Reading Advertisements on Shabbat

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by R. Daniel Mann

Question: May one read advertisements on Shabbat? If not, is it permitted to read divrei Torah on the same page as an ad?

Answer: One may not read shitrei hedyotot on Shabbat (Shabbat 116b). Another gemara may extend this prohibition. The mishna (Shabbat 148b) forbids reading a guest list on Shabbat. The gemara (ibid. 149a) cites two opinions on the reason for this: the reader might erase some of it; reading it might bring one to read shitrei hedyotot.   

What are shitrei hedyotot, and why are they forbidden? The Rosh (Shabbat 23:1) says that shitrei hedyotot are documents connected to commerce, and they are forbidden due to the navi’s warnings not to be involved in one’s mundane pursuits on Shabbat (mim’tzo cheftzecha – Yeshayahu 58:13). The Rambam in the Commentary on Mishna (Shabbat 23:2) says that it is forbidden to read anything that is not Torah. In Mishneh Torah (Shabbat 23:19) he views shitrei hedyodot as weekday-like things, which can bring one to erase. How far to take this is a complicated topic, and the broad common practice is extremely lenient. However, the full consensus of poskim (see Dirshu 307:70) is that shitrei hedyodot include not only commercial documents but also commercial advertisements, which are produced to encourage people to buy, rent, take a job, etc. in a for-profit setting.

The reading’s intensity makes a difference. While there is an opinion that the prohibition is only for reading with one’s mouth (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 307), we pasken that reading with the eyes is also generally forbidden (Shulchan Aruch and Rama, OC 307:12-13). However, glancing at something, without intent to pick up content, is permitted (Ne’ot Mordechai XVIII, p. 70; Dirshu 307:58). Consider that in order to avoid reading something, one first needs to see (= read superficially) what it is.

It has been debated for centuries whether one may read newspapers on Shabbat (beyond our present scope). In this context, the She’eilat Ya’avetz’s (I:162) reason not to raises your critical question. He says a newspaper should have been permitted, but one should not read one because he is liable to read the ads within it. The Mishna Berura (307:63) seems to prefer this opinion, but many view this as a chumra, good advice, and/or for people who are drawn to the paper’s commercial parts (see Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 29:46; Da’at Torah 307:16).

In Torah oriented or based publications, other leniencies apply. First, even those who would forbid or discourage reading newspapers because of the commercial parts, permit reading divrei Torah even if they are in the proximity of advertisements (Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata ibid.; Avnei Yashfeh I, OC 76).

More fundamentally, the mitzva element is its own heter regarding would-be Shabbat violations of what one should be occupied with on Shabbat (see Shabbat 113a). This permits reading an advertisement of mitzva, e.g., notification of a shiur, tzedaka appeal (Orchot Shabbat 22:132, based on Magen Avraham 307:16). It is somewhat less clear if it is permitted to read a commercial ad (i.e., for profit), when the sales item is used for a mitzva e.g., sefarim, 4 minim (see ibid. 129; Ne’ot Mordechai XVIII, p. 230).

If we accept the latter leniency, then we must analyze many commercial ads in parasha sheets to determine whether they count as mitzva matters in this regard. In many types of ads, it can depend on the specifics and/or the reader, as we can see (in brief) in the following  examples: 1. Real estate in Israel can be a mitzva if needed to strengthen our hold on the Land or enable aliya; 2. Most travel offers are about enjoyment, but, for a few, the Torah or mitzva element could be major; 3. Some health services are just nice, and some are life-saving.

We recommend that publications whose content is Shabbat appropriate can be read on Shabbat, but it is best to not read any commercial ads (it is too complicated to figure out each time and people may lack the discipline to look and then look away). However, there is room for limmud z’chut for quite a few ads.

לעילוי נשמת יואל אפרים בן אברהם עוזיאל זלצמן ז”ל

About Daniel Mann

This column is produced on behalf of Eretz Hemdah by Rabbi Daniel Mann. Rabbi Mann is a Dayan for Eretz Hemdah and a staff member of Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in Israel. He is a senior member of the Eretz Hemdah responder staff, editor of Hemdat Yamim and the author of Living the Halachic Process, volumes 1 and 2 and A Glimpse of Greatness.

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