By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Over 25 years ago, I walked into Angel’s bakery on Rechov Shmuel HaNavi. My friends and I had gathered funds together to purchase a birthday cake for another mutual friend. For some reason, after never celebrating birthdays in high school, everyone celebrated their birthday in beis midrash. (It’s probably for the same reason that high-schoolers rallied against their parents’ chol ha’moed trip to the zoo, yet those very same bachurim organized their own bein ha’zemanim zoo trips.)
In my broken Hebrew, I asked the man behind the counter to write “Happy Birthday” on the cake. He responded that they were not allowed to comply with my request by order of the Badatz. Instead, I could have “Happy Birthday” written on a piece of chocolate if I so desired. That practice has since become widespread in kosher bakeries in the United States as well. The idea is to prevent possible chillul Shabbos when cutting through the letters, which might violate mocheik, erasing.
Mocheik is one of the 39 melachos forbidden on Shabbos. However, there are at least three major opinions about the applicability of mocheik to cutting through letters written on top of a cake on Shabbos. The Nodah B’Yehuda writes that the practice is totally permitted. When one cuts through letters on top of a cake on Shabbos, he does not intend to obliterate the letters and words. It is just an inevitable consequence. Furthermore, the Biblical prohibition of erasing on Shabbos is only if one intends to write in the place of the erasure. Moreover, nothing positive is actually accomplished by obliterating the letters and words. Lastly, if one wanted to erase letters and words, typically one would not use a knife to cut through them. For all these reasons, if one actually did intend to erase the words on the cake by cutting through them, it would only be prohibited rabbinically. Therefore, where destroying the letters is only an unintended consequence, it is totally permitted. Similarly, according to this opinion, when one is permitted to open wrappers on Shabbos, such as opening a sugar packet, he need not be concerned about ripping letters. The Aruch HaShulchan says that the halachah is in accordance with this lenient opinion; however, one should try to be stringent.
The next opinion is that of the Mishnah Berurah. He reasons that even though the destruction of letters is unintended, cutting through words is still forbidden since it is an inevitable consequence. Moreover, the Mishnah Berurah notes that some are even stringent regarding cutting through meaningful pictures on a cake. Cutting through lines and squiggles is permitted. However, the Mishnah Berurah would concede that if cutting through letters is not an inevitable consequence but merely likely, then it is permitted. If one is trying to open a wrapper on Shabbos but is afraid he may rip letters, he may open the wrapper if it is not definite that the letters will be ripped. The Mishnah Berurah says that if the words are carved out of the cake itself, it is permitted to cut through it on Shabbos. Similarly, one may break a tea biscuit into two pieces since the letters are ingrained in the biscuit itself and not comprised of an external medium. Finally, the Mishnah Berurah holds that even though one may not cut through letters written with frosting on a cake, he may still eat a piece of cake with writing on it and chew it. The Oreiach Yisrael suggests this is because an act of eating cannot be deemed to be erasing.
Finally, we have the opinion of the Chazon Ish. He says one should not even bite or chew on a piece of cake that has writing on it. This is true even if the writing is baked into the cake itself and is not written with frosting.
Yet even the Chazon Ish would agree that if a cake is in the shape of a letter or picture, one may cut pieces of that cake on Shabbos. Therefore, even according to this most stringent opinion, one may cut a cake that is in the shape of a dreidel, for example, on Shabbos. Rav Yaakov Emden writes that this is learned out from the lechem ha’panim. At first glance this is perplexing, as the lechem ha’panim did not have any writing or pictures on it. However, the Mishnas Yehuda points out that according to Rebbe Chanina (Menachos 94b), the lechem ha’panim were in the shape of an upside-down ches. Yet, the kohanim cut it into pieces and ate it on Shabbos! It must be that on Shabbos one can cut through bread or cake that is baked into a meaningful shape or letter.
Getting back to the opening story, our friend was able to have his birthday cake—and eat it, too.