The laws of writing

Writing letters, symbols, marks, pictures

1. The Av Melacha[1]

To write or erase with intent to write: One who writes[2], and erases in order to write in the erased area, has performed one of the primary Melachas. [This is derived from the work done in the Mishkan] as [in the Mishkan] they would write on the beams of the Tabernacle to know which beam corresponds to it, and at times they would make a mistake and erase what they wrote and then return and write in that place [the correct signs]. 

 

2. The Biblical and Rabbinical Prohibitions

Liability for sin offering is only on two letters:[3] One who writes …. letters is only liable on two letters, however on one letter he is exempt, although this is [still] Biblically forbidden as are other half measurements.

One is only liable for a permanent writing:[4] One is only liable [for a sin offering] when he writes with an item [whose mark is] permanent on top of a material [which the writing on it will remain] permanent. 

Rabbinically even a temporary writing is forbidden:[5] However it is Rabbinically forbidden [to write] even with an item [whose mark is] not permanent on top of a material [which the writing on it will] not [remain] permanent, such as to write with liquids and fruits juices on top of vegetable leaves and the like, and therefore one must beware not to write with his fingers on the liquid that is on the table or to engrave in ash [or earth[6]] or congealed fat or honey.

Writing שעטנז גץ without the Zayins:[7] One who writes in Ashuris and omitted the זיונין[8] from the letters of שעטנז גץ is exempt from [liability to bring a sin offering] for doing so being that this work is incomplete.[9]

Writing an incomplete letter:[10] One who writes an incomplete letter of any language is exempt on them [from liability to bring a sin offering]. However it is Rabbinically forbidden [to do so].

Writing in Rashi Script:[11] Therefore one who writes a fine print called “Meshita” [i.e. Rashi script] there are those which say that he is exempt from [liability of bringing a sin offering] over it, due to that this script was taken from the Ashuri script, and it is thus similar to an incomplete Ashuri script [of which one is not liable on] as will be explained in chapter 545.

 

*2 Writing on condensation of fruits, windows, engraving in sand earth: [12]

It is Rabbinically forbidden [to write] even with an item [whose mark is] not permanent on top of a material [which the writing on it will] not [remain] permanent, such as to write with liquids and fruits juices on top of vegetable leaves and the like, and therefore one must beware not to write with his fingers on the liquid that is on the table or to engrave in ash [or earth[13]] or congealed fat or honey.

 

Summary:

Biblical: One is only Biblically liable to bring a sin offering for writing on Shabbos if all the following conditions are fulfilled:

  1. He wrote two letters [by one it is Biblically forbidden but does not carry liability]
  2. He wrote complete letters.
  3. The letters are permanent and will hence not fade out.

Rabbinical: It is Rabbinically forbidden to write even if a) the writing will not last at all and b) even if the letters are incomplete in their form.

 

Based on the above it is forbidden to write the following:

  1. It is forbidden to mark letters on liquids that are on a table.
  2. It is forbidden to form words within condensation of a fruit [or condensation of a window].
  3. It is forbidden to engrave words within sand or congealed fat.


Q&A

May one place toy letters next to each other thus forming a word?[14]

So long as one does not fasten the letters to each other or to a background in a way that the word will last, it is permitted.[15] Regarding puzzles-See Halacha 3 Q&A there!

 

May one place plastic letters onto a cake thus forming a word?

Seemingly this is allowed, as explained above.

 

What is the definition of permanent writing? How long must the writing last for it to be Biblically forbidden?[16]

Some[17] write that so long as it can last one day it is Biblically forbidden. Others[18] however write that it is only Biblically forbidden if it is written to last much longer than one day as is common for writers to do.

 

Is writing with a pencil Biblically forbidden?[19]

Yes.

                                                                                   

May one use a rubber stamp on Shabbos?[20]

Doing so is Biblically forbidden.

 

Is typing on a computer also forbidden due to writing?[21]

Some Poskim[22] rule that doing so is considered like writing, and is thus Biblically forbidden due to the writing prohibition.

To note that according to all typing is in any event forbidden due to its use of electricity.

 

May one write on carbon paper?[23]

Doing so is Biblically forbidden. It is thus forbidden to ask a gentile which is writing to write on such paper so the person also remains with a copy.

Regarding writing numbers and other symbols-See Halacha 5C and Q&A there!

 

3. Drawings and designs:[24]

One who makes marks and designs on a document and the like, in the way that the artists design, is liable due to an offshoot of the writing prohibition. The same applies for one who erases it.

 

Summary:

Is forbidden just like writing letters. 

