Thursday, December 10, 2009

Secular Studies on Shabbat

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

Last night I delivered the finale of my "TechnoShabbat" series, in which we reviewed various new technologies and their potential for use on Shabbat. We looked at self-heating meals, bionic eyes, surveillance cameras, motion sensors and elevators. In the course of the series, we found many ways in which one might be able to participate in "normal life" without performing a melachah.

For the finale class, we looked at another angle: The issue of שבתון, the requirement that we make Shabbat a day of rest from our normal activities, beyond avoiding melachah.

I'm not reproducing the shiur here (although video should be on KosherTube soon, and you can find the audio here [and good news - we have converted all of our Toronto Torah audio files to mp3!]), but we did touch on a fascinating related topic worthy of more exploration: Studying secular subjects on Shabbat.

Here are the sources I brought at the class itself, on the "secular studies" sub-topic. They certainly beg for more discussion:

Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbat 15:3
לא ניתנו שבתות וימים טובים אלא לאכילה ולשתייה על ידי שהפה זה מסריח התירו לו לעסוק בהן בדברי תורה רבי ברכיה בשם רבי חייא בר בא לא ניתנו שבתות וימים טובים אלא לעסוק בהן בדברי תורה
Rabbi Chaggai cited from Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman: Shabbat and Yom Tov are only for eating and drinking, but because the mouth would be disgusting [with lashon hara or from overeating] they permitted Torah study.
Rabbi Berechiah cited Rabbi Chiyya bar Ba: Shabbat and Yom Tov are only for involvement in Torah study.

Rambam, Peirush haMishnayot Shabbat 23:2 (but note Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shabbat 23:19)
שמא יקרא אגרות בשבת, וזה אסור, שכל זולת ספרי הנבואה ופירושיהם אסור לקרותו לא בשבת ולא ביום טוב, ואפילו היה בו דברי חכמה ומדע.
The concern is lest one read letters on Shabbat. This would be prohibited, for all but the books of the prophets and their commentaries may not be read on Shabbat or Yom Tov, even if those texts involve matters of knowledge and understanding.

Beit Yosef to Tur, Orach Chaim 307
מדברי הרשב"א נראה שמותר ללמוד בספרי החכמות בשבת שכתב בתשובה (ח"א סימן תשעב, וח"ד סי' קב) שמותר להביט באצטרול"ב בשבת שאינו אלא כאחד מספרי החכמה...וכן כתב האגור (סי' תקח) שהרשב"א (ח"ז סי' רפח) והרמב"ן התירו לקרוא בשבת בספרי רפואות מפני שחכמה היא ולא דמי לשטרי הדיוטות:
Apparently, from the Rashba, one may study books of knowledge on Shabbat; he wrote in a responsum that one may look at an astrolabe on Sahbbat, for it is no different from books of wisdom… And so wrote the Agur, that the Rashba and the Ramban permitted study of works of medicine, because it is wisdom and it is not similar to mundane documents.

Aruch haShulchan, Orach Chaim 307:11
באמת אין כאן מחלוקת ושני הדיעות אמת דודאי מעיקר הדין א"א לאסור האמנם ממדת חסידות שכל אדם ראוי לנהוג כן כדי לכבד יום הקדוש הזה מצוה נכונה שלבד דברי תורה לא ישמע על פיו ביום השבת
In truth, there is no disagreement here; both opinions are correct. It is not possible to prohibit these studies, within the essential law. As a special trait of piety, though, which every person should practice in order to honor the day, it is a proper mitzvah (?) for a person to have words of Torah, alone, heard from his mouth on Shabbat.


  1. I try to spend time learning with each of my older kids on Shabbat.
    Although we only learn "Kodesh", it may be in preparation for a Mishna or Halacha test on Sunday.

    This bothered me at some level as it feels more like Hachana than "Torah Lishmah", but hey, if the Rashba holds that Secular Knowledge is OK, surely Mishna or Halacha can't be too bad, even if there will be a test later in the week.

  2. What about works of fiction (assuming it’s permitted to read them ever) or non-fiction, but not science per se (e.g., history, social sciences, etc.)?

  3. Crawling Axe brings up a good point--what about fiction? If it is "Jewish" fiction does that change things? Given a recent posting of yours, on using literary techniques gleaned from Mr. Besser to explain Ashrei, can't the case be made that a whole lot of different types of reading can be Torah oriented if they expand our way of thinking and our critical skills?

  4. Michael-
    Without paskening at all, I would note that one of the concerns expressed by Yeshayah, and those who cite him, is that one not pursue his weekday pursuits. If the study is exclusively exam-driven, might it in fact be a weekday pursuit?

    Crawling Axe-
    Take a look at Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 307:16, and the commenters thereon.

    Likely depends on how tight the link. But keep in mind that the Rambam considered books of חכמה to be quasi-Torah and part of understanding Gd, and yet he wrote that one should not read them on Shabbos. I don't view this as a downgrading of חכמה, but rather as an expression of the importance of studying direct Torah texts.

  5. Of course, there are later poskim; as you know. Rav H.D. Halevy related to at least one question about studying for HS subjects on Shabbat. And one of the more famous topics would be studying medicine on Shabbat. If I recall correctly, Rav S.Z. Aurbach made the distinction between a student (who he forbade to study medicine on Shabbat, since it had no actual application) and a physician (who he allowed to study because it might directly affect his practice and therefore is a mitzvah).

  6. R' Mordechai-
    Indeed, but studying for exams is something of a different parshah, I think. Although one who would permit for exams would surely permit for "Shabbat atmosphere."

    Crawling Axe-
    I would see that case as offering more room for leniency, yes.

  7. your article on Chanukah on YU to go is unable to open. interested in posting it here?

  8. Brad-
    Thanks for the heads-up. I posted it, as I suppose you've seen by now, and the link is now fixed as well.