By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
We continue to receive questions pertaining to our columns on the treatment of the Names of G-d. I will share with you a recent question:
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Boker tov. I have a question. So, when I receive e-mails such as this, am I permitted to delete the email after reading it since Hashem’s name is in it?
“Confectionately” yours, Idalee
Your question pertains to the erasing of the Name of G-d when it is written digitally. Do we consider digital writing to be “writing” in the Torah realm? Or, is it just pixels on a screen that give the appearance of writing, but it, in fact, is not considered a written word or document and to erase it is merely erasing a perception, but not a “Name” of G-d in the real sense.
There are other ramifications to this question in other arenas of Jewish law as well. For example, one of the 39 prohibited activities on the Jewish Sabbath is the erasing of written letters or words.
Would erasing digital letters or words come under this prohibition, or would it be like erasing temporary writing, such as disappearing ink (which we would not do, but technically one would not be desecrating the Sabbath on the level of a Torah commandment if one would do so)?
In short, how do we view digitally formed writing in Jewish law?
This question has been an area of discussion and dispute among the authorities of Jewish law for decades, since computers first became widespread and questions began to arise about inputting medical information for patients in hospitals in Israel and further inquiries.
There are authorities who considered the writing on a computer screen to be bona fide writing for Sabbath and other questions. The point that such writing is only posted on the screen temporarily doesn’t take away from the fact that such writing accomplishes its purpose — by appearing temporarily, which is all that’s needed from such writing. It would therefore not be in the category of “temporary writing or building” in the Talmud, which would have ramifications for our question of erasing the Name of G-d as well (Shevet Halevi, vol. 7, #4).
The majority of authorities, however, disagree with this approach. They don’t consider letters formed by the bombardment of electrons onto the back of the screen in a way which appears to be letters, to be considered bona fide writing, since they are not printing in any way onto a surface which endures on its own right (Nishmas Avraham, Orach Chaim, siman 340, sec. 11 in the name of R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach and R’ Ovadia Yosef).
Others maintain further that “writing” in the Torah definition needs to be something which stands on its own. Letters that need a constant influx of electricity to remain extant are not considered letters or writing (Teshuvos Vehanhagos, vol. 3, #326).
Furthermore, writing which was written with the intent of being erased in a short time is not writing, especially if it was written by an outside force, not directly by his hand (ibid. in the name of Chazon Ish, siman 164).
Lastly, a Name which is not written with the full intention of sanctifying the Name is not forbidden to erase if it is not written upon a parchment or even paper for that purpose. Since there is no “parchment” in the screen, no area which becomes subservient to that Name, there is no prohibition of erasure (ibid., see Mishna Berurah 85:1).
All of the above concerns the erasure of the Holy Name of G-d from a computer screen, which we see in the majority of halachic opinion is that it may be done. We can certainly extrapolate the same leniency with regard to erasure of Torah teachings from a screen. These teachings carry a lesser inherent holiness than that of the Name of G-d and are even less of a question. (See Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 4, #29 concerning putting printed Torah thoughts into a recycling bin.)
The discussion around this, and even the leniency, all point up the high regard we need to have as Jews for our holy writings and the distinct holiness of the Name of G-d.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA–Dallas Area Torah Association.