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The Melacha of Writing on Shabbat

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Apr 23, 2010

The Melacha of Writing on Shabbat

One of the thirty nine categories of prohibited activities on Shabbat is the melacha of koteiv (writing).  The Mishna, Shabbat 73a, states that one who writes two letters on Shabbat violates the melacha of koteiv.  In this issue, we will discuss the nature of this melacha.  It should be noted that much of this issue will discuss which forms of writing are biblically prohibited and which are rabbinically prohibited.  In previous issues relating to treating the ill, and unintended results (davar she'aino mitkavein and pesik reishei), we discussed the practical applications of considering something biblically prohibited or rabbinically prohibited.


The Requirement for Two Letters

There is a lot of literature explaining the requirement of two letters.  One explanation is that two letters represents something significant (see Avnei Nezer, Orach Chaim no 201).  This explains why the Gemara, Shabbat 104b, states that if one writes a single letter that completes a book, it is considered a violation of the melacha of koteiv.  This idea is also relevant to the discussion of whether writing two letters that do not constitute a word violates the melacha of koteiv.  [See Mishna Berurah, Bei'ur Halacha 340:4, s.v. B'Mashkin.]

The Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbat 7:2 (51a) states that drawing a picture on a wall is a violation of koteiv.  R. Yisrael M. Kagan (1838-1933), Bei'ur Halacha op. cit., writes that one violates the melacha even if one does not draw two pictures.  This also seems to follow the idea that the requirement for two letters is a representation of something significant.  A single picture is significant enough to constitute a melacha.


Permanent Writing

The Mishna, Shabbat 104b, states that one only violates the (biblical) melacha of koteiv if the writing is permanent.  The exemption of non-permanent writing is ostensibly based on the general exemption of melachot whose result is not permanent (Mishna, Shabbat 102b).  R. Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna (1200-1270), Ohr Zarua no. 76, notes that there is a rabbinic prohibition against writing in non-permanent ink.  Therefore, on Shabbat, one should not write with fruit juices or on dust that accumulates on a surface.  Ohr Zarua's comments are codified in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 340:4. 

There is a dispute between Rashi (1040-1105) and Rambam (1138-1204) regarding the parameters of what is considered non-permanent.  Rashi seems to be of the opinion that permanent means that it will last for a long time. [See Rashi Shabbat 102b, s.v., Rashi, Shabbat 111b, s.v. V'Eilu, and Chemdat Yisrael, Ner Mitzvah no. 21.]  Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 9:13, in addressing the general rule regarding permanence, seems to define non-permanent as not lasting until the end of Shabbat.  Mishna Berurah, Sha'ar HaTziyun 303:68, notes the dispute between Rashi and Rambam and adds that it applies to the melacha of koteiv.

R. Yitzchak Weiss (1902-1989) Minchat Yitzchak 7:13, was asked regarding a pen that was designed so that its ink would last less than three days.  The pen was designed so that physicians who need to write on Shabbat for medical reasons can do so while minimizing the severity of the melacha. The physicians can then transcribe or photocopy their notes after Shabbat before the ink disappears.  R. Weiss writes that this pen only accomplishes its goal according to the opinion of Rashi.  According to the opinion of Rambam, it is considered permanent writing if it remains after Shabbat.  He further states that it is arguable that if the ink lasts for twenty-four hours, it is considered permanent according to all opinions.  R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), Minchat Shlomo 1:91 (11), disagrees.  He contends that writing is only significant if one can be confident that it is not going to be erased when one needs to access that information.  Therefore, if the writing does not last a significant amount of time, there is no violation of the melacha of koteiv.  He also notes a number of Rambam's statements that indicate that Rambam himself requires that the writing last longer than the end of Shabbat in order for the writing to be considered a violation of the melacha of koteiv.

R. Shmuel Wosner, Shevet HaLevi 6:37, presents another factor to consider regarding permanence.  He notes that if the writing can last for a long time, but it is inevitable that something external will erase the writing, it is nevertheless considered permanent.  Therefore, R. Wosner rules that writing on a computer screen (or any other digital display) is considered permanent.  The fact that the current writing stands to be erased when the user continues to use the computer is insignificant because that is considered something external.  [R. Wosner does not address a situation where the device itself will clear the screen as part of its power management.]  R. Ovadia Yosef, Orach Chaim 8:48 and R. Auerbach (cited in Nishmat Avraham, Orach Chaim 340:4) don't consider the writing on a screen to be significant enough to be considered actual writing.


Writing with Invisible Ink

The Gemara, Gittin 19b, states that if a get (divorce bill) was written with ink that can only be seen when one pours another chemical on it, the get is not valid.  Rashi, ad loc., s.v. Hashta, writes that while the ink is invisible, it is not considered writing.  Rashi's comments indicate that if one were to write with invisible ink on Shabbat, it would not be considered a biblical prohibition.  Nevertheless, R. Yosef Teomim (1727-1793), P'ri Megadim, Orach Chaim, M.Z. 340:3, writes that causing invisible letters to appear on Shabbat by warming them is only considered a rabbinic prohibition.  R. Tzvi P. Frank (1873-1961), Har Tzvi, Yoreh De'ah no. 230, explains that P'ri Megadim is following the opinion of the Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbat 12:4 (70b) that the original writing is considered bona fide writing and therefore, causing the writing to appear does not violate a biblical prohibition.  R. Frank then suggests that there may not be a dispute between Rashi's understanding of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi.  Rashi's case is one where a second chemical is required to reveal the writing.  As such, it is arguable that until that second chemical is applied, it is not considered writing.  The Yerushalmi and P'ri Megadim are discussing a case where the writing is revealed through heat and no chemical is required.  As such, one can consider the original writing as writing from the outset.

R. Yitzchak Schmelkes (1828-1905), Beit Yitzchak, Hashmatot to Yoreh De'ah 2:31, notes that recording onto a gramophone record may constitute a violation of koteiv.  This is based on the statement of the Mishna, Shabbat 103a, that one can violate koteiv by making marks that have significance.  When one records onto a gramophone record, a needle etches a pattern onto an object so that when another needle follows the same pattern, the original sound is replicated. 

R. Frank, Har Tzvi, Tel Harim, Melechet Koteiv, presents a number of reasons why recording onto a gramophone record would not be considered koteiv.  R. Frank's grandson, R. Yosef Cohen, Talelei Sadeh, ad loc., notes that this issue relates to R. Frank's discussion about invisible ink.  If one does not consider writing with invisible ink to be a form of koteiv, the marks on the record are not considered writing.  Even if one does consider invisible ink to be a form of writing, the marks on the record might not be considered writing because there is no way of ever "reading" the information.  One can only listen to the sounds that are produced by the gramophone.

While technology has evolved significantly since R. Schmelkes' discussion of the gramophone, most recorded data (with the exception of pictures stored on film) is still stored in a way that one cannot actually read the information contained on a storage device and therefore, the discussion about gramophones is relevant to most storage devices.  R. Shlomo Z. Auerbach (cited in Shemirat Shabbat KeHilchata ch. 66, note 211), adds that there is an additional concern when storing information on a device.  He claims that by adding information to a disk (or any other device) one is improving the status of the disk, and this violates the melacha of boneh, building.  Nevertheless, Nishmat Avraham, op. cit., cites R. Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth that if the information is already on the device, accessing the information is only a rabbinic prohibition and is therefore permissible for treatment of someone who is ill, even if the situation is not life-threatening.


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