18 – Kotev, Moĥek, and Tzove’a

01. Kotev and Moĥek

Kotev is the melakha of expressing ideas precisely using letters, numbers, or meaningful pictures in a manner that allows the idea to last a long time. In the Mishkan, letters were written on the posts that formed its walls so that the order, position, and orientation of each post would always be clear. Sometimes mistakes would be made, so there was a need to erase the letters and replace them with the correct ones. This is the melakha of Moĥek, erasing in order to write other letters (Shabbat 103a; Rashi on Shabbat 73a).

At first glance, Kotev seems to be a trivial and insubstantial melakha that should not have been included on the list of serious melakhot prohibited on Shabbat. However, in truth, writing is the basis for human activity. No matter how smart one was or how good a memory one had, he would still have had difficulty remembering exactly where to place each individual post in the Mishkan. This is the case with all complex matters: if one does not write them down, he will not remember them precisely and he will lose the ability to reconstruct the knowledge he has accumulated and the achievements he has already attained. Through writing, mankind was able to develop scientifically and improve human life.

In order to ensure that information is precise, sometimes it is necessary to erase a mistake in order to replace it with accurate information. Even if a piece of paper has a stain on it and one erases it so he can write letters instead, he transgresses Moĥek, as his erasure prepares the writing surface (SA 340:3).

Sometimes erasing is considered a melakha even if one does not plan to write in the place of the erasure; for example, if there is an extra letter in a Torah scroll which must be erased in order to render the Torah kosher (Shabbat 104b; BHL 340:3, s.v. “ha-moĥek”).

Using a rubber stamp is also considered Kotev. It makes no difference whether the stamp is held with the right or left hand, because the stamp can be easily used with either hand. Similarly, using a printer, photocopier, or fax machine is prohibited by Torah law on Shabbat, since doing so commits meaningful symbols or letters to writing (see MA, OĤ 32:57; Taz, YD 271:8; Igrot Moshe, OĤ 4:40:10).

One may not type letters or characters on a computer or save them to a computer’s memory. It is also forbidden to take photographs, or to record voices or sounds. However, since these actions do not produce stable forms or letters, many maintain that the prohibition is rabbinic.[1]


[1]. R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and R. Mordechai Eliyahu maintain that typing on a computer is prohibited by Torah law. This would also be the position of those who maintain that using electricity is prohibited by Torah law, as explained above in 17:2. See Harĥavot here and there.

02. Defining the Prohibition of Writing and Exploring Leniencies for Life-Threatening Situations

It is critically important to define each melakha precisely and establish what is rabbinically prohibited and what is prohibited by Torah law, and moreover these determinations have practical consequences. For example, when writing is necessary in a hospital or in the army in order to save lives, le-khatĥila one should minimize the prohibitions one violates and write in a manner that is only rabbinically prohibited. We shall first clarify what is prohibited by Torah law and what is rabbinically prohibited, and then detail how one should write in cases where there is danger to human life.

The Torah prohibition of Kotev refers to writing normally with the right hand, though one who writes irregularly with the left hand violates a rabbinic prohibition. A lefty who writes with his left hand violates Torah law, and if he uses his right hand he violates rabbinic law. One who is ambidextrous violates Torah law by writing with either hand (Shabbat 103a).

If one holds the pen with a shinui – in his mouth, with his foot, or with the back of his hand – he violates a rabbinic prohibition (MT 11:14).

The Torah prohibition of Kotev also refers to writing that lasts for a significant amount of time. Therefore, if one writes with a pencil or pen on paper, he violates Torah law. However, if he writes using fruit juice, which will quickly fade, or with a regular pen but on a leaf that will dry out and crumble, he violates a rabbinic prohibition.

According to the vast majority of poskim, the Torah prohibition of Kotev applies to all languages (MT 11:10; BHL 306:11). A few poskim maintain that the Torah prohibition applies only to letters that may appear in a Torah scroll, but writing in any other script, in a foreign language, or in cursive Hebrew, constitutes a rabbinic transgression (Or Zaru’a).

