Studying for a Test on Shabbat

I am a college student and I wanted to know if it’s permitted to study for a test on Shabbat. I used to do so, but then became concerned that perhaps it was an issue of preparing from Shabbat to the week. Sometimes, when I’m under pressure, I rationalize that I enjoy studying the material for its own sake because it helps me appreciate God’s wonderful world. (I’m majoring in organic chemistry.) So please let me know if this is alright.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s nice that you want to do the right thing, and much success in your studies!

There are a few possible issues with studying for a test on Shabbat. One is what you mentioned – the concern of preparing from Shabbat to the weekday, which we may not do. Another is that there are certain topics we may not study on Shabbat. And finally, there is the concern we may come to write – if we typically take notes on what we study.

In terms of the issue of preparing, that would be an issue if you say out loud that you are studying for a test this coming week, or if you do acts which make it clear you are preparing for something – such as studying a review sheet for the test or going over tests from past semesters and the like. You should rather have in mind that you are just reading a textbook because the information is interesting to you right now. Note that conversely, if you do not enjoy the subject, studying it in itself arguably makes it clear that you are doing an act of preparation for the week. (It would additionally contradict the obligation to enjoy Shabbat (“oneg Shabbat”).)

In terms of what subjects one may study, this is much more limiting. First of all, ideally we should study nothing but Torah on Shabbat. It is brought in Jewish law that this is the proper behavior for “one who fears heaven.”

However, by the letter of the law, one may study basic areas of wisdom – such as math, science, medicine, and Jewish history (but not secular history). Thus, in your case, it would be fine to read one of your textbooks on Shabbat, again not expressly to prepare for a test, but as you wrote, to appreciate God’s magnificent world (even if you do also know you have an upcoming test).

A further restriction is that we may not study works which relate to our profession. Thus, if you know a specific area you plan to work in, you cannot read textbooks relating to that field. But you may read books on more general subjects related to your major.

Finally, if you typically take notes when you study, that in itself would be problematic. It would be okay, though, if you would make sure before Shabbat not to have writing material available to you nearby.

(Sources: Shulchan Aruch O.C. 307:1, Mishna Berurah 290:4, Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchatah I 28:72,84, notes 169 & 206, Shulchan Aruch O.C. 307:16-17, Mishna Berurah 58, 65, Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchatah I 29:47, Tzitz Eliezer X 21.)

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