Q&A

May one put together puzzles on Shabbos?[25]

See General Q&A!

 

May one engrave designs onto his food or cake?

No, as engraving is similar to writing as explained in Halacha 5.

 

Does taking a picture with a camera, scanner, x-ray also involve the writing prohibition?[26]

Yes. Doing so is Biblically forbidden due to writing[27], in addition to the prohibition of using electricity.[28]

 

4. Figuratively writing in the air or on a table and the like:[29]

Although it is Rabbinically forbidden [to write] even with an item [whose mark is] not permanent on top of a material [which the writing on it will] not [remain] permanent, {such as to write with liquids and fruits juices on top of vegetable leaves and the like, and therefore one must beware not to write with his fingers on the liquid that is on the table or to engrave in ash or congealed fat or honey} nevertheless it is permitted to write in the air forms of letters being that their mark is not at all recognizable.

The same law applies to [that one may write figuratively, in order to hint something to a friend[30],] on a table that does not have liquid [in that area], being that in this case too the mark is not at all recognizable.

The Reason this does not contain a prohibition of training one’s hands: Now although through doing so one trains and builds his hands for writing, this is [Halachicly] meaningless. It is as well permitted to view a craftsmanship on Shabbos even though he is learning it in the process. 

 

Summary:

It is permitted to figuratively write letters in the air or on a clear table being that the letters are completely not noticeable. However to engrave letters in sand or food, or to write using liquid on a table is Rabbinically forbidden being that the letters are noticeable.

 

Q&A

May one write using a magnetic board?[31]

Doing so is [Rabbinically] forbidden.

 

May one use a thermometer strap which reveals letters or numbers upon being heated?[32]

Some Poskim[33] rule it is Rabbinically forbidden to place on such a strap to measure fever. It is likewise forbidden to remove it once if it is already on.[34]

Other Poskim[35] rule that one may be lenient to use it to measure temperature[36] if one is unable to use a regular mercury thermometer.

If the letters were originally visible without the heat, or if there are no letters which become revealed but rather a mere color, then it is permitted to be used.[37]

 

May one take a pregnancy test on Shabbos?

If letters are revealed to reveal whether she is pregnant then it is forbidden to use on Shabbos. If no letters are revealed but rather a mere line it requires further analyses whether it may be used.[38]

 

May one design letters and words using sticks or threads?[39]

No.

 

May one form letters and pictures using his fingers [meaning by placing them in positions that form an item or symbol]?[40]

Some[41] prohibit doing so.

 

5. Engraving letters [or pictures]:

A. Onto leather:[42]

Tearing letters into leather: One who tears onto leather letters of writing is liable, as engraving is a form of writing.

Marks letters on leather with one’s finger: However one who marks [with his finger] on the leather the form of writing is exempt from liability [to bring a sin offering] as this is not something which will last. Nevertheless this is Rabbinically forbidden due to a decree that one may come to [write in a] permanent [method].

 

B. Engraving on earth, sand, fat, honey, water: [43]

One must beware not to write with his fingers on the liquid that is on the table or engrave in ash [or earth[44]] or congealed fat or honey.

The reason for this is because: It is Rabbinically forbidden [to write] even with an item [whose mark is] not permanent on top of a material [which the writing on it will] not [remain] permanent.

 

Summary:

Leather: It is forbidden to engrave letters either through tearing them into the item [Biblically] or pressing them into it [Rabbinically].

Earth, sand/water: It is forbidden to engrave letters into earth, ash or any food.

 

Q&A

May one engrave or protrude letters into or out of a rubber stamp or signet ring?[45]

Doing so is Biblically forbidden.

 

May one engrave letters on a window with condensation?[46]

No. It is forbidden to engrave on it either letters or pictures.

 

May one engrave letters into a cake?

No. See General Q&A Below.

 

May one walk on Shabbos on sand, mud, or snow with shoes or sneakers which cause imprints of letters or pictures on them?[47]

Yes[48], although some Tzaddikim have been careful to avoid doing so.

6. Making marks on books/parchment and the like:

A. On leather and parchment:[49]

Making a mark on leather as a reminder: [Although it is forbidden to mark letters onto leather], if [the mark] does not have the form of writing and he is making a mark as a mere symbol, and it does not have the form of letters [or recognized symbols[50]], [such as a mere indentation] it is allowed even initially.

 Making a mark on parchment as a symbol that it needs editing: It is therefore permitted to mark with ones nail on the page of a book [made of parchment] like those which make a mark as a sign in a place where there is a mistake. However this only applies by parchment which is hard and its mark thus does not last, however on paper it is forbidden to mark being that its mark lasts for a long time.