If writing is necessary to save lives, and it is clear that a slight delay will not cause any further danger, the prohibition should be minimized by writing with a shinui, using the left hand. If one is ambidextrous, he should grasp the writing utensil with the back of his hand or between his little finger and ring finger. Ideally, a medical professional should buy a “Shabbat pen” whose ink disappears within a few days and with which writing is only rabbinically forbidden. If something must be typed on a computer, a shinui should be used if possible, such as typing with the knuckles, with a teaspoon, or the like. It is also preferable to write in cursive rather than in block letters.

To summarize, if one must write because of a life-threatening situation, it is preferable to use a Shabbat pen, since everyone agrees this is only rabbinically prohibited. Even with a Shabbat pen, it is proper to write using a shinui if possible. When a Shabbat pen is not available, one may write or type as needed, but in cursive and using a shinui when possible.

03. Incidental Writing and Erasing

One may not cut through letters that are written on a cake in frosting, candy, or the like. Similarly, if a cake is decorated with a meaningful picture, like a tree or a house, one may not cut through the picture. Even though one’s intention in cutting the cake is to eat it, since the letters or pictures have meaning and it is very clear that they are being “erased” when the cake is cut, it is rabbinically prohibited (Mordechai; Rema 340:3). However, one may cut between the letters. Even though this separates a word into its component parts, one does not violate Moĥek as long as each letter remains whole. Therefore, if a cake that one plans to serve on Shabbat is being decorated, it should be done in such a way that one will be able to cut between the letters and pictures. Afterward, the slices of cake may be eaten even though eating them will destroy the letters. Since one is engaged in the process of eating, it is not considered Moĥek.

When letters or pictures appear on cookies as a result of having been stamped into the cookie dough, as with petits beurres cookies, there is no prohibition against cutting or breaking them. Since these letters have no significance, erasing them incidentally is not prohibited (MB 340:15).

Some maintain that it is rabbinically prohibited to read a book that has letters stamped or written on the edges of the pages (such as a library stamp) because when one opens the book the letters break apart, and when it is closed they are reconstructed (Levush; MA). In practice, if no other book is available, one may read such a book, because many maintain that bringing the different parts of a letter together is not considered Kotev, nor is separating them considered Moĥek. Additionally, since a book is meant to be opened and closed repeatedly, this is not considered even short-term Kotev and Moĥek, and thus involves no prohibition (Rema 340:3; Taz; MB ad loc. 17).

Some rule that if opening a package of food will definitely tear letters or pictures, it may not be opened on Shabbat. They permit opening the package only if it is possible that the letters or pictures will not be torn in the process (based on Taz). Others maintain that one may open such a package, since all parts of the letters actually remain, but have simply been separated from each other (based on Rema). Le-khatĥila it is proper to be stringent, but when there is no way to open a package without tearing letters, one may be lenient. One who opens the package has no interest in “erasing” the letters, and the action is not constructive but destructive.

One may wear shoes whose soles are stamped with letters or pictures, even though walking in these shoes may leave impressions of these letters or pictures on mud or similar surfaces.[2]

One who wrote on himself with a pen may still wash his hands and dry them in the usual way, since ink generally does not come off as a result of washing and drying one’s hands one time. However, if he would like the letters to come off, he must be careful to wash and dry his hands gently, so that he does not assist in the removal of the letters.


