Sounds Fishy

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

All those teachers who complain that their students frequently doodle may find some solace in the Gemara (Gittin 36a). The Gemara says that Rav would frequently draw a picture of a fish. As it will become clear from the commentators, this was not just some random scribble that someone with a good imagination could perceive as a fish. Rav was actually able to draw a mean picture of a fish. If the Taz had his way, Rav’s pictures of fish would have far-reaching implications; serious doodlers and wouldbe artists would have fewer restrictions on their practice. Alas, it wasn’t to be. It seems as if the Shach prevailed, and the import of Rav’s fish drawings will be relegated to the laws of witnesses. On one point all agree: if Rav drew a fish, then drawing a fish must be permitted. Before this article sounds too fishy, it must be explained why exactly Rav would commonly draw a fish. The Gemara says that Rav drew a fish in lieu of his signature on legal documents. His practice became so well known that it was common knowledge that if there was a picture of a fish in place of a witness’s signature, one would assume that Rav signed it. It is a codified halacha that one may not draw pictures of the sun, the moon, and the stars. The Tur says this includes the zodiac signs. The Taz therefore questions the permissibility of Rav’s fish-drawing.

A fish is the astrological sign for the month of Adar. Hence, according to the Tur, one may not draw a fish. The Taz concludes that the prohibition against drawing the zodiac signs only applies if the resulting image is three-dimensional. Rav’s fish signature was only a two-dimensional masterpiece and was therefore permitted. According to the Taz, perhaps artists and doodlers may draw works of art that contain renditions of the heavenly bodies, since they are only two-dimensional. However, the Taz disapproved of even a two-dimensional drawing if it was specifically intended to represent a zodiac sign. Apparently, machzorim publishers had adorned Tefillas Geshem with illustrations of the zodiac signs, and the Taz was not pleased. Therefore, even according to the Taz, drawings of the sun and moon would be problematic since they are made to represent heavenly bodies. However, the Shach offers an altogether different explanation of why Rav was permitted to draw a fish. He reasons that the prohibition of drawing the zodiac signs only applies if one draws all twelve of them together. One may draw any individual sign by itself.

Rav was permitted to draw a fish, as it is only one of the zodiac signs. Therefore, the Shach finds no support for the Taz’s novel ruling that two-dimensional renditions of heavenly bodies may at times be permitted. The Shach rules that one should not draw the sun, the moon, and the stars even in a two-dimensional image. Rav Gavriel Kraus, a dayan in Manchester, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, if children in school are permitted to draw pictures of the sun and the moon. Rav Moshe ruled like the Sefer Yad KaKetanah, that only pictures of the sun that people would look at and say, “That resembles the sun” are prohibited. Therefore, older children should not draw pictures of the sun and the moon. Young children, on the other hand, should be permitted to draw them. People would not say about their pictures that they resemble the sun and moon. But Rav Moshe questions, why would you want to train kids to draw pictures of the sun and moon? When they finally become good at it and their pictures actually resemble the sun and the moon, we will have to prohibit them from further drawing! Owning (as opposed to drawing) pictures of the sun and the moon is an entirely different subject. Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, said that there is no problem with having pictures of the sun and the moon in textbooks. Ripping out pictures of the sun and the moon would be a textbook example of being too machmir.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@

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