You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d (Devarim 12:4)
A frequently asked question concerning the prohibition mentioned (in our Parashah) of “You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d,” is the matter of mentioning Hashem at the beginning of letter. Many have the custom of opening letters with the Hebrew letters Beis Hei, or with a longer acronym for the words “With the help of Hashem.” Is this a worthy custom, in practicing the virtue of having “the name of Hashem upon one’s lips” (see Rashi, Bereishis 27:21 and 39:3), or should the custom be avoided, for fear of causing disrespect to the name of Hashem when the letter is disposed of by the recipient?
Writing the Name of Hashem in Documents
An interesting source in regard to this question is found in the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (18b), which tells of how the Greeks, in their efforts to quash the spiritual virtue of the Jews, forbade the very mention of the name of Hashem. When the Chashmonaim were victorious, it was enacted that the Name of Hashem should be written into the date of every document, which would 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 enact this decree, which introduced the mention of Hashem even in the mundane world of fiscal documents, can be 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 continues to relate that the Sages of the generation were not happy with the enactment, stating: “Tomorrow this 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 cancelled the enactment. So important was the matter in their eyes, that the day on which the enactment was annulled was decreed a holiday.
The words of the Gemara teach us that there is room to be concerned for disrespect and derision of the Name, even when the Name was written without sanctity, but merely as part of the date. This obligation for showing respect to the Name is ruled by the Ramo (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 anecdotal teaching of the above Gemara.
It is worth mentioning, in this connection, that Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach Zatza”l (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 this ruling on thr 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 concern expressed by the Sages, according to this ruling, would be limited to a Name written in the Holy Tongue.
However, the nature of the prohibition involved still requires scrutiny. If the concern would be for the Torah prohibition mentioned in our Parashah, “You shall not do so to Hashem, your G-d,” the Remo should surely mention the concern for the erasing of the Name. The wording of Remo, which mentions disrespect—and the wording of the Gemara from which the halachah is taken—suggests that the concern is not for the actual erasing of the Name, but for the disrespect shown to it.
Names Written Without Intention of Sanctity
The fact that the Sages were not concerned for the possible erasing of the Name in the document would be well understood if such Names would not possess the kedushah usually associated with Divine Names. According to Harav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor Zatza”l (Ein Yitzchak, vol. 1, no. 5), this is indeed the case: according to him, a Name written without intent of sanctity does not possess the kedushah of a Name.
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, 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 believes that it is like other matters. On account of this, the Name is not sanctified.”
There might be room to distinguish between Names written by a heretic and Names written by a believing Jew, yet without “intention of sanctity.” However, several authorities have written that all Names that were not written with the intention that they should be sanctified, are not sanctified. Apart from the above mentioned Ein Yaakov, this is stated by Shev Yaakov (54, based on Rambam), and by several others (see Taz, Yoreh De’ah 276:2; Maharashdam, Yoreh De’ah 186; Tashbatz, vol, 1, no. 176, among others).
Yet, several authorities dispute this position, maintaining that there is a full prohibition on erasing a Name even when written without intention of sanctity—a position stated by Shach (Yoreh De’ah 276:12), as understood by Pri Megadim (153, MZ 15). According to this opinion, the intention of the Sages who were concerned for disrespect of Names in documents did not mean to imply that there is no concern for erasing of the Names. Rather, they mentioned disrespect because this is the more common of the two, for it is not common for a person to erase a document he receives.
However, according to the above authorities who maintain that there is no prohibition on erasing a Name that was not written with the intention of sanctity, the Sages were specifically concerned for disrespect, and not for erasing, for there would be prohibition on erasing a Name written merely as part of the date. Even for such a Name, however, it remains forbidden to degrade the Name by disrespectful actions—an idea that can be seen from the Netziv’s Meishiv Davar (vol. 2, no. 80), who writes that there is no prohibition on erasing a Name that was not written with sanctity, yet adds (based on the above Gemara) that disrespectful actions should be prevented.
Writing Beis Hei in Letters
According to the ruling that emerges from the said Gemara, it would seem that it is proper to avoid writing the letters Beis Hei in a letter. This, indeed, is the basic opinion expressed in 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 comprises the Holy Name, and—as Ramo (276:10) rules concerning the writing of Hashem’s Name as two letter Yud’s—it is therefore prohibited to erase it (without some important need). Likewise, it is forbidden to deride or show disrespect to the Name, and this is good reason for avoiding the writing of the letters Beis Hei on letters.
Yet, Iggros Moshe continues to state that in America, there would be no prohibition on 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 would be transgressed. Nonetheless, he adds that while it may not be prohibited to do so, he does not see a great virtue in mentioning the Divine Name at the front of a letter pertaining to mundane matters of the world.
The point that can be questioned in Rav Moshe’s reasoning is the assumption, made at the very outset of his words, that the letter Hei of Beis Hei is one of the letter of the Holy Name. it is possible to suggest that the letter is not taken from the Holy Name itself, but is rather short for the word “Hashem,” in the expression “Baruch Hashem” or “Be’ezras Hashem”. The actual word Hashem (the name) possesses no kedushah, and, according to this line of reasoning, there would therefore be no halachic problem in writing the letters Beis Hei at the front of letters. The Ramo, as mentioned in Iggros Moshe, prohibits the erasing of the Name of Hashem as abbreviated by two letter Yud’s. In this case, the letter Yud’s are actually extracted from the Holy Name—the first Yud is the first letter of the Shem Havayah, and the other is the last letter of Adnus. In the case of Beis Hei, it is possible that the letter Hei has no inherent connection with the Holy Name, and only means to hint at the word Hashem.
Yet, we find that Maratz Chajes (responsa, no. 11) also writes that in mentioning Hashem at the beginning of the letter, one should avoid the letter Hei, and use the letter Dalet instead. It is possible, however, that the rulings of the Maharatz Chajes and the Iggros Moshe denote a certain distinction between generations. In previous generations, the letter Hei would imply not only the word Hashem, but would be written as one of the letters of the Name. Today, however, the expressions “Baruch Hashem” and “Be’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—so that all poskim would concur that there is no concern over its writing.
Indeed, many present-day authorities, as listed in the Tzitz Eliezer (vol. 22, no. 51), have ruled that there is no concern for writing Beis Hei in letters, and that the letter Hei cannot be paralleled with the letters Yud Yud that denote the Name itself. This (lenient) ruling has also been cited in the name of Harav Wosner Shlit”a.
It is noteworthy that the Iggros Moshe himself writes that the abbreviation for Be’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 only short for Hashem.
It emerges that according to a number of authorities, there is no concern for 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 out of the letters of the Name itself. Even according to 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 the Iggros Moshe it would be forbidden to write the letters. For someone who receives such a letter—in view of the dispute concerning the status of the letters—following the advice given by a number of poskim (concerning newspapers with occasional quotes of verses) to wrap the material in nylon before throwing it away, might be sufficient.
In addition, we have seen that there would not be a concern in beginning a letter with the mention of a Name written in English—though once again, according to Rav Moshe there is no reason to do so.