Cutting a Decorated Cake on Shabbos

 Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah

The original min ha-Torah prohibition of erasing letters on Shabbos applied to when erasing was done for the purpose of preparing the surface for future writing. This was the nature of the Erasing in the Mishkan. Chazal, however, extended the prohibition to include all types of erasing, regardless of the purpose of the erasure and even when the erasure served no purpose at all, as in tearing the lettering of a package.181

Question: On Shabbos, is it permissible to cut letters or pictures which decorate a cake?

Discussion: Rama182 rules that it is prohibited to cut or break off a piece of cake on which letters—or pictures183 or meaningful depictions184 such as a star, a flower or a company logo —appear. The fact that the person has no intention of erasing the letters and is interested only in eating the cake makes no difference; the letters are erased in the process, so cutting or breaking off a piece of decorated cake is forbidden based on the rule of inevitable consequences (pesik reisha). It makes no difference, according to this view, if the erasure is done prior to eating by cutting the cake with a knife, or even if the letters are erased by biting into and chewing the cake.185 Either action is considered Erasing and is prohibited186.

Other poskim187 differ with the Rama. They maintain that Chazal did not forbid cutting or breaking off a piece of cake because: 1) the erasing in this case is not done for the sake of future writing; 2) the erasing is destructive; 3) the erasing is done indirectly (k’lachar yad). According to this view, then, it would be permitted to bite into a decorated cake, and even to cut a decorated cake prior to eating it, although the frosted letters would be erased.

Latter-day poskim debate what the practical halachah should be. Some tend to be lenient,188 while others are stringent.189 Mishnah Berurah190 rules that one may rely on the lenient view only the letters are erased when biting and chewing the cake; cutting the cake in advance of eating it is prohibited. However, the following exceptions and leniencies are discussed by the poskim:

  • It is permitted to cut in the space between letters even though that will cause a word to be broken.191
  • It is permitted to remove a letter on the icing along with a thin sliver of cake on which it rests.192
  • It is permitted to cut letters or figures that are baked into the body of the cake itself.193
  • It is permitted to cut a cake or cookie that has a meaningful shape or a letter, such as a cookie shaped into a Sefer Torah, animal crackers or alpha-bits194.
  • It is permitted to cut letters which are made from fruit juice or from honey mixed with water, as decorations fashioned from those ingredients are not considered “permanent.”195 The sugar-based frosting commonly found on cakes today which hardens when it dries is not included in this leniency.196
  • Some poskim allow a right-handed person to cut the cake with his left hand and vice versa.197 Others do not agree with this leniency.198
  • If the cake was sliced before Shabbos, one is permitted to separate and remove the pieces of cake on Shabbos even though this will cause the letters or pictures on top to crumble.199
  • A cake with lettering may be placed in front of a child even though the child may erase the lettering on the cake.200 An adult should not, however, explicitly instruct the child to erase the lettering.201

181. See Mishnah Berurah 340:41 and Sha’ar ha-Tziyun 76.

182. O.C. 340:3.

183. Mishnah Berurah 340:16.

184. Orchos Shabbos 15, note 28, maintains that simple designs such as a circle, a square or a frame around the edge of the cake are not considered pictures and are permitted to be cut. See also Shulchan Shelomo 340:8-2.

185. Taz 340:2; Chazon Ish, O.C. 61:1.

186. The prohibition applies only if a significant part of the letter or picture will be broken. If, however, the basic form and shape of the letter or picture remains intact, Erasing did not take place; See Igros Moshe, Y.D. 2:75.

187. Dagul Mirevavah, O.C. 340.

188. Sha’arei Teshuvah 340:5; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 80:63; Meishiv Davar 2:80. See also Aruch ha-Shulchan 340:23, who maintains that the entire prohibition is limited to letters that are formed from ink or paint. Nevertheless, he advises to let a child cut the cake, as quoted later.

189. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 343:10 and Chazon Ish, O.C. 61:1 who prohibit erasing letters even by biting and chewing.

190. 340:16. See also Kaf ha-Chayim 340:29.

191. Rav S.Z. Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 9, note 51). See Avnei Nezer, O.C. 210 and Orchos Shabbos 15, note 27.

192. Ketzos ha-Shulchan 144 (Badei ha-Shulchan 3). We are not concerned that the letter or picture may break apart during the removal.

193. Mishnah Berurah 340:15; Har Tzvi, O.C. 214. In other places, however, the Mishnah Berurah seems to contradict himself and prohibits this; see 475:47 and 500:17 and Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 11, note 31. See also Chazon Ish, O.C. 61, who seems to question this leniency; see Orchos Shabbos 15, note 36.

194. See previous footnote. In this case, even Chazon Ish seems to be lenient; see Shevet ha-Levi 9:25.

195. Mishnah Berurah 340:15. Chazon Ish questions this leniency.

196. Tifferes Yisrael (Kalkeles Shabbos, Erasing); Ketzos ha-Shulchan 144:3; Be’er Moshe 6:94.

197. Eliyahu Rabbah 340:11.

198. Avnei Nezer 209:9. Mishnah Berurah, too, does not quote this option. See also Mishnah Berurah 340:22 quoting the Chayei Adam who maintains that—with the exception for the prohibition of writing—there is no difference between using the right and left hand regarding all Shabbos prohibitions.

199. Rav S.Z. Auerbach (Shemiras Shabbos K’hilchasah 11, note 30). See note in Shulchan Shelomo 340:8-3 for an explanation. See, however Megilas Sefer 18:4 who questions this leniency.

200. Mishnah Berurah 340:14. See explanation in Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 340:4 and 343:10. See also Chanoch l’Na’ar 17:4-5.

201. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 343:10.