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What does the Torah prohibition of writing on Shabbat include?

Sivan 5782 | June 2022

The 39 melakhot which are the basis of the prohibitions to work on Shabbat were famously derived from the labors involved in creating the Tabernacle. Although this is generally an accepted rule (e.g. Shabbat 31b), in practice the Mishna rarely links between the prohibitions and the actual labors involved in the construction of the Tabernacle. With regard to the melakha of hotza’ah (transporting objects outdoors), which is intuitively not perceived as labor (as Tosfot states, this is ‘an inferior labor’), the Mishna (Shabbat 10:3) details the source of labor conducted in the Tabernacle. The Gemara also attempts to find more explicit biblical sources for this labor (Shabbat 96b; Eruvin 17b). Another labor linked directly to its performance in the Tabernacle by the Mishna is kotev (writing), where the connection is cited in the context of a debate regarding the definition of this melakha.

The Mishna (Shabbat 12:3) states: “One who writes two letters, whether with his right or his left, whether from one name or from two names, whether using two types of ink, in any language – is liable. Rabbi Yossi said: they only made [one] liable for two letters due to marking, as they would write on [adjacent] beams of the Tabernacle, to know which was its counterpart. Rabbi [Yehuda] said: we found a small name taken from a bigger name, such as ‘shem’ (שמ) from ‘Shimon’ (שמעון) and ‘Shmuel’ (שמואל); and Noah (נח) from Nahor (נחור); and Dan from Daniel, and Gad from Gadiel.” The Mishna suggests two possibilities for the parameters of the prohibition to write on Shabbat. The first one relates to writing two letters, and in the case of writing a part of a word, the two letters must have independent significance. The second possibility is markings – even without writing legible letters (according to Rishonim even a scratch would fit this category). Markings may have no objective meaning but have significance within the specific context (for example, marking two adjacent beams so that they may be placed correctly when the structure is built). Rabbi Yossi, who argues that marking is not permitted on Shabbat, cites the construction of the Tabernacle as the source for this melakha.

Why did the rabbis define the melakha of writing based on writing letters? Did they assume the beams were marked with letters instead of just markings, or did they infer this prohibition from another labor involved in constructing the Tabernacle? Although the Gemara does not address this directly, interesting insights may be derived from the sequence of the sugyas.

The Mishna states that one is liable for writing on Shabbat when one has written “a small name taken from a bigger name,” and brings as an example the word שם (which has an independent meaning – ‘name’) from the full name שמעון. However, the Gemara questioned whether this really was a ‘small’ name; if one meant to write ‘Shmuel’ or ‘Shimon’ but stopped in the middle, he would have written שמ (part of the name) and not שם (with a mem sofita final mem – ם), and this would not be a small complete word, but rather, two meaningless letters. Based on this, Rav Hisda concludes that one who writes a regular letter (instead of a final mem) in a Sefer Torah, that Torah scroll would be kosher. While this position was rejected, clearly Rav Hisda understood the laws of writing on Shabbat in parallel to the laws of writing a Sefer Torah. There are in fact significant similarities in the debates about writing on Shabbat and writing a Sefer Torah (and also gittin – divorce contracts): sometimes laws are inferred from one to another, while sometimes the differences are emphasized. The discussions also include debates about writing on the tzitz – the golden headpiece worn by the High Priest, which included the words קדש לה’ (‘Sanctified to God’). The Gemara goes on to discuss the shape of the letters on the two tablets, the mystical meaning of the Hebrew letters, and later, the fact that even omitting the decorative accents (tagin) over the letters may exempt one from liability for writing on Shabbat. This indicates that perhaps the laws of writing on Shabbat have nothing to do with writing on the beams of the Tabernacle, but rather from the letters of the tzitz, or the hoshen (the priestly breastplate), or perhaps even the Sefer Torah (the Eglei Tal, in Resp. Avnei Nezer, Orah Haim 199, be’ur mekekhet kotev, raises the possibility of writing accounts of the donations given for the construction of the Tabernacle).

This explanation illuminates a surprising (and not widely accepted) position by the Rema. The Gemara in Gittin (8b) states that it is an important value to purchase a house in Israel – to the extent that one may purchase a house on Shabbat, and even have a deed written by a non-Jew for this purpose. The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Haim 306:11) rules accordingly; but the Rema (based on the Ohr Zarua) adds that the deed should be written in non-Hebrew letters, which are only prohibited by rabbinic ordination. According to this position, the biblical prohibition to write on Shabbat only relates to Hebrew letters (which are referred to in the Gemara as ‘Assyrian scripts’ – כתב אשורי). Perhaps this is based on the sugya’s connection between the laws of writing a Sefer Torah and the prohibition to write on Shabbat. Regardless, Ahronim disagreed with the Rema, and ruled that the prohibition to write on Shabbat relates to every language and every type of writing. As explained above, the Mishna linked the melakha of writing with the labor as it manifested in the Tabernacle; this case demonstrates how the source of the law may affect its practical halakhic definition.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.