Shabbat Parashat Vayigash| 5763
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Is it permissible to write in the margins of holy texts for educational purposes? May one underline or highlight the text and use pencil or pen?
Answer: Many of the commentaries that now surround the traditional page of the Talmud were written by great scholars in the margins of the page. Of course, due to respect for the texts, one should make an effort that the page not look unseemly due to messy scribble.
There are even times when it is mandated to make notations. The gemara (Ketubot 19b) says that one should not leave holy texts without correction for extended periods of time, apparently out of fear that they will be improperly used or learned from. The poskim say that this applies to any sefer from whichone learns (see Rama, Yoreh Deah 279:1 and Biur Hagra, ad loc.). The Rama does cite a ban not to make “corrections” based on personal logic unless there is a clear proof that there is a mistake. The Pitchei Teshuva (ad loc.: 3) suggests that one leave the text as is and write the apparent correction in the margin as a possibility, which has the benefits of corrections without the dangers. Writing in pencil is not only a sign of humility but also can spare embarrassment if and when one’s ideas turn out to be flawed.
There is a Torah prohibition not to erase any of the Divine Names (see Yoreh Deah 276:9), and there is a rabbinic prohibition against erasing any Torah texts when not necessary. One may not write over the Name of Hashem with one color ink in a way that covers the Name in another color (see Gittin 19a). However, most poskim allow one to cover the Name with ink of the same color, as this is not considered erasing the bottom writing (see Pitchei Teshuva, YD 276:6; Mishna Berura 32:128). Highlighting should be even better than this, because it is not writing, and the bottom writing is fully legible. Since it is done to make the “covered” writing more noticeable it does not seem to be a bizayon (a disgrace) either. Still, one might prefer to underline rather than highlight texts with the actual Names of Hashem.
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