12. Permitted and Forbidden Reading Material

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One may not read contracts and financial documents on Shabbat, such as loan and purchase contracts, bank statements, phone and electric bills, and prices on flyers or in shop windows. Reading them is considered dealing with mundane affairs (ĥeftzei ĥol), which is forbidden on Shabbat (Rosh). Furthermore, there is a concern that as a result of reading them one will end up writing or erasing (Rambam).

According to Rambam, one may read only sacred words on Shabbat; all other reading material is forbidden, even to study the sciences, so that Shabbat is not treated as a weekday and situations that might lead to writing are avoided. However, in practice, we follow the majority of poskim (Rashi, Ri, Rosh), who limit the prohibition to reading financial and business material. In order to ensure that no one will end up reading these materials, the Sages also prohibited reading secular material that has no value. In contrast, secular material that has value may be read on Shabbat. This includes material on physical fitness, proper nutrition, and ingredient lists on food packaging. One may also study the sciences and other branches of knowledge.

One may not read run-of-the-mill secular material and stories if they have no value. However, one who enjoys reading them may do so occasionally, as the Sages did not forbid reading for pleasure on Shabbat. In contrast, one should not read gripping novels that cause sadness or anxiety on Shabbat (MB 306:38 and 307:3). It would seem that one may read depressing stories from Jewish history and rabbinic biographies, since they are valuable as Torah and are morally edifying. Nevertheless, it is preferable to study pleasant things, which are more appropriate for Shabbat.

In principle, one may read the newspaper for informative content. One who enjoys reading news, stories, and analysis may do so, but one may not read sad and worrying content on Shabbat. One may read general financial articles as long as they do not give practical advice, but one may not read articles that give practical business and investment advice. It is also forbidden to read advertisements for products that one may wish to buy in the future.

Even though technically one may read parts of the newspaper, many maintain that it is proper to avoid reading it on Shabbat because it is full of advertisements and disturbing news, and it is difficult to distinguish between what one may and may not read. Additionally, reading a newspaper negates the main purpose of Shabbat, which is Torah study. Therefore, one may read its informative content and non-disturbing news, but only while in the bathroom.[7]

One may read (and place) ads in leaflets distributed in synagogues, as long as they are advertising products that fulfill mitzva needs, such as Torah books or homes in Israel (to potential customers from abroad). If these products are being sold cheaply and advertising might encourage readers to fulfill the mitzva, one may even publish the price (see MB 306:55, 307:1, and 323:20).

One may not read a guest list or menu of a Shabbat meal as it resembles reading a contract. In addition, there is a concern that the host may wish to correct the list by writing or erasing (Shabbat 149:1; SA 307:12-13). In contrast, for the sake of a mitzva, such as the meal accompanying a brit mila, or in order to avoid greatly insulting someone, a waiter may read the list, as there is no concern that he will change it. However, the host or head waiter may not read the list, because they might end up correcting it (MB 307:47; SHT ad loc. 54).

The gabbai may read the notebook or cards that contain the list of people to be called up to the Torah, since this is for the sake of a mitzva. We are not worried that he will end up writing or erasing, since he is standing in the middle of a group of people. If he forgets and wants to write, others will remind him that it is Shabbat. The gabbai may also call people to the Torah from a list he has been given by a family that is celebrating a special occasion in the synagogue. If they wish to change the list, the gabbai should not review it without at least one other person reviewing it with him who can remind him that it is Shabbat, lest he forget.


[7]. According to Rambam, only Torah material may be read on Shabbat. All other reading materials are forbidden out of concern that people will end up writing. In contrast, Rashi, Ri, Rosh, Ramban, and Rashba maintain that the original prohibition was limited to reading material dealing with business or other things that are forbidden on Shabbat. The Sages extended this prohibition to include stories or material with no value, to make it less likely that people will read the previously prohibited material. The majority of poskim follow this lenient approach (Baĥ 307:5; SAH 307:21-22; MB 307:52; SSK 29:48-49). The Gemara forbids reading captions under pictures, and this includes mundane stories as well (Shabbat 149a; SA 307:15). According to Ma’amar Mordechai and SAH, even one who enjoys them may not read them, but according to MA 301:4, Birkei Yosef, Pri Megadim, and Maharsham, he may read occasionally. Disturbing material, no matter how gripping, should not be read (see MB 307:3).She’elat Ya’avetz 1:162 states that while technically one may read newspapers, in practice it is proper to forbid it lest people end up reading prohibited material. MB 307:63 states similarly, while Shvut Yaakov 3:13 is permissive. See SSK 29:48 and Harĥavot.

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