Question: Is one permitted to move or read medical books or phonebooks on Shabbat? What is the law regarding reading newspapers on Shabbat?
The Opinion of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch Regarding Reading Books on Mundane and Forbidden Topics
Answer: Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 307, Section 16) writes as follows: “Books written about mundane witticisms and axioms and romance novels, such as the book, “Emmanuel”, may not be read on Shabbat. It is forbidden to read them on weekdays as well for that matter because of the prohibition of taking part of ‘a jester’s circle’ and one who does so transgresses the prohibition of ‘Do not turn to other gods’ which includes not following one’s own desires. Regarding romance novels, there is another prohibition of instigating the evil inclination against one’s self. The authors, copiers, and certainly publishers of such books cause the public to sin.”
Explanation: The book, “Emmanuel” is completely comprised of rhymes and witticisms about immorality and foolishness and may therefore not even be read on weekdays, for there are several prohibitions involved in doing so. Therefore, one may not read such books on Shabbat either and they will thus retain a Muktzeh status and may not be moved on Shabbat, similar to wood and stones. Included in this are all romance novels and fortune telling books which are forbidden to be read under any circumstances. Thus, on Shabbat they are like any other “innate Muktzeh” object, such as wood and stones, and they may not be moved even for a purpose.
We can infer from his words that anything that is forbidden to be read on weekdays is likewise prohibited to be read on Shabbat. It would seem that even books containing wisdom (such as science and history books) may not be read on Shabbat. Based on this, one would not be permitted to read medical books on Shabbat. However, the Aruch Ha’Shulchan writes that the letter of the law does not forbid reading books containing wisdom; nevertheless, it is a pious custom to dedicate the holy day of Shabbat to toil in words of Torah alone.
The Rashba writes in one of his responses that medical books may be moved on Shabbat, in accordance with the ruling of the Ramban. Similarly, Maran zt”l rules leniently regarding reading medical books, especially since reading medical books is a Mitzvah since this can aid in saving another’s life. (However, regarding other books of wisdom, such as history books and the like, it seems that one may not read them on Shabbat for they are similar to “mundane documents” which our Sages forbade reading on Shabbat.)
Regarding reading newspapers on Shabbat, if it is a religious newspaper which upholds the standards of Torah Judaism and may be read on weekdays, it is also permitted to be read on Shabbat, provided that one does not read about business topics and the like which may not be read on Shabbat. However, if it is a non-religious or non-Jewish newspaper, which may certainly not be read during the week for it is filled with all sorts of immodest pictures and articles that are filled with immorality, slander, and mockery of Torah scholars, it may not be moved on Shabbat similar to the law regarding dirt, rocks, and other objects which are “innate Muktzeh”. However, if one is using this newspaper to wrap something and there is no reason to think that anything bad might result from this, it may be moved on Shabbat to be used as a wrapper and the like.
A telephone book may be moved on Shabbat since it contains the addresses of those living in the city and sometimes there is a need for this information on Shabbat. Therefore, although it does contain things that may not be read on Shabbat, nevertheless, one may read the things that are permissible to be read on Shabbat and it may thus be moved on Shabbat.
All this, however, is only according to the letter of the law. However, it is worthy and fitting to only read words of Torah on Shabbat, for the reason why Shabbat was given to the Jewish nation is for them to have an opportunity to learn Torah.
Summary: The letter of the law dictates that one may read a religious Jewish newspaper or medical book on Shabbat. However, a non-religious newspaper is Muktzeh on Shabbat and may not even be read on weekdays.