By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

An Inwood resident was paid $15 (Canadian) a number of years ago to be a waiter at a melaveh malkah in Montreal. The appetizer was gefilte-fish balls with an orange-colored sauce. My friend was carrying a large tray of individual serving plates with these gefilte-fish balls on them, when the keynote speaker said something quite humorous. My friend, not wanting to drop the tray, placed it down while he laughed. The tray apparently wasn’t too secure, and it proceeded to overturn. The poor individual who happened to be sitting there was now wearing orange trousers; the orange-and-white gefilte-fish balls exited their plates and started rolling away in all different directions as if they had minds of their own. Some of them made their way to the end of the room. My friend now really burst out laughing, but not at the speaker’s joke.

For these fish balls to travel so far, they must have been well-rounded. Is there any problem on Shabbos or yom tov of making perfectly round kneidlach or gefilte-fish balls?

The Gemara (Beitzah 28a) says that on yom tov one may not fashion a handle on a piece of meat to make it easier to carry. Rashi explains that this wasn’t an elaborate handle, but merely a hole through which one may stick his finger. According to Rashi, the Sages forbade this to demonstrate that commerce is forbidden on yom tov. The Mishnah Berurah suggests that Rashi would permit a cook at home to fashion a similar hole in the meat. Restrictions were only placed on the butcher. However, other Rishonim suggest that fashioning a makeshift handle is itself problematic; it is akin to fashioning a utensil. Therefore it is forbidden regardless of who makes the handle or hole. The Mishnah Berurah (500:15) concludes that all would permit making a hole in middle of the afikoman to hang on a wall! It seems from Rashi that it was not uncommon back then to walk out of a butcher shop carrying meat in one’s hands. As an added service, the butcher would sometimes carve the meat in such a way that a handle would be formed. If we would do this nowadays we could cut down on the amount of plastic bags used. Perhaps the local butchers should offer a discount to those who carry their purchased deli in their hands without wax paper or plastic.

The Gemara contrasts the previous halachah, and rules that one is permitted on yom tov to carve his meat into a shape. Rabbah bar Rav Huna was famous for cutting his meat into triangular pieces; he wanted to make sure his meat was not switched in transit. His family knew to only accept delivery of triangularly cut meat. However, the Mishnah Berurah (500:17) writes that this license does not extend to pictures or letters. On Shabbos and yom tov, one may not carve the meat into a meaningful shape or letter. Furthermore, this restriction is not limited to meat. One may not carve any fruit into a meaningful shape. For example, one is not allowed to carve a watermelon into the shape of a bird, or a cantaloupe into the shape of a basket. The reason it was permitted to carve meat into the shape of a triangle is because that is not considered a meaningful shape. A square, circle, or rectangle is not considered a meaningful shape that would be forbidden to be carved on yom tov.

The Be’er Moshe (Vol. 8, 134) writes that it is permitted to braid challos on yom tov because no meaningful shape is made. He writes, however, that making a challah in the shape of a ladder or key would not be permitted on yom tov. The Chayei Adam (92:3) likewise rules that one cannot fashion challos on yom tov into meaningful shapes such as a bird, whether one shapes the dough by hand or uses a mold. (One of my relatives tries to shape her challah into different shapes corresponding with that week’s parashah or holiday. Her family would argue that none of her challos ever come out in a meaningful shape.) Based on this distinction between meaningful and non-meaningful shapes, the Be’er Moshe writes that it is permitted to shape kneidlach or gefilte fish into round balls. Likewise, it is permitted to use a scooper to make perfectly round balls of tuna, fruit, or ice cream (Laws of Yom Tov, page 156).

This same issue applies also to decorated birthday cakes. Birthday cakes are often decorated with squiggly lines around the edges or crisscross lines on the top. On Shabbos, it is permitted to cut through those lines, since they are not meaningful. One may not, however, cut through meaningful pictures such as roses or trees. So, too, one should not cut through letters written with icing on the cake. (This is the generally accepted custom; see M.B. 340:16—17). But, the Mishnah Berurah writes, one may bite into these letters or designs without cutting them first. He also rules leniently regarding cutting a cookie that has words engraved in it (e.g., a tea biscuit) or cutting a cookie that itself has a meaningful shape (e.g., a gingerbread man).

Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l, offers an interesting distinction as to why one may not write letters on a cake on Shabbos, but one may bite into those very same letters. Generally, the prohibition of erasing applies wherever the prohibition of writing applies. Here, however, one who writes the letters on the cake is interested in those letters. One who eats the cake is only interested in eating and couldn’t care less if the letters were there or not. Therefore, the act of eating the cake is qualified as eating and not erasing.

When I was in Eretz Yisrael, I went to purchase a birthday cake from Angel’s bakery, which was under the hashgachah of the Badatz Eidah HaChareidis of Yerushalayim. When I asked them to write “Happy Birthday” on the cake, they told me that their hashgachah does not allow them to do any writing on cake. They instead showed me plastic pieces that said “Happy Birthday” that I could place on top. v

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at

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