One of the Aseres HaDibros, the Ten Commandments, which we read in Parashas Yisro, refers to “taking the name of Hashem in vain” (Shemos 20:7).
The prohibition refers to taking a vain oath, with the name of Hashem. The Torah prohibits taking any type of oath, even a true oath if it is obviously true or false and therefore serves no purpose (Temurah 3b).
Thus, someone who swears truthfully that a stone is stone violates the prohibition of, “You shall not take Hashem’s Name in vain.” The oath accomplishes nothing, and it is therefore taking the Name of Hashem in vain. Of course, somebody who swears a false oath transgresses the prohibition.
In the present article we will address the related issue of beginning letters and other documents with the Hebrew letters Beis Hei, which are the initials of the words B’ezras Hashem, “With the help of Hashem.” This is surely not mentioning the Name in vain, since the Name is mentioned as a blessing and affirmation of Hashem’s providence and supervision. Yet, authorities have discussed the practice, and its worthiness is a question worthy of note.
Is this a worthy custom, fulfilling the virtue of having, “the name of Hashem upon one’s lips” (see Rashi, Bereishis 27:21; 39:3)? Or should the custom be avoided for causing disrespect to the Name when the letter is disposed of? Should we exercise care in disposing of communications that include those letters at the top? Must one refrain from treating dollar bills with disrespect on account of the printed statement, “In G-d We Trust”? We will, please G-d, clarify these matters in the present article.
Writing the Name of Hashem in Documents
An interesting source for this question is found in the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18b), which tells that the Greeks, in their efforts to quash the spiritual values of the Jews, forbade the very mention of the Name of Hashem.
When the Chashmonaim were victorious over them, they decreed that the Name of Hashem should be written into the date of every document, which was therefore worded, “In such and such year of Yochanan, High Priest of Hashem above.” After the evil decree of the Greeks, the desire to enact this practice, which introduced the mention of Hashem even in the mundane world of ordinary documents, is easily understood.
Indeed, the spirit of the enactment is expressed by the holy Shelah (Gate of Letters, Letter Aleph, no. 16): “Even in every action that you perform out of free choice, whether a mitzvah or not, the Name of Heaven should be upon your mouth.”
However, the Gemara relates that the Sages of the generation were not happy with the enactment, and stated: “Tomorrow this one will pay back his debt, and the document will be found in the garbage.” Because of the resulting disrespect to the Name of Heaven, the Sages canceled the enactment.
So important was the matter in their eyes, that the day on which the enactment was annulled was decreed a holiday.
Disrespect for the Name
The lesson of the Gemara is that there is room to be concerned for disrespect and derision of the Name, even when the Name was written, not for religious or Torah purposes, but merely as part of the date.
This obligation for showing respect to the Name is ruled by the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 276:13), who writes that one should not write Names of Hashem in letters: “It is prohibited to write a Name other than in a book, because this can lead to disrespect, and we are therefore careful not to write a Name in letters.”
In his annotations to the Shulchan Aruch, the Vilna Gaon mentions that the source of the halachah is the teaching of the above Gemara.
Names Written Without Intention of Sanctity
The Gemara notes a concern for disrespect of the Name, and not for its possibly being erased. As noted above, it is possible that this is due to the fact that names written without any purposive sanctity do not possess the kedushah associated with Divine Names.
According to Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (Ein Yitzchak, Orach Chaim vol. 1, no. 5), this is indeed the case: a Name written without intent of sanctity does not possess the kedushah of a Name, and will therefore not have a problem of erasing. Nonetheless, a problem of disrespect remains for, though the Name does not possess sanctity, disrespect is still disrespect to He Who is named by it.
The principle proof for this position is a ruling of Rambam (Yesodei Hatorah 6:8), which begins by prohibiting the destruction of Scriptures, yet states: “Of what is this said? Only of Scriptures that have been written by a Jew, in holiness. However, a Jewish heretic who writes a Torah scroll, the scroll is burned with its Names, for he does not believe in the sanctity of the Name, and it was not written for the sake of the Name. But [he] believes that it is like other matters. On account of this, the Name is not sanctified.”
One might distinguish between Names written by a heretic and Names written by a believing Jew without intention of sanctity. However, several authorities have written that all Names written without intention to be sanctified, are not sanctified. Apart from the above mentioned Ein Yitzchak, this is stated by Shev Yaakov (54, based on Rambam), and by several others (see Taz, Yoreh De’ah 276:2; Shut Maharashdam, Yoreh De’ah 186; Shut Tashbatz, vol, 1, no. 176, among others).
Others dispute this position, maintaining that there is a full prohibition to erase a Name even when it was written without intention of sanctity—a position stated by the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 276:12), as understood by the Peri Megadim (153, MZ 15). According to this opinion, the Sages who were concerned for disrespect of Names in documents that are disposed of, did not mean to imply that there is no concern for erasing those Names. Rather, they mentioned disrespect because it is the more common of the two, for it is not common for a person to erase a document he receives.
Based on the first opinion, however, we see clearly that even where it does not possess sanctity, it is forbidden to degrade the Name by disrespectful actions—an idea that can be seen from the Netziv’s Meishiv Davar (vol. 2, no. 80), which states that there is no prohibition on erasing a Name that was not written with sanctity, yet adds (based on the above Gemara) that one must still refrain from disrespectful actions.