[2]. According to Rema (Responsa Rema §119), tearing a letter is not considered erasing, since all parts of the letter remain but have simply been separated from one another. However, according to Taz 340:2, it is considered erasing and is prohibited. Based on this, SSK 9:13 prohibits opening packages if this will involve tearing letters. However, even within Taz’s approach, one may be lenient be-di’avad; as we have seen (ch. 9 n. 2), a psik reisha de-lo niĥa lei in a case of a double rabbinic prohibition is permitted. This case is considered a psik reisha de-lo niĥa lei as well, since one has no interest in the letters. All he is interested in is opening the package. There are two factors that render the entire prohibition rabbinic. First, one is not erasing to enable writing in that space. Second, the erasing is done with a shinui (or destructively). This is, in fact, the position of Or Le-Tziyon 2:27:7 and Yalkut Yosef 314:19. For the same reasons, one may walk in shoes that will leave impressions of letters or pictures on the ground. Here, too, there are two factors that render the prohibitions rabbinic. First, the “writing” will disappear fairly quickly. Second, this is not the normal way to write. Furthermore, since one has no interest in leaving impressions of letters in the ground, it is permitted.Based on this, it would seem at first glance that one should also be allowed to cut a cake with writing on it, as this is a psik reisha de-lo niĥa lei in the case of a double rabbinic prohibition as well. Furthermore, according to Rema, it is not an act of erasure but of separation. Indeed, Taz is inclined to rule this way in 340:2. Dagul Me-revava and a number of other Aĥaronim also rule this way (cited in Livyat Ĥen §119). Nevertheless, many poskim are stringent. The reason for this would seem to be that the letters on a cake are noticeable and significant, and it is very clear that they are being erased when the cake is cut. This is what I wrote in the main text. One may cut between the letters because most poskim maintain that separating letters is not considered Moĥek (Ma’amar Mordechai; Avnei Nezer; SSK ch. 9 n. 51). In times of necessity, if it is very important to eat the cake and it cannot be cut without cutting through the letters, one may rely on those who are lenient. The status of a book with lettering on the edge is more complicated, as explained in Harĥavot.

04. Temporary Writing, Word Games, and Jigsaw Puzzles

As we have seen, temporary writing is rabbinically prohibited. Erasing something when one does not plan to write something else in its place is rabbinically prohibited as well. Therefore, one may not write in the condensation on a window or erase such writing. Similarly, one may not form letters in the sand or erase them (MB 340:20-21).

One may not mark a page using his fingernail to remind oneself that the page contains something notable or something that needs to be corrected. Since he is creating a lasting mark, it is rabbinically prohibited (MB 340:25; Kaf Ha-ĥayim ad loc. 51). However, one may dog-ear the page, because there his goal is not to “engrave” a mark in the paper. Rather, the fold itself is the mark.

Some allow a sick person to use a thermometer strip. They maintain that it is not really writing since the numbers are already imprinted on the strip, and the temperature only makes them visible for a short time, after which they disappear (Yeĥaveh Da’at 4:29). Others forbid this, considering it temporary writing (SSK 40:2). Since the issue is rabbinic, one may be lenient in times of need (Tzitz Eliezer 14:30; below 28:11). Similarly, le-khatĥila one should not perform any medical tests that cause colors to appear, but in times of need, one may be lenient (ibid.).

Colorful blocks may be put next to each other to form a letter, and thread may be laid down in the shape of a letter. This is because the blocks or thread already exist; one is simply arranging them. Similarly, he may juxtapose two cards that together form a picture, letter, or word. This is because all the forms already exist; they are simply being brought together.

This applies when the different parts do not connect to each other or to a board. However, if they do connect, most contemporary poskim maintain that it is rabbinically forbidden to put them together and that therefore one may not pin parts of letters to a board to form a whole letter, on account of Kotev. Similarly, one may not assemble a jigsaw puzzle, since creating meaningful pictures also constitutes Kotev. Others permit these activities, maintaining that they are not considered writing since all the writing already exists, and the activity merely brings the letters or puzzle pieces into proximity. However, even according to the lenient position, one may not complete a jigsaw puzzle in order to preserve it as a portrait.

In practice, those who wish may be lenient and allow their children to engage in these activities, but it is proper for adults to be stringent, as most poskim are stringent here. More generally, it is important to realize that Shabbat is meant to be dedicated to Torah, and some therefore say that adults may not play games on Shabbat at all (below 22:13, 24:7; and Harĥavot).[3]

One may use a multiple-dial combination lock on Shabbat, because turning the discs to align the numbers is not considered writing. The numbers are already there; one is merely realigning them temporarily to form the correct combination and open the lock (Tzitz Eliezer 13:44).


