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The Melacha of Erasing on Shabbat

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May 7, 2010

The Melacha of Erasing on Shabbat

In the previous issue, we discussed the melacha of writing on Shabbat.  The sister-melacha of writing is the melacha of erasing.  The Mishna, Shabbat 73a, describes the melacha as erasing in order to write two letters.  This melacha is known as the melacha of mocheik.  In this issue we will explore the relationship between the melacha of koteiv (writing) and the melacha of mocheik.


The Requirement to Erase for the Purpose of Writing

According to the Mishna one only violates the melacha of mocheik on a biblical level if it is for the purpose of writing two letters in its place.  The Rishonim indicate two different ways to understand this requirement.  Rashi, Shabbat 31b, s.v. L'Olam, writes that the requirement is based on the need for all melachot to be productive.  Erasing is considered productive when it is for the purpose of writing letters in its place.  Tosafot, Shabbat 73b, s.v. V'Tzarich, imply that the parameters of the melacha are such that erasing for any other purpose than to write two letters in its place is not considered the melacha of mocheik.

Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), Shabbat 7:9, notes that the Tosefta, Shabbat 12:7, states that if one erases an ink stain from a book that is the size of two letters, one violates the melacha of mocheik.  Rabbeinu Asher explains that the melacha is not focused on removing writing but preparing the object for future writing.  As such, there is no difference between erasing actual letters and preparing an area for writing.

R. Avraham Danzig (1748-1820), Chayei Adam, Nishmat Adam, Hilchot Shabbat 38:1, suggests that Rabbeinu Asher is of the opinion that the requirement to erase in order to write two letters is a parameter of the melacha.  The definition of the melacha is preparing an area for writing.  If one assumes that the requirement to have intent to write is so that the melacha is considered productive, the productivity does not have to be in the form of preparation for writing.  Other acts of productivity would be a violation of the melacha.  R. Yosef Teomim (1727-1793), P'ri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 340:7, writes that if one erases a document that contains information about a loan, it is considered productive, even if one does not intend to write more information in its place.

P'ri Megadim does not seem to view the two approaches as being mutually exclusive.  He notes that Rambam, Hilchot Shabbat 11:9, implies that the requirement of erasing an area large enough to write two letters is a function of the requirement for a productive act.  Yet, Rambam codifies the Tosefta that one violates the melacha of mocheik if one erases an ink stain.  P'ri Megadim understands this to mean that there is no difference between erasing letters and erasing any other mark.  P'ri Megadim, Mishbetzot Zahav 340:1, extends this idea beyond erasing an ink stain.  He notes that if one darkens or lightens a board in order to write on it, it is a violation of mocheik.

Rabbeinu Asher explains why one only violates the melacha by erasing an area that one can write two letters and not one letter.  The melacha is a preparation for writing and therefore, the preparation can't be more severe than the writing itself.  One only violates the melacha of koteiv when writing two letters and therefore, one only violates its preparatory melacha by preparing an area that one can write two letters.  According to Rashi, why is there a requirement to erase an area specifically large enough to write two letters?  R. Avraham Borenstein (1838-1910), Avnei Nezer, Orach Chaim no. 206, implies that two letters represents something significant.  If one only erases an area large enough to write only one letter, is not considered significant enough to be considered a melacha.  However, R. Borenstein does note that if one erases one letter for a productive purpose and that space can also be used to write another letter, it is considered two different forms of erasing and is counted as erasing two letters.  R. Yechiel M. Rabinowitz, Afikei Yam, Vol. II 4:5, suggests that if one is erasing for the purpose of writing something in its place, the requirement is two letters.  If one is erasing for another productive purpose there is no requirement to erase an area large enough to write two letters.


Erasing Letters from Packages and Foods

Certain packages are designed in a way that it is impossible to open the package without tearing letters.  Furthermore, there are foods that contain lettering on the food itself.  Is it permissible to open these packages or eat these foods on Shabbat?

Mordechai (1250-1298), Shabbat no. 369, quotes that opinion of Maharam MiRutenberg (1215-1293) that it is prohibited to eat a cookie that has letters written on it.  He notes that although this is a form of erasing where nothing will be written in its place, there is a rabbinic prohibition against erasing letters, even if there is no intent to write in its place.  Maharam's ruling is codified by Rama, Orach Chaim 340:4.

R. Yechezkel Landa (1713-1793), Dagul MeR'vava to Magen Avraham 340:6, questions Maharam's ruling.  When one eats a cookie with letters written on it, there is no intent to erase the writing.  As such, it is considered a pesik reishei d'lo nicha lei (unintended, unavoidable and undesired result).  [See the issue on davar she'aino mitkavein for further clarification.]  Furthermore, the unintended result only produces a rabbinic violation of mocheik because the letters are not being erased in order to write new letters.  Therefore, R. Landa writes that one may certainly be lenient when one breaks the letters with one's mouth, which is considered an irregular means of erasing letters and reduces the severity further.  R. Landa then suggests that Maharam's ruling was concerning a cookie that had certain words on it and people used to eat the cookie as a segulah (mystical method) to provide wisdom.  Since, the purpose of the segulah was to specifically eat the letters, it was not considered a pesik reishei and therefore, it was prohibited.  However, it is permissible to eat ordinary cookies with lettering when one does not have specific intent to eat the letters.

It would seem that the issue of erasing letters from a cookie is contingent on the dispute between Rashi and Rabbeinu Asher.  According to Rashi, there is an inherent prohibition against erasing on Shabbat.  If the act of erasing does not produce a positive result, there is no biblical violation, but there remains a rabbinic prohibition.  According to Rabbeinu Asher, there is no inherent prohibition against erasing.  There is only a prohibition against preparing an area for writing.  When one eats or breaks a cookie, nothing was done to prepare the area for further writing and as such, there is no reason to consider this a form of mocheik, even on a rabbinic level.  [This idea is presented in R. Refael Weber's Shiurim B'Shabbat no. 340 and in Daf Al HaDaf, Shabbat 75b, quoting R. Tzvi Kushelevski.]

R. Yisrael M. Kagan (1838-1933), Mishna Berurah 340:17, permits one to eat a cookie that has letters written on it based on the fact that it is a pesik reishei d'lo nicha lei whose result is only a rabbinic violation and it is performed in an irregular manner (see Sha'ar HaTziyun 340:22).  One cannot apply this leniency to opening a package that can't be opened without tearing the letters because the mitigating factor of erasing in an irregular manner is absent.  For this reason, R. Simcha Rabinowitz, Piskei Teshuvot 340:4, writes that if there is no other way to open the package, one should open it in an unusual manner.


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