Dear Rabbi Fried,
Thanks for your answer about using the name of G-d in a newspaper, and why you use a hyphenated form.
I still have a question, however. How do we address this in other written formats: handwritten, books, digital? If I write the name of G-d on my iPad can it be erased?
What about the name of Yud-Hey-Vov-Hey when it’s pronounced? Can Ad-nai be written out? Can it be said? What’s the difference between prayer, learning and practicing Hebrew writing — are there different rules for these things?
These are all important questions and are not all under the same category of Torah law. They all stem from the same overarching source, which is the Torah’s steadfast respect for the Name of G-d. The Torah, throughout, teaches us to have deep regard for the holiness of the Name, to glorify it and protect its sanctity.
If we try to categorize your questions, we find that there are two clear prohibitions with respect to G-d’s Name.
• Firstly, the Torah instructs us not to take G-d’s Name in vain. The third of the Ten Commandments states: “You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). [Hashem, literally “the Name,” refers to the four-letter Name beginning with Yud, and can’t be uttered at all, as we will explain.]
This does not apply to using G-d’s name in prayer, during the Shabbat songs at the table, when studying Torah or any use of the Name in holy terms. It does include saying statements like, “oh my G-d!” and the like. We would rather fulfill this commandment, to say, “oh my gosh!” etc.
It also includes cursing someone by the Name of G-d, or falsely swearing by the Name of G-d. These are things which are uncommon in our times but used to be prevalent enough that early rabbis saw the need to warn the people, in their writings, of making this (then)-common error and transgression.
When practicing prayers, such as teaching young children to recite blessings, it is not considered taking G-d’s Name in vain to use it for teaching purposes. When they’re too young to really understand, some authorities have preferred to use a word that sounds close to the sound of the Name without really pronouncing it, such as “Anenoi.”
• The second category are those questions which fall under the prohibition of erasing G-d’s Name, called, in Hebrew, mechikas Hashem. This is learned from the verse, when discussing the mitzvah of destroying altars built for idol worship, where the Torah says, “Don’t do so to Hashem your G-d.” Obviously, one would not think he could try to destroy G-d! The sages derive from here that one is not allowed to erase the Name of G-d (Rashi, loc. cit.). This prohibition is considered one of the 613 mitzvos (Maimonides Sefer Hamitzvos, negative mitzva #65, Sefer Hachinuch #437). Maimonides dedicates an entire chapter to the intricacies of this prohibition (Yad, Yesodei HaTorah ch. 6).
Maimonides includes in this prohibition the burning or destroying of a book of the Torah or the Prophets and Scripture, as this will involve the destruction of the Name of G-d.
There are fascinating ramifications of this prohibition which are discussed by the responsa of leading sages, the actual discussion beyond the scope of this column. One example was raised to R’ Moshe Feinstein, a leading sage in the past generation. A Jewish man was quarantined due to a serious illness, one which necessitated that anything brought into his room needed to be incinerated in order not to spread his dangerous disease to others. The man wanted to know if he could be brought tefillin to be worn during his time in quarantine, knowing that in the end, those tefillin would need to be incinerated.
In next week’s column we shall try to address your specific questions, especially with regard to Names written digitally.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA–Dallas Area Torah Association.