemingly very contemporary shailah goes back hundreds of years. The rishonim record a Shavuos celebration, for which cakes were decorated with the letters of the alef-beis and certain tefillos and words of bracha. In a special Shavuos ceremony, these cakes were served to the young children who were just beginning to learn Torah. The children would read the letters and the brachos, and then they would be rewarded by being served the special cake (Rokei’ach #296). The question was why eating the letters does not violate erasing on Yom Tov, since writing and erasing is prohibited on Yom Tov, just as it is on Shabbos (Mordechai, Shabbos #369).
Various reasons are suggested why this minhag does not violate the halacha. Some contend that eating is not considered an act of erasing (Taz 340:2), whereas others contend that the melacha of erasing does not apply to food (Shu’t Maharshag 2:41).
Others permit eating the cake for a more complicated reason that requires an introduction. Although eating the cake must result in the erasure of the letters, the person eating did not have intention of erasing. This is halachically categorized as a situation of a “psik reisha,” meaning that a prohibited consequence will definitely result from an act that is otherwise permitted. A psik reisha is usually prohibited; thus, in this case, although eating the cake would otherwise be permitted, its consequence, the erasing, is problematic.
Although a psik reisha is usually prohibited, when combined with other mitigating factors it is sometimes permitted. In this instance, there are several different reasons why no melacha min haTorah applies. Although the activity should still be prohibited miderabbanan, when several such mitigating factors combine, we are lenient.
The rationale behind this “heter” is that Chazal forbade certain activities to prevent one from violating, chas veshalom, a Torah law. However, when there are several different reasons why the Torah law is not violated, there is no need to prohibit this activity.
When someone eats letters, there are three different mitigating factors, each of which, on its own, removes the erasing from being a Torah violation.
First, the Torah law of erasing on Shabbos is violated only when one intends to write on the erasure, as mentioned above. Obviously, someone who eats letters cannot subsequently write on the “erasure.”
Second, Torah laws are violated only when the melacha has a positive result. In the case of erasing, a positive result would be that one can now write on the erasure, or that a mezuzah is rendered valid by the erasure. However, eating the cake does not result in any positive results from the erasure.
Third, this is not the way one usually erases. The halacha is that doing any melacha in an atypical way lessens the prohibition from a Torah violation to a Rabbinic injunction.
Therefore, since the erasing is unintentional, performed not in order to write, destructive, and an unusual way to erase, the resultant indirect erasing is permitted. This is the rationale applied by many poskim to explain the Shavuos custom cited above. According to this approach, it is permitted to eat the icing on a cake that includes lettering, without concern over whether one is changing or rendering the letters illegible in the process.
However, others rule that, although one should not eat these pieces of cake, it is permitted to serve the cake to the children and allow them to eat it themselves (Mordechai, Shabbos #369). Halachically, I need not prevent a young child from doing a prohibited activity for his own benefit (Yevamos 114a). According to this approach, only a child would be permitted to eat the letters on the cake, but not an adult (Rama 340:3).
Mishnah Berurah follows a compromise position between these two opinions, permitting someone to eat the cake while disregarding where the letters are, but suggesting that, when slicing the cake, one should cut between the letters and not through a letter. As we will explain, cutting between the letters is not considered erasing according to most opinions.
MAKING AN IMPRINT IN LIFE
Most shoes and boots have a manufacturer’s trademark or name engraved on the heel. Is it permitted to traverse snow or mud on Shabbos, knowing that I am making an imprint while I walk? Isn’t this writing on Shabbos?
The contemporary poskim discuss this shailah, and permit it for the same reasons that one was permitted to eat the lettering on the cake. For one thing, I am not intending to write; and for a second, it is not the normal way of writing letters; and for a third, most people consider the imprint in the mud or snow to be “damaging.” There is another mitigating factor here, in that the writing is temporary. Since walking is more of a necessity than eating cake, the poskim rule that one is permitted to walk on snow or mud and ignore the imprint made by the shoe or boot.
WHAT AN EXQUISITE MOUTH-WRITING YOU HAVE!
The following tshuvah shows up in early sixteenth century halachic literature. A scribe was writing exquisitely beautiful sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos. Unfortunately, this scribe had lost his hand in an accident and had taught himself how to write beautiful graphics with his quill in his mouth. Certainly, the he was an incredibly talented individual, and many people were using sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos written by this scribe. However, the shailah was raised as to whether these were kosher.
A great posek of the era, Rav Menachem Azaryah of Fanu (Shu’t # 38) ruled that all the sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos written by this scribe were invalid. His reasoning is that halacha recognizes only items written with one’s stronger hand. For this reason, someone who places a quill in his mouth on Shabbos and writes has not violated a Torah prohibition, since this is not the way people usually write (Mishnah Shabbos 104b). (It is prohibited miderabbanan to write this way on Shabbos.) Thus, even if someone has taught himself how to write beautifully by holding the pen in his mouth, it is not considered writing by the Torah, and does not fulfill the mitzvah of “writing” sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos.
Similarly, writing done by a right-handed person who writes with his left hand is not considered writing. For this reason, the Gemara rules that someone who writes with his left hand has not violated a Torah prohibition of writing on Shabbos (Shabbos 103a). (Again, this is prohibited miderabbanan.)
A WRITING COURSE
At this point, I would like to address the last of our opening questions: Elisheva plans to attend a seminar related to the latest advances in her profession as a speech therapist. Part of the seminar will be given on Shabbos. May she ask one of the non-Jews attending the class to take notes for her?
According to most poskim, this is prohibited on Shabbos or Yom Tov, since a Jew may not ask a non-Jew to do work for him that would be prohibited min haTorah for a Jew. This is because the non-Jew becomes your agent, and you are not permitted to have an agent work for you on Shabbos, even if the agent is not Jewish. Thus, it appears that Elisheva will not be able to have notes taken for her by her non-Jewish colleague.
However, according to the Minchas Yitzchak, there is a very simple solution to this problem. If Elisheva pays the non-Jew to do the work and specifies that it makes no difference whether the non-Jew performs the work on Shabbos or a weekday, then there is no halachic problem at all, even if the non-Jew did the work on Shabbos or Yom Tov. The reason is that once you pay the non-Jew, he is no longer working as your agent, because he has his own interest in doing the work. I am still not permitted to ask him to do the work specifically on Shabbos, but as long as he has the option to do the work on a different day, there is no problem if he actually does it on Shabbos (Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 5:36).
Creating a beautiful Shabbos entails much planning and organization. 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. Studying all the melachos of Shabbos helps us appreciate Shabbos more, and to get the maximum joy out of this special day.