Other Opinions by making marks on parchment: There are those which prohibit [making marks] even on parchment [and certainly leather].

Their Reasoning: as they hold that even one who makes a mark for a mere symbol and not like a form of writing is liable [to bring a sin offering] if it is a permanent mark, as they too [in the times of the building of the Tabernacle] would make marks on the boards of the Tabernacle to know which [board] corresponds to it. Therefore if one marked one marking on top of two boards, or two lines on one board, as a symbol as was done with the beams of the Tabernacle, is liable [to bring a sin offering]. [However] one marking on one board is exempt [from liability to bring a sin offering] although is [nevertheless] Biblically forbidden, being that it is a permanent matter [mark]. [Therefore] making a mark on parchment in which [the mark] will not last is Rabbinically forbidden due to a decree against [coming to make a mark which] permanent.

The final ruling: A G-d fearing [person] is to be stringent upon himself like their words [to avoid making marks on even parchment]. 

Regarding writing symbols- See C below!

 

B. Making a mark on Paper:[51]

 [The above leniency according to the first opinion] only applies by parchment which is hard and its mark thus does not last, however on paper it is forbidden to make a mark being that its mark lasts for a long time.

The Reason: Now although [the mark] is not a form of writing it is [nevertheless] Rabbinically forbidden due to a decree against [coming to mark] a form of writing which one is liable for when it lasts.

 

C. Writing symbols:[52]

All the above is when [the mark] is not at all in the form of writing, however so long as [the mark] is in the form of a any writing, even if it is not the Ashury writing, even if they are unknown letters which are only used for symbols, such as the symbols which are commonly used to refer to the numbers, then it is considered the form of writing and one is liable [to bring a sin offering] on doing so if it was done on a item [in which the writing will be] permanent. If it was done on an item which [its writing will] not [remain] permanent] it is Rabbinically forbidden according to all.

 

D. Making lines on skin and paper:[53]

The Av Melacha-On skins: It is common for the leather makers that when they come to cut the leather they first scratch a line into it in accordance to how he wants to lengthen, widen and shorten the cut, and afterwards he passes the knife over the marked line. This was also done by the skins of the Tabernacle when they were cut, and therefore this line marking is one of the Principal Melachas .

Making lines on paper and parchment: Similarly one who imprints a line into even parchment or paper in order to write straight is liable [for a sin offering]. 

 

Summary:

Symbols: According to all it is forbidden to mark recognized symbols on any material whether the symbol will be permanent [Biblically prohibited] or temporary [Rabbinically forbidden]. 

Lines: Lines are Biblically forbidden to be indented onto any material, whether leather, parchment or paper.

Mere marks such as indentations:

  1. On leather/Parchment: It is disputed whether it is allowed to make mere marks, such as indentations, as reminders and symbols on leather and parchment. A G-d fearing [person] is to be stringent upon himself to avoid doing so.
  2. On paper: Is forbidden according to all.

 

Q&A

May one write numbers?[54]

Doing so is Biblically forbidden as it carries the same laws as does writing letters.

 

May one take a fingerprint on Shabbos?[55]

Doing so is Biblically forbidden, as it is considered a complete picture.

 

May one bend a page in a book as a reminder?[56]

Yes[57], as one has no intent to make an indentation.

 

7.  Entering letters into clothing:[58]

If one [firmly[59]] inserts silver letters into clothing, it is considered writing and is [thus] forbidden to do on Shabbos.

Summary:

Is forbidden.

Q&A

May one enter letters into a necklace or bracelet?[60]

This is forbidden due to the prohibition against fixing a vessel[61], and according to others[62] also due to the “Meameir” prohibition. Some[63] however permit it to be done, as they say that the Meameir prohibition only applies by gathering items that grow from the ground, and they do not hold that doing so involves the fixing prohibition.[64]

 

8. Closing and opening books with writing [or designs[65]] on their side pages:[66]

First Opinion-Is forbidden: [Regarding] those books which have letters written on the top edges of the pages there are those[67] which prohibit opening them on Shabbos due to the erasing prohibition. As well as [they forbid] to close them due to the writing prohibition.

The reason for this prohibition: Now, although they have no intent to do this [writing or erasing, nevertheless it is forbidden as] it is an inevitable occurrence.