The Dollar Bill
It is worth mentioning, in this connection, that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, chap. 20, note 33) ruled that one need not be concerned for disrespect of the mention of G-d on the dollar bill.
He bases his ruling on a Shach (Yoreh De’ah 179:11), who writes that a Name written in a foreign language does not possess the sanctity of the Name, the more so when written by a non-Jew. Although other authorities dispute the ruling of the Shach, Rav Shlomo Zalman rules that one can rely on the Shach where there is no intention for sanctity (and the Name was written by a non-Jew). This applies even to disrespect: The concern of the Sages is limited to a Name written in the Holy Tongue.
However, Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita (Shut Teshuvos Vehanhagos Vol. 2, no. 466) states that Rav Chaim of Brisk was careful not to bring coins with references to G-d into the bathroom, for fear of treating a Name with disrespect. Based on what we saw above, this can be true even though the Name does not possess sanctity. A similar position is noted by Shut Minchas Yitzchak (1:17-18).
Citing Shut Chavos Yair, the Mishnah Berurah (334:52) writes that Names written on coins do not possess sanctity, because they are considered as though written expressly without sanctity. He writes that it is therefore permitted to erase them, but he does not relate to the question of treating them with disrespect.
Writing Beis Hei in Letters
According to the ruling that emerges from the Gemara, it seems that it is proper to avoid writing the letters Beis Hei in a letter.
This is the basic opinion expressed in Shut Iggros Moshe (vol. 2, Yoreh De’ah, no. 138), who writes that the letter Hei of the two-letter combination is one of the letters that comprise the Holy Name, and—as the Rema (276:10) rules concerning the writing of Hashem’s Name as two Yud’s—it is therefore prohibited to erase it (if there is no compelling need).
Likewise, it is forbidden to deride or show disrespect to the Name, and this is good reason to avoid writing the letters Beis Hei on correspondence.
However, Iggros Moshe continues that in America there is no actual prohibition against writing the letters Beis Hei, because the chances of the letters being directly erased are slight and even if discarded, the paper would be burned rather than treated with disrespect, so that no prohibition is transgressed. Nonetheless, he adds that although it may not be prohibited to do so, he does not see any great virtue in mentioning the Divine Name at the front of a letter about mundane matters.
The point that other authorities question concerning the ruling—a point that emerges from the teshuvah of Rav Moshe itself (see below)—is the assumption, made at the outset, that the letter Hei of Beis Hei is one of the letters of the Holy Name. It is possible that the letter is not taken from the Holy Name itself, but rather from the word “Hashem,” in the expression “Baruch Hashem” or “B’ezras Hashem”. The word Hashem (meaning “the name”) possesses no kedushah, and, according to this line of reasoning, there will be no halachic problem in writing the letters Beis Hei at the front of letters.
The Rema, as mentioned in Shut Iggros Moshe, prohibits erasing the Name of Hashem as abbreviated by two Yud’s. In this case, the Yud’s are extracted from the Holy Name—the first Yud is the first letter of the Shem Havayah, and the second is the last letter of Adnus. In the case of Beis Hei, it is possible that the letter Hei has no connection with any Holy Name, and only means to hint at the word Hashem.
We find that Maratz Chajes (responsa, no. 11) writes that in mentioning Hashem at the beginning of the letter, one should avoid the letter Hei, and use the letter Dalet instead. But perhaps the rulings of Maharatz Chajes and Shut Iggros Moshe show a distinction between generations. In previous generations, the letter Hei implied not only the word Hashem, but was also written as one of the letters of the Name. Today, however, the expressions “Baruch Hashem” and “B’ezras Hashem” have become so commonplace that anyone writing the abbreviation Beis Hei intends the Hei only as the word Hashem, and not as a letter of the Holy Name itself.
Indeed, many modern authorities, as listed in Tziz Eliezer (vol. 22, no. 51), rule that there is no concern for writing Beis Hei in letters, and that the letter Hei cannot be compared with the letters Yud Yud which denote the Name itself.
It is noteworthy that Iggros Moshe himself writes that the abbreviation for B’ezras Hashem Yisborach, written with the letter Shin after the Hei, is certainly permitted without any concern. The reason for this is that the presence of the letter Shin demonstrates that the Hei is not taken from Hashem’s Name, but is only short for Hashem.
According to a number of authorities, there is no need to refrain from writing the letters Beis Hei at the beginning of a letter, because the letter Hei is short for the word Hashem rather than being a letter of the Name itself.
Even according to Shut Iggros Moshe, it is permitted to write the letters in places where disrespectful treatment of the letter is unlikely. In Israel, there may be concern for disrespect in the manner in which garbage is disposed of, and according to Shut Iggros Moshe it is therefore forbidden to write the letters.
For someone who receives such a letter—in view of the dispute concerning the status of the letters—it seems that the advice given by a number of poskim concerning newspapers with occasional quotes of verses will suffice: wrapping the material in plastic before throwing it away.
We have also seen that there might not be a concern in beginning a letter with the mention of a Name in English. However, this is also disputed. Even if no prohibition is involved, according to Rav Moshe there is no reason to do this.