In Parashas Re’eh we find the instruction “You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d”(Devarim 12:4) – we are commanded to destroy and to eradicate idolatry from the world, and at the same time instructed to refrain from doing the same to Hashem, our G-d.
Among the instructions relating to destroying idolatry, the verse mentions that we must “break down their altars, smash their sacred stones … cut down the idols of their gods and eradicate their names from those places” (Devarim 12:3). Based on the subsequent instruction forbidding us from doing the same to Hashem, Chazal derive that it is forbidden to erase any of the Names of Hashem (Sifri, Devarim 61; Makkos 22a).
This prohibition raises a question about the proper manner in which to write a letter.
Many have the custom of beginning letters with the two Hebrew letters Beis Hei, or with three letters standing for the words, “With the help of Hashem.” The practice is recommended as a means of mentioning Hashem in all we do (see Shut Yecheveh Da’as Vol. 3, no. 78), and fulfilling the injunction to have “the name of Hashem upon our lips” (see Rashi, Bereishis 27:21 and 39:3).
Yet it can be argued that the custom should be avoided, for when the letter is disposed of the reference to Hashem at the opening will be erased and destroyed. In view of the prohibition against erasing the Name, is this a halachic problem? Should an alternative reference to Hashem be used, rather than the letter Hei which is a letter of the Name? Is there a difference between writing in English and in Hebrew?
We will discuss these questions, and other matters relating to the subject, below.
Writing the Name of Hashem in Documents
An important source in connection with mentioning Hashem in letters is found in the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18b) in connection with the prohibition enacted by the Greeks against the mention of the Name of Hashem.
When the Hasmoneans were victorious, they instituted that the Name of Hashem should be written into the date of every document, which should be worded, “In such and such year of Yochanan, High Priest of G-d above.”
After the evil decree of the Greeks, the desire to introduce the mention of Hashem even into fiscal documents, is easily understood. Indeed, the spirit of the enactment is expressed by the Shelah (Gate of Letters, Letter Aleph, no. 16), who writes: “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 continues to relate that the Sages of the generation were not content with the enactment. They said: “Tomorrow, one will pay back his debt and the document will be found amid garbage.” Out of concern for the resulting disrespect to the Name of Heaven, the Sages canceled the enactment. So important was this matter in their eyes, that the day on which the enactment was annulled was decreed a holiday.
The Gemara teaches us that there is concern for disrespect and derision of the Name, even when the Name was not written as part of a consecrated document but merely as part of the date.
This obligation to show respect to the Name is ruled by the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 276:13), who writes that one should not mention Names of Hashem in letters: “It is prohibited to write a Name other than in a book [of Scripture], because this can lead to disrespect, and we are therefore careful not to write a Name in letters.” In his annotations to Shulchan Aruch, the Vilna Gaon mentions that the source of the halachah is the teaching of the above Gemara.
The Name of G-d on the Dollar Bill
As Americans are proudly aware, the American dollar bill mentions the word G-d in the sentence, “In G-d we trust.” Is there a problem in treating a dollar bill with disrespect on account of the word G-d that appears on it?
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, chap. 20, note 33) addressed this question, and ruled that one need not be concerned for disrespect of the mention of G-d on the dollar bill. He bases this ruling on Shach (Yoreh De’ah 179:11), who writes that a Name written in a foreign language does not have the sanctity of the Name.
The concern expressed by the Sages, according to this ruling, is limited to a Name written in the Holy Tongue (though the Shach writes that on a lechatchilah level one should be careful not to erase even a Name written in other languages), and based on this Rav Shlomo Zalman was lenient concerning bringing the dollar note into a bathroom. Yet, Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss was stringent on the same issue (Minchas Yitzchak, Vol. 1, nos. 17-18). Although erasing might be permitted, a basic distinction between erasing on the one hand, and degrading/deriding on the other, is already raised by the Mishnah Berurah (85:10).
Indeed, the wording of the Rema suggests that the concern is not for the Torah prohibition mentioned in our Parashah – “You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d.” Were this the case, the Rema should surely have mentioned the specific concern for the erasing of the Name. Instead, the Rema speaks of disrespect, which is also implied by the Gemara from which the halachah is taken, suggesting that the concern is not about the actual erasing of the Name, but rather about disrespect shown to it.
Names Written Without Intention of Sanctity
Why are the Sages not concerned about the possible erasing of the Name in the document?
This can be understood based on the assumption that such Names do not possess the kedushah usually associated with Divine Names. According to Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (Ein Yitzchak, vol. 1, no. 5), this is indeed the case: He reasons that a Name written without any intent of it having sanctity does not possess the kedushah of a Name, and therefore the prohibition of erasing the Name will not apply.
The principle proof for this position is a ruling of Rambam (Yesodei Hatorah 6:8), which begins by prohibiting the destruction of Scriptures, yet continues to state: “Of what is this said? Only of Scriptures that have been written by a Jew, in holiness. However, [if] a Jewish heretic 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.”