Other Opinions-Is permitted: [However] there are those[68] which permit to close [the books] as since the letters are already written and it is just that they are lacking proximity, this does not contain a writing prohibition. As since it is possible to bring them close together easily without doing any new action they are considered like they are close and standing and one is doing nothing with this proximity. Similarly it is permitted to open them for this reason and one is not considered like he is erasing them as their writing [remains] intact and it is possible to near them to each other easily and they are [thus] considered already now to be] as if [they were] close.

The final ruling: And so is the custom [like the latter opinion]. [See footnote for other Opinions[69]][However initially one must beware to avoid writing letters or designs on the edges of a book, and if one did so then one should cut off the edges until the letters are no longer recognizable.[70]]

 

Summary-Closing and opening books with writing or designs on their side pages :

This matter is disputed in Poskim and the custom is to be lenient. [However initially one must beware to avoid writing letters or designs on the edges of a book, and if one did so then one should cut off the edges until the letters are no longer recognizable.[71]]

 

Q&A

If the page of a book is torn may one place the with the other torn half together with the other half in order to read it?[72]

Still bound to book: [If the ripped page is still attached to the book, then seemingly this is permitted, being that we rule like the latter opinion.[73]]

Individual papers: If the page was completely ripped out of the book some Poskim[74] rule that if the tear has occurred within the letters it is forbidden to place the pages together even according to the lenient opinion mentioned above[75]. If however the tear is between the letters and no letters have been torn, then one may place the pieces together.[76]

Other Poskim[77] permit this even when the tear occurred within the letters, if one is doing so for learning Torah.

 

May one open or close curtains or doors which form words, letters or pictures upon opening or closing them?[78]

Yes, as this is similar to books with writing on their sides of which Admur rules that it is permitted to open and close.[79]

 

General Q&A

May one use a combination lock on Shabbos?[80]

Yes[81]. Combination locks may be used whether they include numbers or letters[82].  However there are opinions[83] which question this allowance and rule that a meticulous person should be stringent.
 

May one put together puzzles on Shabbos?[84]

  • Placing together word or number puzzles: [Meaning that the individual pieces contain complete letters and numbers and do not form a letter or number when compiled]. So long as one does not strongly fasten the pieces to each other or to a background in a way that the puzzle sits firm and lasting, it is permitted to put it together. This applies whether it creates words or numbers.[85]
  • Placing together letter or picture puzzles: If placing the pieces together creates new letters or pictures which did not exist individually, as is common by most puzzles, some Poskim[86] rule that it nevertheless has the same laws as a word puzzle mentioned above and may be compiled so long as the pieces are not firmly attached.[87] Others[88] however rule that in such a case doing so is forbidden[89].

 

May one play scrabble?[90]

This is allowed as the letters can be easily moved around, and are thus not considered set within a frame.

 

May one engrave designs onto his food or cake?

No, as engraving is similar to writing as explained in Halacha 4.

 


[1] 340/4

[2] The Minchas Chinuch explains that one is not liable until the ink dries. [Ketzos Hashulchan 144 footnote 1]

[3] 340/4

[4] 340/6

[5] 340/6

[6] Ketzos Hashulchan 144/4

[7] 340/8

[8] This refers to the small Zayin letters which protrude on the very top of each of the letters in the grouping of Shatnez Gatz.

[9] However the M”B 340/22 rules that one is liable even in such a case being that Halachicly the Zayins do not invalidate the letters.

[10] 340/8

[11] 340/8

[12] 340/6

[13] Ketzos Hashulchan 144/4

[14] Ketzos Hashulchan 144 footnote 10

[15] So rules Chayeh Adam [37] and Ketzos Hashulchan ibid regarding cases brought there [to sew letters onto a peroches, that if they are weekly sewn they contain no writing prohibition]. So rules also Igros Moshe 1/135; Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/7 and 16.

Avnei Neizer, brought in Ketzos Hashulchan 144 footnote 4,  rules that placing letters near each other has no prohibition

[16] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/11

[17] Minchas Yitzchak 7/13

[18] Ketzos Hashulchan in additions on Chapter 146, mentioned in Piskeiy Teshuvos 340 footnote 38

[19] Biur Halacha 340 in name of Rashba

[20] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/11

[21] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/12

[22] Sheivet Haleivi 6/36

[23] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/13

[24] 340/10

[25] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/16-footnote 51

[26] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/15

[27] So rules Keren Ledavid 102; Minchas Yitzchak 2/20

[28] However the Beir Moshe [7/50] rules that x-rays involve only a Rabbinical writing prohibition being that the x-ray is only understandable by experts.

[29] 340/6

[30] Ketzos Hashulchan 144/4

[31] Writing on a magnetic board involves placing a magnetic pen on the board to lift small pieces of metal and thus form a word.

