The Science of the Past: Reading History on Shabbat

May one read history books on Shabbat? Although it may seem to be an innocuous activity, reading history actually poses several halakhic and hashkafic problems, some of which may apply even during the week. Perhaps a better question is, may one read history books at all? Various sources address these issues, constituting a small, yet significant discussion with implications for how we should spend our time – especially on Shabbat – and to what extent Judaism values the study of history.

One potential problem with reading history on Shabbat is the prohibition of reading business documents, referred to as shitrei hedyotot, such as inventories, contracts, and receipts.[1] Although this prohibition is Rabbinic, it even includes texts that may cause one to read business documents; for example, one may not read a caption that runs under a picture or portrait, lest one inadvertently read shitrei hedyotot.[2] Tosafot draw a parallel between image captions and history books: “It seems to Rabbeinu Yehuda that one may not look at those war chronicles (milhamot) that were written in foreign languages, for it is no less [problematic] than… the caption that runs under a picture or portrait, [which] one is forbidden to read on Shabbat.”[3] In other words, according to R. Yehuda, the concern of shitrei hedyotot applies equally to history books, and thus one may not read such texts on Shabbat.

Additionally, there is another, more general problem with reading history. The Psalmist states, “Praiseworthy is the man who does not… sit in the company of scoffers (moshav leitsim), but rather his desire is for the Torah of God.”[4] What constitutes a moshav leitsim? The Gemara invokes this verse regarding one who attends non-Jewish comedies, circuses, farces or other pointless entertainments that cause one to neglect his Torah learning.[5] The Tosafot cited above apply the prohibition of moshav leitsim to reading history books: “And even during the week [R. Yitzchak] did not know who permitted it, for it is a moshav leitsim.”[6]

Shulhan Arukh rules in accordance with Tosafot; however, Rema makes an important qualification, inferring that R. Yehuda only prohibits reading war chronicles “written in foreign languages” but permits reading histories written in Hebrew.[7] What is the basis for this distinction? Rema argues that Hebrew “has inherent holiness, and one learns divrei Torah from it.” This statement seems to consist of two arguments: (1) Hebrew is inherently holy;[8] (2) reading Hebrew improves one’s ability to learn Torah;[9] thus the Sages would surely not prohibit reading Hebrew history books on Shabbat.[10] Additionally, Rema stresses that because the prohibition of shitrei hedyotot is only Rabbinic, one may rely upon his inference. Finally, Rema concludes that the minhag accords with his leniency to permit reading Hebrew history books on Shabbat.[11]

However, Taz rejects Rema’s distinction for three reasons.[12] Firstly, he counters that R. Yehuda only refers to foreign-language chronicles in order to provide a common example of what he prohibits, not to imply that reading Hebrew chronicles would be permissible. Secondly, he points out that Hebrew does not have inherent holiness, for one may speak Hebrew non-Torah content in the bathroom.[13] Finally, he suggests that Hebrew texts do not escape the prohibition of moshav leitsim.

The dispute only centers around works of non-Jewish history; however, all agree that one may read Jewish history books on Shabbat. Permitted works include classical sefarim such as Sefer Yosippon – a 10th-century chronicle of Jewish history from creation to the age of Titus – Sefer Yuhasin – a similar work from the early 1500’s – and Shevet Yehuda – a history of anti-Semitism and persecutions from antiquity to the Spanish expulsion of 1492. Bah provides the following rationale: “For one learns words of mussar and yirat shamayim from them.”[14] In other words, because such texts have religious value as a source of inspiration, there is no concern of shitrei hedyotot or moshav leitsim. The same holds true even if such works are written in foreign languages.[15] Similarly, one may read contemporary Jewish history books and biographies of gedolim on Shabbat.[16]

Yaakov Emden qualifies and elaborates on this leniency.[17] He stresses that although Jewish history books are considered holy, one should avoid reading them too much on Shabbat, for it may lead to undue neglect of Torah study; rather, he recommends doing so only occasionally. He also cautions that one may not read about depressing aspects of Jewish history, such as persecutions, on Shabbat.[18] However, he encourages reading such material on weekdays, especially during the Three Weeks. Finally, he notes that sections of Sefer Yosippon and Shevet Yehuda contain secular historical information largely irrelevant to Jewish history; he only permits reading such material in places or situations where learning Torah is prohibited or very difficult— while in the bathroom or on a trip, for example.

Regarding this limited study of secular history, R. Emden provides several justifications: “So that a Torah scholar should not be ignorant in the knowledge of past events and mass changes, in order to know how to respond to one who asks him something, and not seem to be a simpleton and fool in worldly matters; additionally, sometimes it has significance regarding historical information that is relevant to our nation, by learning from one [history] to the other.”[19] Alternatively, R. Emden suggests that the study of non-Jewish history can help guide political decisions, especially when dealing with gentile governments.[20]

Yet perhaps there are grounds to permit the study of secular history even on Shabbat. The rishonim dispute whether one may read books of secular knowledge, referred to as sifrei hokhma, on Shabbat; Rambam maintains that one may only read divrei Torah on Shabbat, whereas Rashba permits gazing into an astrolabe and reading medical books on Shabbat.[21] By extension, Rashba’s leniency includes all sifrei hokhma, with the assumption that such texts will not cause one to inadvertently read shitrei hedyotot, and that sifrei hokhma do not constitute moshav leitsim because they contain valuable information. Shulhan Arukh cites both opinions, and Mishna Berurah rules that the minhag is to be lenient in this regard.[22] Perhaps, then, if history is a hokhma, it should be permitted to read even non-Jewish history books on Shabbat.

