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Shabbat Parashat Vayechi| 5764
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Is it permitted to cut cake which has writing or decoration on it on Shabbat?
Answer: The Rama (OC 340:3) rules that “one is forbidden to break a cake that has written on it letter-like forms, even though he intends only to eat, because this is erasing.” The Dagul Meir’vava (ad loc.) assumes that, according to the Rama, the same is true of picture-like forms. The prohibition also applies if small items (sprinkles, nuts, etc.) are arranged so that they create such figures (Shmirat Shabbat K’hilchata 11:7). (Little puffs of icing aren’t considered a picture, but carefully made “flowers” may be).
That is the stringent part of the picture. The Dagul Meir’vava asks on the Rama from the gemara (Pesachim 37a) that other than for problems of chametz, one can eat s’rikin on seder night. S’rikin are matzot made in the shape of specific animals (Magid Mishneh, Chametz U’matza 5:15) and, therefore, should be forbidden, according to the Rama, as erasing.
A distinction which is accepted by most poskim (see Mishna Berura 340:15) is between a case where the writing is a separate substance on top of the cake, which is forbidden, and between where the cake is formed in or with the shape of letters or pictures. In the latter case, it is not considered erasing writing and is permitted.
Even in the case of a separate layer, there are certain grounds for leniency. The Torah-level prohibition of erasing applies only when done in order to write on the erased area (as opposed to our case of cutting in order to eat). Additionally, in our case, one does not intend specifically to cut the letters, but to cut the cake. When one does something which will clearly cause a violation but without specific intent (p’sik reishei), some permit the action if the violation is only rabbinic (Trumat Hadeshen 64), as in our case. Even though we are normally strict, one might permit the action if there is additional leniency. Therefore, we permit the “erasure” if it is done by mouth during eating, not by knife or fork, as this is an unusual way to break letters (Mishna Berura 340:17). The Dagul Meir’vava permitted even cutting with a knife, as it is destructive and an unusual erasure done without specific intention. Although most poskim do not agree, the great weight of his rulings should preclude criticizing those who are lenient.
A couple of practical suggestions are in order. According to most authorities, one can cut in between letters, while breaking up words (see Shmirat Shabbat K’hilchata 9:(48)). Even if one cuts in such a way that there is a reasonable chance the letters won’t be broken, it is permissible even if some are inadvertently cut. One can also slice off the lettering before cutting. The easiest way to do that is to put the design on top of a small cookie sheet discreetly stuck to the top of the cake.
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