[32] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/6

[33] Minchas Yitzchak 7/22

[34] As the letters are not considered written until they are brightened through the heat, and thus revealing them or concealing them involves the writing and erasing prohibition.

[35] Tzitz Eliezer 14/30 and Kinyan Torah 3/39

[36] As this involves a Shvus Deshvus [a Rabbinical prohibition upon a Rabbinical prohibition] 1) Temporary writing and 2) Being written through heat. [ibid]

[37] SSH”K 40/20

[38] Seemingly it should nevertheless be forbidden due to it being considered a design or symbol. [340/7-8]

[39] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/16 Upashut

[40] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/16

[41] Mekor Chaim [of Chavos Yair] 340/4.

[42] 340/7

[43] 340/6

[44][44] Ketzos Hashulchan 144/4

[45] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/11

[46] Ketzos Hashulchan 144 footnote 5

[47] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/9

[48] So rules Chelkas Yaakov 2/132 as doing so involves a two Rabbinical prohibitions which is permitted in a case of Piseik Reisha Shelo Nicha Lei.

[49] 340/7

[50] See C below

[51] 340/7

[52] 340/8

[53] 340/11

[54] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/14, Upashut.

[55] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/18 in name of many Poskim

[56] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/19

[57] So rules Sheivet Hakehasy 1/130 and Kinyan Torah 2/115

[58] 340/9

[59] See Ketzos Hashulchan 144 footnote 10

[60] Ketzos Hashulchan 146/footnote 49-25; Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/26

[61] Ketzos Hashulchan 146/footnote 49-25

[62] Orchos Chayim 13

[63] Shevisas Hashabbos Meameir

[64] According to all it does not involve the writing prohibition as there is no prohibition in forming a word as explained above.

[65] Ketzos Hashulchan 144 footnote 4

[66] 340/4

[67] Levush

[68] Shut Rama/Taz

[69] So rules also Tzemach Tzedek in Mishnayos Shabbos 12/44; Igros Moshe 2/40.

However the Avnei Neizer 210 rules stringently in this, that it is forbidden to be opened or closed. This would apply as well if there are designs on the edges of the papers.

The Mishneh Berurah 340/17 rules like Admur although says that when one has another of that same Sefer available then it is better to be stringent.

[70] Ketzos Hashulchan 144/3; Sharreiy Tziyon in Biur Halacha 25

[71] Ketzos Hashulchan 144/3; Sharreiy Tziyon in Biur Halacha 25

[72] Piskeiy Teshuvos 140/7

[73] So is implied from Az Nidbaru 5/18, as well as that it seems no different than a book with letters at its edge.

[74] Bris Olam Mocheik 8, Az Nidbaru 5/18; Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 2/75

[75] As in this case it is lacking the mere closeness, and opening and closing of a book.

[76] As merely bringing letters together to form a word is permitted, as brought from Poskim in Halacha 1 above.

[77] Mishneh Halachos 6/89; Beir Moshe 6/125

[78] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/17

[79] Even according to those Poskim [Avnei Nezer] which are stringent, this only applies if the doors or curtains form a picture or letter, if however they simply form a word then according to all it is allowed. 

[80] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/8

[81] So rules Tzitz Eliezer 13/44; Mishneh Halachos 5/48; Bitzeil Hachamah 1/40

[82] Doing so does not involve a writing prohibition, as placing letters or numbers near each other is not considered writing.

[83] Tiferes Adam 33; Chelkas Yaakov 3/150

[84] Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/16-footnote 51

[85] So rules Chayeh Adam and Ketzos Hashulchan 144/10 regarding cases brought there [to sew letters onto a peroches, that if they are weekly sewn they contain no writing prohibition]. So rules also Igros Moshe 1/135; Piskeiy Teshuvos 340/7 and 16; Beir Moshe 6/26; Avnei Neizer, brought in Ketzos Hashulchan 144 footnote 4,  rules that placing letters near each other has no prohibition.

[86] Beir Moshe 6/26; Yesod Yeshurun 1/53; SSH”K 16/23

[87] As they hold that this is similar to closing a book with writing on its edges which is allowed. These Poskim similarly rule that one may place a torn page together to read it-See Halacha 8 Q&A there!

[88] Shalmeiy Yehuda 5/1; Seemingly Az Nidbaru 5/18 and Bris Olam regarding the prohibition in placing torn pages together would also agree that this is forbidden.

[89] As it is not similar to closing a book being that there the pages are bound together and is already considered to be very close.

[90] Beir Moshe 6/26, based on ruling brought above that there is no prohibition to form words.

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