Reading Secular Literature on Shabbat
We’ll begin at the end: I try to read Torah and Torah related literature on Shabbat whenever possible. However, many people enjoy engaging in secular or academic texts on Shabbat, and they can easily rely on consenting halakhic positions.
Let us go back to the beginning. The Rabbis learned from Isaiah (58:13) that Shabbat should be treated differently than a weekday:
If you refrain from your weekday ways on the Sabbath and pursuing your affairs on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the Lord honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor handling your own affairs, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord.
The Rabbis derived from this (Shabbat 113a-b):
Doing your own ways – the manner in which you walk on Shabbat should not be the same as the way you walk during the week; Nor handling your own affairs – your affairs are prohibited, the affairs of heavens are permitted; Nor speaking your own words – your speech on Shabbat should not be the same as your day to day speech.
Rishonim debated the meaning of this homily. According to Rashi, it is inappropriate to negotiate or discuss business on Shabbat; but Tosfot cite Vayikra Rabbah, which states that conversation should be kept to a minimum altogether – “it was hardly permitted to even greet someone.” The Shulhan Arukh ruled accordingly (Orah Haim 307:1) “one should limit idle discussion.” Conversely, the Rema ruled like the Terumat ha-Deshen, who permitted idle conversation if it adds to the pleasure of Shabbat: “People who derive pleasure from speaking about rumors or news are permitted to speak about these on Shabbat just as they are on a weekday.”
A similar debate relates to reading material on Shabbat. Several sources indicate that it is inappropriate to engage in reading contracts (שטרי הדיוטות), and as a derivative of this prohibition, reading a list of guests or a food list (according to Abaye, Shabbat 149a) or portrait captions (Shabbat 149a according to Rashi). According to Shmuel (Shabbat 116b) even reading Torah literature is prohibited.
What are contracts (שטרי הדיוטות), and what is included in this category? Why are these prohibited to read on Shabbat?
Rashi (Shabbat 149a) defines שטרי הדיוטות as sales contracts. This fits in with the definition of prohibiting ‘weekday’ discussions on Shabbat as discussions about business. This prohibition includes reading about finance, but might also include reading advertisements, which are often featured in weekend newspapers as well as in Shabbat parsha magazines that are often distributed in shul. The issue with reading contracts on Shabbat relates both to weekday content which is inappropriate for Shabbat, and the concern that one may write or erase something for a business transaction.
What about other content? Rishonim debate which content is appropriate for reading on Shabbat (assuming the content is not similar to reading contracts, which would be prohibited due to the similarity, and the concern that one might come to erase on Shabbat).
The Rambam (in his Mishnah commentary) and other rishonim assume that only Torah literature is appropriate for reading on Shabbat: “It is prohibited to read anything other than books of prophecy and commentary on Shabbat and Yom Tov, even if it contains philosophy and science.” The Shulhan Arukh ruled similarly.
Other Rishonim permitted reading when the study serves a specific purpose: for example, there is a controversy regarding reading personal letters on Shabbat, which depends, among other things, on the question of immediate benefit. The Rashba and others permitted reading philosophical works (about astrology and logic), since these are important to study; Tosfot prohibited reading war stories in languages that are not Hebrew, and the Rema inferred that if the reading material is in Hebrew, this is more beneficial, and is therefore permitted. The Mishnah Berura permitted reading history and literature, since these are instructive. Under the guise of philosophy and instructive literature some permitted reading the newspaper (but not financial sections). Of course, on Shabbat as well as weekdays, care should be taken not to read inappropriate or crude materials, and focus instead on reading materials that contributes to one’s spiritual or intellectual world, and to oneg Shabbat. Some poskim believe that people who spend their weekdays studying Torah should rest on Shabbat by engaging in other fields (Resp. Divrei Yatziv, and the concept in general is previously suggested in the Rema, and earlier in the Yerushalmi).
In practice, according to these poskim, it is permitted and even valued to engage in reading any materials that are either instructive or lead to oneg Shabbat. However, the Rambam and Shulhan Arukh remind us that every activity one engages in on Shabbat should be for the ultimate purpose of elevating Shabbat, and the opportunity should be taken to advance the study of Torah.