There is room to distinguish between Names written by a heretic and Names written by a believing Jew without intention of sanctity. However, it is also possible that a Name written without intention of sanctity is not consecrated. Yet, it is possible that the ruling will apply even to a Name written with intent but without intent of consecration, in which case we can understand that the Sages were concerned specifically about disrespect of the Name, and not about erasing it. Indeed, we find the Netziv (Meishiv Davar Vol. 2, no. 80) ruling that although there is no prohibition against erasing a Name that was not written with sanctity, disrespectful actions must nonetheless be prevented.
Yet several authorities dispute this position, maintaining that there is a full prohibition to erase a Name written without intention of sanctity. This position is stated by the Shach (Yoreh De’ah 276:12) as understood by the Peri Megadim (153, Mishbetzos Zahav 15). According to this opinion the intention of the Sages who were concerned about disrespect of Names in documents does not mean to imply that there is no concern about erasing the Names. Rather, they mentioned disrespect because this is the more common circumstance, for it is not common for a person to erase a document he receives.
Writing Beis Hei in Letters
Based on the said Gemara (whereby it is wrong to use the Name in dating a document) it seems that it is proper not to write the letters Beis Hei in a letter. Although not a full Name of Hashem, the letter Hei is one of the letters of the Four-Letter Name, so that it will command at least a degree of respect.
This is the basic opinion expressed by Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Vol. 2, Yoreh De’ah, no. 138), who writes that the letter Hei of these two letters is one of the letters that comprises the Holy Name, and it is therefore prohibited to erase it (unless there is an important reason). As proof of this point Rav Moshe notes the ruling of the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 276:10) concerning the writing of Hashem’s Name as two Yud’s, which one must also avoid erasing.
Likewise, it is forbidden to deride or show disrespect to the Name, and this is good reason to avoid the writing of the letters Beis Hei on letters.
Yet, Iggros Moshe states that in America, there is no prohibition against writing the letters Beis Hei, because the chance of the letters being directly erased is slight, and if discarded, the paper will be burned rather than treated with disrespect, so that no prohibition is transgressed.
Nonetheless, he adds that while it may not be prohibited to do so, he does not see any great virtue in mentioning the Divine Name at the beginning of a letter pertaining to mundane matters.
The Meaning of Beis Hei
The basic assumption made by the Iggros Moshe is that the letter Hei of Beis Hei is one of the letters of the Holy Name. It can be argued, however, that the letter is not in fact taken from the Holy Name, but is rather from the word “Hashem,” in the expression Baruch Hashem or Be’ezras Hashem. The full word Ha-Shem (the Name) has no kedushah, and based on this there is no halachic problem in writing the letters Beis Hei at the front of letters.
The Rema, as mentioned by the Iggros Moshe, prohibits erasing the Name of Hashem as abbreviated by two Yud’s. In this case, the two Yud’s are actually extracted from Holy Names – 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, as noted above, that the letter Hei has no connection with a Holy Name, and only hints at the word Hashem. It thus has no inherent holiness.
Indeed, some present-day authorities e.g. Shut Tziz Eliezer (Vol. 22, no. 51) have ruled that there is no concern about writing Beis Hei in letters, and that the letter Hei cannot be compared to the letters Yud Yud that denote the Name itself.
It is noteworthy that Iggros Moshe himself writes that the abbreviation for Be’ezras Hashem Yisbarach, 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 short for Hashem.
At the same time, it is noteworthy that Maratz Chajes (no. 11) writes that in mentioning Hashem at the beginning of a letter one should avoid the letter Hei and use the letter Dalet instead. It is possible, however, that in his time the letter Hei was usually written as one of the letters of the Name, and not a shortened form of Hashem (today, the expressions “Baruch Hashem” and “Be’ezras Hashem” have become very commonplace, perhaps to a greater extent than in the past).
As part of the discussion about writing letters, the question of beginning letters, and more commonly wedding invitations, with pesukim, is worthy of note.
It is a practice of some people to include segments of pesukim relating to the theme of marriage on the top of wedding invitations. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 283:4) rules that one should not write pesukim on a Tallis (based on Rambam, Shut Pe’er Ha-Dor, no. 7). The Shach explains that (one reason why) this is prohibited because eventually the Tallis will be thrown away and the pasuk will be thrown away with it.
For this reason, Rav Elyashiv zt”l (Kovetz Teshuvos Vol. 1, no. 115) writes that pesukim should not be published in newspaper advertisements. Based on these sources, it seems that one should likewise not print verses on wedding invitations, as they are likely to be discarded in the garbage. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh De’ah Vol. 2, no. 135) likewise writes that he was careful to avoid mentioning any pesukim in the invitations for his children’s weddings, and that this is correct practice for all.
However, it is important to note that the concern is limited to phrases that are exact quotes of pesukim. The phrase “Na’ale et Yerushalayim al Rosh Simchateinu” is not a pasuk and may therefore be printed on any invitation according to all authorities.