[3]. SSK 16:24 rules stringently but states in n. 66 that one does not have to stop a child from playing games on Shabbat, relying on those who are lenient. This is the opinion of the majority of poskim. Or Le-Tziyon 2:42:6 permits little girls to play games but not little boys, so they do not grow accustomed to wasting time that could be used for Torah study. He insists, however, that for adults, games are muktzeh. See Harĥavot.

05. Dyeing

Tzove’a is a melakha with the objective of making something more beautiful. In the Mishkan, the woolen threads of the curtains were dyed indigo, royal purple, and scarlet. Even though the melakha of Kotev can be described as “dyeing” a page with letters, there is a difference between Kotev and Tzove’a. The goal of writing is to express an idea. Even when the “writing” is a picture of a house or a tree, the goal is still to express an idea, and that is how one transgresses Kotev. In contrast, the goal of dyeing is not to express an idea, but to beautify an item. Therefore, one who creates a meaningful image on paper or on a wall transgresses Kotev, and if he then colors it to beautify it he transgresses Tzove’a (y. Shabbat 7:2).

Therefore, it is prohibited by Torah law to paint, color, or dye walls, cabinets, utensils, fabric, or clothing on Shabbat. The specific color is irrelevant; any color that beautifies is prohibited by Torah law. Even if the paint is colorless and merely adds glaze or shine, it is prohibited, because shine is considered color. It is prohibited by Torah law to paint a wall even if it was previously painted with the same or a different color.

It is also prohibited by Torah law to polish shoes. Even if the polish is neutral or colorless, it is prohibited by Torah law, because it makes the shoes shine. If the polish is a cream that is spread on the shoes, then one who applies it also transgresses Memare’aĥ (section 6 below). If the polish improves the leather, then one transgresses Me’abed as well (MB 327:12, 16; see section 6 below). Even if the polish was applied before Shabbat, one may not buff the shoes on Shabbat to make them shine, because shine is considered color. However, if there is dust on the shoes, one may gently remove it with a rag (SSK 15:40).

The Torah prohibition of Tzove’a is limited to permanent dyes. If the color will come off by itself within a short time, the prohibition is rabbinic (MT 9:13).

If one’s hands become stained with fruit, blood, or any other substance, le-khatĥila he should first wash his hands and only afterward dry them with a towel, to avoid “dyeing” the towel. Similarly, if juice spills on a tablecloth, the one who wipes it off should be careful not to drag the juice along the cloth as that will dye the tablecloth. Even though such “dyeing” dirties the tablecloth rather than beautifying it, those who are stringent maintain that since it is normal to dye such a cloth, it is rabbinically prohibited (SA 320:20). In times of need one may be lenient, since many poskim say that adding color in a way that dirties the object is not prohibited (MB 320:59; Kaf Ha-ĥayim ad loc. 122).

Since bandages or tissues are not normally dyed, they may be used to clean up blood or other colored substances. Since the color added dirties material that is not normally dyed, there is no prohibition (SAH §302, Kuntres Aĥaron).

Everyone agrees that there is no issue of staining the hands or mouth when eating strawberries or other brightly colored foods, because this is not the normal way to color skin, and any such coloring is actually dirtying the skin (MB 320:58). However, one may not put on makeup, as we explained earlier (14:4).

If a toilet has an automatic toilet bowl cleaner that colors the water with every flush, poskim disagree whether one may flush the toilet on Shabbat. Some maintain that since people are interested in the water being colored, it is rabbinically prohibited even though the color is present only briefly. Others maintain that since the primary goal is to clean the toilet, and the color is just incidental, one may flush the toilet. In practice, it is preferable to use a clear toilet bowl cleaner. However, if one finds himself in a place where the cleaning material is colored, he may flush the toilet. Those who wish to be lenient and use a colored toilet bowl cleaner have an opinion to rely upon.[4]


