After a busy workweek, I enjoy reading magazines and the newspaper on Shabbat. Recently, we had a guest on Shabbat, and after the evening meal, when I curled up on the sofa with my stack of periodicals, he looked at me askance, as if I were committing a big no-no. Is there really something wrong with reading magazines and the like on Shabbat?
The answer depends on what kind of magazines you are reading. But first, a word about Shabbat. Because the Sabbath comes every week, we can sometimes forget its great holiness. Observing the sanctity of the Sabbath is even more exalted than observing the sanctity of Yom Kippur. A willful violation of the laws of Yom Kippur is punished by karet (dying before one’s time). Willfully transgressing the laws of Shabbat is met with an even harsher punishment – the death penalty of stoning administered by the High Court. A person should understand that the many prohibitions surrounding Shabbat are not meant to restrict a person’s freedom on his “day off,” as non-religious people often complain, but rather to guide a Jew toward the higher freedom which results from the study of Torah and cleaving to G-d on this Heavenly day. The Mishna Berurah states that "For those who are not involved with Torah study during the week, the Shabbat is given primarily for Torah study; and even Torah scholars, who are immersed in Torah learning all week long, are also advised not to be overly involved in eating, drinking and sleeping (and the like) because of the bitul Torah (neglect of Torah) involved." Prohibitions regarding the reading of magazines and the like on Shabbat are derived from verses in the Book of Isaiah: "If you draw back your foot because of Shabbat [by restraining] from doing that which you desire on My Holy Day, call the Shabbat a joy, honoring G-d's sanctified day, respecting it and not following your usual ways, by not pursuing your business and speaking about [forbidden] matters, then you shall rejoice in G-d, and I shall make you ride over the heights of the earth…." Since this source is from the Prophets, these restrictions are treated with the severity of Torah prohibitions. From this we learn that one should not follow one’s usual ways and business on Shabbat. One’s behavior and conversation should differ on Shabbat as fitting the holy day. When it comes to reading magazines and newspapers, it is forbidden to read professional journals about one’s own occupation, if its practice is prohibited on Shabbat. Strictly speaking, it is permissible to read about current events. However, there are opinions that disagree, citing the anguish caused by reading about bad news and tragedies which have befallen the Jewish people. Reading about these matters dampens the joy of Shabbat. Furthermore, it is forbidden to read business news, advertisements, and about things prohibited on Shabbat, such as cooking and employment. Articles or photographs of a lewd nature are, of course, prohibited, even on weeks days. Since the likelihood of encountering forbidden material is so great, it is preferable not to read magazines and newspapers on Shabbat at all. Newspapers that are forbidden on Shabbat become muktzah and they are not to be touched, unless one needs them to wrap up fish or the like. This is especially true of anti-religious newspapers and journals which portray Orthodox Judaism in a negative light. There is nothing wrong with reading newspapers and journals which deal with Torah topics, but one should be careful not to read the ads. In general, when it comes to secular magazines and newspapers, it is best to follow the always wise words of the Chafetz Chaim, who writes: “Due to our great sins, the evil inclination, who is the Satan, has instigated mankind to pursue after a new demise - to cause our brethren, the Children of Israel, to sin the sin of leitzanut (cynicism) and thus cause the removal of Divine Providence from the world via the reading of newspapers, which has increased so greatly in our times. These publications are filled with cynicism, evil speech, libel, scorn, untruth, and the outright mockery of G-d…Everyone will have to pay for this sin in the end, when they come before the King of Kings - those who print newspapers, those who sell them, and those who read them. This habit has become so ubiquitous that many Jews are so addicted to it, they cannot pass one day without reading a newspaper and wasting away many hours. “And I have heard something even more scandalous - that the Sabbath day and Holidays which were given to us at Sinai to be sanctified, have sunk to the very opposite through the work of the Satan, through the publication on Erev Shabbat of twice the number of newspapers, whose editors outdo themselves by filling the pages with all sorts of cynicism, mockery, evil talk, and lewdness. And many of our brethren spend the entire Sabbath day reading these matters!!!” May the Almighty help us to keep the Sabbath day and make it holy. 1. 1. Mishna Berurah, 307:4. 2. Isaiah, 58:13-14. 3. Shmirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchatah, Ch. 29:1. 4. Ibid, Ch. 29:47b. 5. Ibid. 29:46; 48b. Sheelot Yavetz, 162. Mishna Berurah, 307:3. 6. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 307:16. 7. Shmirat Shabbat Ke’Hilchatah, Ch.29:46b and 47c. 8. Piskei Tshuva, 307:9. 9. Shmirat HaLashon, Letters of the Chafetz Chaim, 42.