Question: What should a person do if he brings a relative to the hospital on Shabbat and is asked to sign his name? Can he sign if the hospital will not admit the patient otherwise?
Response: I have personally been in such a situation. I explained the religious prohibition to write on the Sabbath and gave them my word that I would sign any and all required papers on Saturday night, when the Sabbath was over. Such an assurance is usually sufficient (especially nowadays with the growth of our community and consequent awareness of our needs among general society).
If the hospital is adamant, however, that one sign in order to be admitted, one may possibly do so based on the following analysis (which is taken from a teshuvah of Rabbi Tuvia Goldstein in Emek Halacha, vol. 1, siman 14).
According to the Mishnah Berurah (Be’ur Halacha 306:11), the overwhelming majority of halachic authorities maintain that writing two letters on Shabbat in any language is a biblical violation. The Rema, however, contends that writing in a language other than Hebrew is only a rabbinic violation.
This Rema seems to contradict an explicit mishnah (Shabbat 103a) that writing two letters in any language is a biblical violation. To resolve this contradiction, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the Noda BiYehuda, distinguished between language and script. The Mishnah, according to the Noda BiYehuda, refers to the Hebrew Ketav Ashurit script (the square font found in Sifrei Torah). One cannot write more than two Hebrew letters (even if one is using these Hebrew letters to spell a word in a foreign language) in this script. Writing in any other script is only a rabbinic violation (Noda BiYehuda Tanina, Orach Chayyim 33). Thus, writing one’s name in English on the Sabbath is a rabbinic prohibition, not a rabbinical one.
Based upon this position, Rabbi Goldstein ruled that if a doctor requests a person to sign his name on the Sabbath and refuses to take no for an answer, he may do so. Rabbi Goldstein reasons that the situation concerns a sick person, and it is a she’at ha’dechak since it is impossible to be admitted to the hospital without signing. Hence, in this circumstance, one may rely on the position of the Noda BiYehuda. Rabbi Goldstein ruled that taking care of the sick takes priority over this rabbinic violation.
If a person relies on this ruling, I would suggest that he also sign his name using a shinui. For example, a right-handed person might sign with his left hand and a left-handed person might sign with his right hand. Writing with a shinui would also mitigate the level of prohibition.
Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, is the author of seven books on Jewish law. His latest, “Shabbat the Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas” (Urim Publications), is available at Judaica stores and at Amazon.com.