[4]. This disagreement hinges on several issues: 1) Is it forbidden to color water? According to Pri Megadim and MB 320:56, it is forbidden. However, since in this case the dye is not long-lasting, the prohibition is rabbinic. This is the opinion of most poskim. Others maintain that it is permitted, either because the color does not become absorbed anywhere specific (Or Le-Tziyon 1:29), or because water is a liquid, and Tzove’a does not apply to liquids (Tzitz Eliezer 14:47). 2) Even if Tzove’a applies to water, some maintain that since the dyeing is done indirectly – flushing the toilet involves lifting the flush valve, which is considered removing an impediment to the water going down through the cleaner – it is a case of grama. If this is correct, then this is a psik reisha in a case of a double rabbinic prohibition (Halikhot Olam vol. 4, p. 286). Others maintain that this is not considered grama, and is therefore prohibited (Shulĥan Shlomo 320:31:3). 3) There is also a disagreement regarding the facts of the case. What is the purpose of the cleaning material – cleaning or coloring?In practice, those who are stringent include Shulĥan Shlomo, Menuĥat Ahava 3:13:4 and n. 9, and Orĥot Shabbat 15:64. The latter adds that if one forgot to remove the container of the toilet bowl cleaner before Shabbat, he should do so on Shabbat with his foot, because it is muktzeh. Those who are lenient include Tzitz Eliezer, Or Le-Tziyon, and Halikhot Olam. If one knows that he cares about the color of the water, he should be stringent.

06. Mafshit, Me’abed, Memaĥek, and Mesartet

There are four melakhot that relate to preparing animal skins for writing: Mafshit, Me’abed, Memaĥek, and Mesartet (as explained below). When parchment was the standard writing surface, everyday things were written on it. Nowadays, however, only Torah scrolls, tefilin, and mezuzot are written on parchment. Additionally, nowadays, animal skins are used to make leather clothing, shoes, satchels, and upholstery. In the Mishkan, skins were prepared to be used as curtains as well. Mesartet was performed not only on skins, but on wood as well – to designate a place on the boards for writing.

Mafshit refers to removing the skin from an animal that was slaughtered. This skin has two layers. The outer layer, or klaf, is the material upon which Torah scrolls, tefilin, and mezuzot are written. The inner layer, or dokhsostos, may only be used for mezuzot. One who separates the two layers transgresses a tolada of Mafshit. Although one may not remove an animal’s skin, one may skin a cooked chicken, because the prohibition of Mafshit does not apply to edible meat.

Me’abed refers to placing the skin in salt, lime, or other substances that draw out the skin’s juices and acids. This allows the skin to last for hundreds of years. Any action that prepares skins for use is included in this melakha. Therefore, one may not to stomp on skins to harden them, use one’s hands to soften them, or spread oil on them to make them soft and pliant (MT 11:6). We explained above the laws of Me’abed as they pertain to food (12:9).

Memaĥek refers to smoothing the skins by removing hairs and irregularities. This melakha also includes smoothing any rough surface, such as wood or stone, by means of sandpaper or a file (Shabbat 75b). It is also forbidden to scour silver items with a material that smooths their surface (SA 323:9). One may not scour metal with steel wool or sharpen knives (MB 323:40).

The melakha of Memaĥek has a tolada called Memare’aĥ, which refers both to spreading a substance evenly upon an object and to spreading a substance on an object in order to smooth out the object. Therefore, one who spreads ointment on a poultice transgresses Torah law (Shabbat 75b; see below 28:8). It is also forbidden to spread lotions and creams on one’s body, as explained above (14:5). Similarly, one may not polish shoes by spreading cream on them. Even without a cream, one may not rub leather shoes in order to shine them (see AHS 327:4; SSK 15:40). As we explained above (12:11), according to most poskim, the prohibition of Memaĥek does not apply to foods.

Mesartet refers to scoring a line to facilitate writing in a straight line. This melakha also includes drawing a straight line on leather, wood, or stone in order to mark where to cut these materials. However, one may use a knife to draw lines on a cake or to score an orange, to help one cut with precision. Since the prohibition of Meĥatekh does not apply to food (as explained above in 15:10), Mesartet does not apply to food either (MB 322:12, 18; SSK 11:15).

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