Games that Entail Putting Letters or Numbers Together

 Courtesy of Ohr Olam Mishnah Berurah

By Rabbi Meir Maryles

Question: May one play Scrabble on Shabbos?

Discussion: Scrabble involves two aspects which must be addressed from the perspective of the melachah of koseiv (writing). One is the game itself, which entails joining letters together to form a word. The second is keeping score, which is generally done by writing.

As for the first issue, the Poskim202 maintain that in the standard edition of Scrabble, putting the letters together to form words is permitted. This is because the melachah of koseiv is violated only when one actually creates the letters, not when pre-existing letters are merely placed next to each other, even if one thereby forms a word.

Now, that is as regards the standard version of Scrabble, where the letters are simply placed alongside each other without being joined together in a substantial way. However, there is another version of the game in which the letters are affixed to a board. This is more problematic, since several Poskim maintain that even pre-existing letters may not be fixed together firmly. Accordingly, it is forbidden to play this version of Scrabble on Shabbos.203

Score-keeping, however, poses more of a problem, even in the game’s standard version. It is highly impractical to play Scrabble without recording the score. The score obviously may not be recorded in writing, but even methods of scorekeeping which should ostensibly be permitted, such as using page numbers in a book to represent the score, are problematic. This is because Chazal forbade204 any activity on Shabbos which generally involves writing205 due to concern that one may come to write on Shabbos. Therefore, there is no permitted manner of keeping the score on Shabbos, which practically means that even the permitted form of the game cannot be played on Shabbos.206

Question: What is the status of Bananagrams?

Discussion: Bananagrams involves nothing more than placing the letters next to one another, without fixing them to each other or to a board. It also does not involve scorekeeping. It is therefore perfectly permissible to play Bananagrams on Shabbos.

Question: Is it permitted to play Rummikub on Shabbos?

Discussion: Since Rummikub involves no scorekeeping and the pieces are in no way joined together, neither of the aforementioned concerns apply, so there is no concern of koseiv on Shabbos.207

However, Rummikub involves sorting and selecting pieces, and this can raise issues related to the melachah of borer (sorting). Now, some of the selecting done in the course of the game is clearly permitted. For example, selecting a piece from an existing set of numbers in order to add it to a new set is permitted, since the player requires the piece to form a set. Removing that piece from the set is therefore viewed as removing ‘ochel’ (the desired) from ‘p’soles’ (the undesired). Additionally, sorting the pieces into sets on his personal board is permitted, since he is considered to be arranging the desired pieces (‘ochel’) for immediate use. Although he may only have use for these pieces later in the game, he is nevertheless viewed as selecting them for immediate use, since the entire game is comparable to a single meal, and one may select ‘ochel’ from ‘p’soles’ during a meal for a later time within that meal.

However, when there is a group of pieces that can potentially be arranged as a set and one piece in their midst does not fit the set, removing that unwanted piece from the set would presumably be considered removing the ‘p’soles’ (the undesired) from the ‘ochel’ (the desired), which is forbidden. Instead of removing the one unwanted piece, the player should therefore move the desired pieces away from it, effectively selecting the wanted pieces from the unwanted.208


202. Be’er Moshe (VI, chapter 26), Yesodei Yeshurun (V, p.63), Orchos Shabbos (15:17, footnote 25), The 39 Melochos (Ribiat – Volume IV, p. 955), Tiltulei Shabbos (p. 24). See, also, Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim I, chapter 135.

203. See the Poskim cited in the previous footnote. Note that some Poskim suggest that even this is only forbidden with respect to bare letters that are now being attached to a background (which is similar to adding ink to paper), while attaching letters that are already placed on a background onto a board (e.g. in the game of Scrabble), is permitted (see Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah, chapter 16, footnote 68, citing R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach). Assuming this approach, all versions of Scrabble would be permitted. See, also, Orchos Shabbos ibid., who similarly suggests that even the latter version of the game is permitted.

204. Based on Chayei Adam (38:11). See, also, Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah (16:32)

205. Be’er Moshe (ibid.) notes that if the common way to play Scrabble were with a board to which the pieces are firmly affixed, then all forms of the game would be forbidden out of concern that one may come to play the forbidden version.

206. Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah (ibid.), The 39 Melochos (ibid.), Tiltulei Shabbos (ibid). However, Be’er Moshe (ibid.) permits playing Scrabble unequivocally, making no mention of this concern. Perhaps he was unfamiliar with the scoring aspect of the game, or was only relating to the game itself, without addressing the scorekeeping. There is also room to suggest that since keeping the score is just a peripheral part of the activity — i.e. the game itself — it is not included in Chayei Adam’s stringency. However, Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah (ibid.) explicitly forbids this.

207. In this instance, there is room to say that even if the pieces were attached to each other, it would still not constitute koseiv, since the numbers do not come together to create a comprehensible word, as when joining letters to form a word. Rather, it is merely a sequence of numbers with no literary significance. Now, fixing digits together to form a specific number is forbidden (e.g. 8 and 5 to create eighty-five), since that is actually a form of a word. However, merely arranging digits in a sequence may possibly be permitted, even if they are fixed together.

208. Cf. Ohr Yisro’el (#72, Adar Sheni 5776 p. 84) and Minchas Asher (Shabbos p. 327), who suggest arguments to permit removing even the unwanted piece.