But is such an argument viable? The rishonim seem to have a negative view of the study of history, considering Tosafot’s comment above that history is moshav leitsim. Yet many later authorities express more positive views toward the study of history; R. Hirsch advises us to “view the world through the eyes of a King David and listen to history with the ears of an Isaiah,” and Hazon Ish states that “history is highly instructive to the wise; he will base his wisdom on the developments of the past.”[23] Mostly significantly, R. Elchonon Wasserman articulates perhaps the most favorable view, based on the verse, “Remember the days of yore; understand the years of generations.”[24] Although Sifrei[25] understands this verse to refer to specific events in Jewish history, R. Wasserman emphasizes that the plain meaning of the verse applies to all history. He argues that just as the world was created for the sake of the Jews, so too all history – even in the most remote places, no matter how unlikely it may seem – occurs for our sake, either as a reward or punishment, and thus it is our duty to attempt to decipher the divine plan.[26]

Additionally, perhaps we can distinguish between the quality of historical studies in the times of the rishonim and the current state of history as a discipline. In the Middle Ages, history was not a well–developed field; most texts consisted of pointless information such as chronicles, legends, and folklore. However, today history is considered a legitimate field of study with its own standards, methodologies, and analyses; it is the science of the past. Contemporary scholarly history books are complex works containing analyses of primary sources to produce a hypothesis regarding a particular era – such material vastly differs from the medieval milhamot to which Tosafot referred. Thus, if one wishes to study such material in order to sharpen one’s intellect or to strengthen one’s emunah, it seems reasonable to suggest that such a pursuit is not a moshav leitsim but rather a hokhma, which is permitted on Shabbat.[27]

There is an additional reason to permit reading non-Jewish history on Shabbat. Shulhan Arukh – as understood by Magen Avraham – permits one to read image captions on Shabbat if it is an oneg (enjoyment) for him.[28] In other words, the Sages allowed the principle of oneg Shabbat to override the concern that one may inadvertently read shitrei hedyotot. Since the Tosafot above equates history books with image captions, it thus follows that one may read the former if it provides oneg. Although we do not follow Magen Avraham in normative halakha, we may rely upon him in conjunction with other arguments for leniency– in this case, perhaps we may invoke the aforementioned suggestion that history is a hokhma.[29]

Thus, one can invoke a total of three arguments toward the study of secular history on Shabbat: (1) R. Elchonon’s positive view regarding the study of all history; (2) the possible distinction between milhamot and modern history books; and (3) the leniency of Magen Avraham regarding oneg Shabbat. So, may one read history books on Shabbat? The answer seems to be yes.


[1] Shabbat 116b, 149a.

[2] Ibid., Rashi ad. loc., s.v. asur. For the reason behind the prohibition, see Ritva ad. loc., s.v. mai beinaihu; Rosh ad. loc. (§1); Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shabbat 23:19.

[3] Tosafot to Shabbat 116b, s.v. ve-kol she-kein. All translations in this article are my own, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Tehillim 1:1-2.

[5] Avodah Zarah 18b, cited in Magen Avraham, Orah Hayim 307:22. For other halakhic applications of moshav leitsim, see Rosh to Shabbat 149a (§1), cited in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 307:16.

[6] Tosafot to Shabbat 116b, s.v. ve-kol she-kein.

[7] Shulhan Arukh, ibid.; the following discussion of Rema’s opinion is based on his gloss (ad. loc.) and Darkei Moshe, Orah Hayim 307:8.

[8] Cf. Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:8; Ramban to Shemot 30:13.

[9] Rema’s leniency does not apply to fluent Modern Hebrew speakers because reading such texts does not improve their Torah learning (R. Asher Weiss, Responsa, Minhat Asher, 19:3).

[10] Cf. the opinion of R. Nehemia (Shabbat 116b), who maintains that the Rabbis prohibited reading Ketuvim on Shabbat so that people would a fortiori abstain from reading business documents.

[11] See the very end of his gloss to Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 307:16.

[12] Taz, Orah Hayim 307:13.

[13] Shabbat 40b.

[14] Bah, Orah Hayim 307:13, s.v. mihu.

[15] Mishna Berurah 307:58.

[16] Piskei Teshuvot 307:24.

[17] The following discussion of R. Emden’s view is based on Mor Uktsia, Orah Hayim 307.

[18] For it is a violation of the requirement to enjoy Shabbat; see Yeshaya 58:13.

[19] Mor Uktsia, Orah Hayim 307.

[20] See Yehuda Levi, Torah and Science: Their Interplay in the World Scheme (Feldheim, 2006), 243.

[21] See Beit Yosef, Orah Hayim 307:17.

[22] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 307:17; Mishna Berurah 307:65. However, Eliah Rabbah (cited ibid.) stresses that God-fearing people should exercise stringency in this matter.

[23] R. S.R. Hirsch to Devarim 4:23 and Hazon Ish, Emunah U-vitahon 1:8, cited in Levi, Torah and Science, 244.

[24] Devarim 32:7

[25] Ad. loc.

[26] See R. Elchonon Wasserman, Kobeits He’arot, Appendix §12.

[27] Piskei Teshuvot 307:27 includes history within the hokhma of elokut, divinity, i.e. understanding God’s guiding of historical events. Cf. “Hokhma” in Hida, Devash Le-fi.

[28] See Magen Avraham, Orah Hayim 301:4.

[29] See e.g. Piskei Teshuvot 307:22, esp. fn. 188-89.