Defining the Prohibition of Kotev – The Act of Writing (Part 2)

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

In the previous shiur, we explored the definition of kotev and whether pure manufacturing of letters is forbidden. To the degree that the prohibition consists of conveying information, even non-formal letters would be prohibited, as long as meaningful and coherent content is conveyed. In this shiur, we will explore the mechanics of the act of writing and what type of activities are forbidden.

The mishna (104) exempts the process of “ketav al gavei ketav,” wherein text already exists and a second layer is written on top; this type of writing would not be forbidden on Shabbat. This reflects the position of the Chakhamim (Gittin 19a), who dispute R. Yehuda’s claim that in general, ketav al gavei ketav is considered a halakhic act of writing. According to R. Yehuda ketav al gavei ketav would be forbidden on Shabbat; the mishna reflects this opinion of Chakhamim. However, a minority opinion (R. Acha bar Yaakov) suggests that even the Chakhamim consider ketav al gavei ketav as halakhic writing (and they invalidate ketav al gavei ketav for a sefer Torah for other reasons). If everyone agrees that ketav al gavei ketav is considered halakhic writing, why is it not forbidden on Shabbat – as the mishna so clearly asserts?

The Ramban in Gittin (19a) tackles this question and asserts that kotev is only violated if a higher and conventional grade of writing is performed. Indeed, ketav al gavei ketav would entail a baseline halakhic act of writing. However, kotev is only violated if creative writing is performed. Second layer overlays are not creative acts of writing and therefore are not included within the prohibition of kotev. Presumably, the Ramban maintains that the melakha of kotev entails crafting letters. Only highly creative operations of crafting letters are forbidden; tracing a second layer on top of a previously inscribed layer is not creative enough to be forbidden. If the melakha of kotev entailed the conveyance of information, any halakhic act of writing should be prohibited as long as meaningful content is conveyed.

By stark contrast, the Ran suggests that even subpar forms of writing are forbidden on Shabbat. The gemara (Shabbat 104b) prohibits a situation of removing the roof of a letter chet to yield two letters of zayin; since the process has yielded two letters, kotev has been violated. Many Rishonim question this application of kotev, as removing ink and yielding letters is not general considered a halakhic act of writing, but is rather referred to as “chok tochos.” For example, a person crafting a get or writing a sefer Torah cannot merely erase ink and allow letters to emerge from non-erased areas of ink. Isn't erasing the roof of a chet to yield two zayins an example of adding through subtraction, which should thus be permissible on Shabbat? The Ran acknowledges that the roof removal would not be considered a formal act of writing; since it is erasure chok tochos; despite this deficiency, he argues that the melakha of kotev has been violated. Any process of producing letters constitutes a violation of kotev, even without a generally recognized halakhic act of writing. By so dramatically reducing the standard of the formal act of writing, the Ran may be emphasizing communication of content as the core of the kotev violation. Communication is effected even with subpar forms of writing.

It appears as though the Ran and the Ramban debate the need for a formal act of writing for kotev violations. The Ramban requires a surpassing form of writing, and he therefore disqualifies ketav al gavei ketav. By contrast, the Ran prohibits ink removal that yields letters, even though typically erasure cannot be considered an act of writing, because this process leads to communication of content, and thus a violation of kotev.

A third issue relates to writing with the weaker hand. The gemara (103a) claims that employing the weaker hand to write is not prohibited. Once again, the simple reading suggests that the melakha of kotev entails crafting of letters; if this craftsmanship is performed in a clumsy or awkward manner, the melakha has not been violated. If by contrast kotev prohibits the conveyance of information, any cogent writing should be sufficient, even if performed in a non-conventional manner. If kotev consists of communication even left-handed writing should be prohibited.

The Sefer Ha-Teruma extrapolates that left-handed writing is not considered halakhic writing even for get composition or drafting a sefer Torah. Even though the resultant text may be comprehensible, the mechanics are inelegant, and thus no ketiva has occurred. If this is true and left-handed ketiva is not generally considered an act of writing, the permissibility of left-handed writing on Shabbat can be understood regardless of the nature of the melakha of kotev. Even if the melakha is defined as rendering content, it still must be performed with a basic act of writing. If left-handed writing is subpar (evidently even less halakhically meaningful that erasure-based writing), kotev will not be violated.