Defining the Prohibition of Kotev – Writing (Part 1)
The mishna (73a) lists writing (kotev) as one of the prohibited melakhot of Shabbat. On a basic level, we might assume that the melakha consists of forming letters with ink or other forms of inscription material. However, several indicators suggest that the melakha is defined slightly differently.
The mishna lists two letters as the requisite shiur to violate the melakha of kotev. When considering the various options of two letters, the gemara (103a-b) lists several opinions, including disputes regarding the permissibility of writing two repetitive letters. At face value, it seems that all opinions agree that writing repetitive letters which convey absolutely no meaning – for example, writing the letter alef twice in succession – does not constitute kotev. Rashi, however, claims that the Tana Kamma of the original mishna (103a) would in fact prohibit two repetitive letters without meaning. Presumably, he would claim that kotev is defined in a classic sense – simply crafting letters. It therefore makes little difference whether the letters convey meaning or coherent ideas.
By contrast, most of the Tanna’im, who permit that repetitive letters with no meaning, may assert that kotev is defined as communication via text. Two letters without content provide absolutely no communication, and cannot be prohibited. In fact, the Yerushalmi cites a position that even writing two different letters that provide no coherent content would not violate kotev. Evidently, kotev is not defined as merely crafting calligraphy, but rather as communication through text, and in the absence of content, no communication has occurred.
Defining kotev as communication may yield some interesting expansions of the prohibition. For example, R. Hai Gaon (cited by the Rashba (103a)) claims that writing two letter-like symbols would violate kotev. He cites an example of upside down nuns, which are employed in Parashat Beha'alotekha to cordon off a minuscule parasha. Although these forms aren’t classic letters, they do convey text-related information (similar to the function of parentheses), and are prohibited – assuming that kotev prohibits conveying information.
In fact, the mishna (103a) cites an interesting minority opinion of R. Yossi, who defines the prohibition as “roshem” and prohibits the crafting of lines and sketches. In the Mishkan, these lines were used to denote the sequencing of the wooden beams which formed the skeleton of the edifice. By prohibiting markings – even if they are not in any way related to formal language – R. Yossi forbids any conveyance of information. Of course, the Chakhamim disagree and require actual language (or letter-related forms, as in the case of the upside down nuns noted by R. Hai Gaon), but they may also define kotev as conveyance of information. However, in their view, without actual letters, the conveyance is too vague and too dependent upon the interpretation of the recipient, and therefore not a direct enough communication to violate kotev. In fact the mishna (104b) cites a different dispute between the Chakhamim and R. Yehoshua ben Beteira about nutrikin, conjugated words. Indeed, R. Yehoshua prohibited this because it both contains content and the requisite two letters to entail a kotev violation. Presumably, the Chakhamim reject this as a kotev violation because the conveyance of information – although letter-based – is still too vague, and therefore indirect. Inasmuch as the conjugated words must be properly interpreted by the recipient or reader, this cannot be considered direct communication through text.
Based on similar logic, any letters that do convey coherent information may entail a kotev violation even if they aren’t crafted in a classic fashion. The gemara cites the case of someone who wrote one letter on the painted gate of one city and the second letter on the painted gates of a different proximate but non-contiguous city (according to R. Hai Gaon’s explanation of the scenario). Since the onlooker knows to associate the two letters and read them as one, kotev has been violated even though the two letters were not actually written in adjacency – a condition that is typically required to violate kotev. Evidently, proximity per se isn’t necessary; it is simply typically required to assure readability and comprehensibility. When the letters can be read in sequence even at a distance, kotev has been violated.
By contrast, an interesting statement of the Ra'avya (cited by the Ohr Zarua, Shabbat ch. 76) limiting kotev to two unique languages may indicate that the melakha is more formally defined as crafting letters. The Ra'avya limits the prohibition on Shabbat to writing in Hebrew or Greek. Chazal had a respect for the linguistic integrity of the Greek language and afforded it alone (along with Hebrew) the status of “High Language” (see Megilla 8b regarding writing Scripture in Greek or Hebrew). The conveyance of content would be effective in any number of languages; by limiting the prohibition to two formal "languages," the Ra'avya clearly defines the melakha as an act of crafting letters – and only letters from “high languages” are prohibited.
A similar “formal” limitation which may indicate that crafting letters, rather than communication, is prohibited can be discerned in the gemara (103b) that discusses substituting “end” letters with regular letters. If a person wrote a word that should end with a mem sofit and instead wrote a standard mem, would he violate kotev? The gemara appears to link this question to a general issue as to whether end letters and regular letters are indeed the same letter. If Halacha treats them as different (for example, when writing a sefer Torah), they would also be considered different regarding Shabbat violation. This is quite strange if kotev is defined merely as conveyance of information. Why should formal differences between letters thwart the communication of information through text?
In fact, the Rambam appears to disassociate the two issues. Even if the letters are considered distinct for general purposes, Shabbat would still be violated by swapping an end letter and a standard letter. However, the simple reading of the gemara does suggest that such an exchange would not be prohibited. Presumably, this implies that the melakha is defined in very formal terms of writing letters and words. Since the word must conclude with an end letter and instead was concluded with a regular letter, no violation has occurred, even though the reader can clearly comprehend the meaning.