A month ago, we read in the sedra of Re’eh (Devarim 12:3-4), “…and you shall obliterate their [idols’] name from that place [the land of Israel]. Do not do so to Hashem, your Lord.” From these pesukim, the Gemara (Sanhedrin daf 56a and Makkot daf 22a) learns that there is a prohibition from the Torah—one of the 613 mitzvot—not to deface, erase or otherwise obliterate Hashem’s Name. This prohibition was codified by the Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvot, negative commandments 65, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah chapter 6) as a mitzvat lo ta’aseh, a negative commandment from the Torah—the violation of which engenders malkot (lashes), just as a violation of the laws of kashrut engenders malkot. Likewise, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 276:9) codified this prohibition, as well, as a Torah law. In order to be careful in the observance of this mitzvah, it is important to define the halachic status of the Name of Hashem in print.
The Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch refer to seven Names of Hashem that are included in this prohibition. There is some debate about what exactly constitutes this list of seven Names; however, all agree on most of them—such as the Name that begins with aleph dalet and the Name that begins with aleph and lamed. In order to be considered a Name of Hashem, such that there is a prohibition to obliterate it, the Name must be in Hebrew characters, and it must be produced with intent, as delineated by the Shulchan Aruch in se’if 12. And herein lies the issue behind the matter of the Name of Hashem in a print format.
Let us start our analysis with cases on two extremes, about which there is no debate, and then we will proceed to the middle ground, about which there has been discussion among the poskim. If a Jew takes a quill (or a pen) and writes the Name of Hashem in Hebrew characters on a piece of paper, with the intent to do exactly that, then there is no question that if one obliterates that written Name, he or she has violated a Torah law. As well, if the wind blows a bunch of twigs such that they end up in a formation that spells out the Name of Hashem in Hebrew characters, there is no question that if one obliterates the formation of those twigs, he or she has not violated the mitzvah. The question, though, is, what if one typed the Name of Hashem on a computer in Hebrew characters (which, according to the consensus of poskim, can be deleted on screen, as the Name is formed by light, not by printed letters) and then printed the computer document on a printer. On the one hand, one can argue that the printed Name was not written, and therefore is not subject to this Torah law. On the other hand, one can argue that the Name was produced with intent as to Hashem’s Name, and therefore is subject to this Torah law.
The Minchat Shai (Rav Shmuel Yitzchak Shor, 1839-1902) wrote (She’ailot uTeshuvot 2:32) that one may be lenient with regard to a Name of Hashem printed in a book or newspaper. (While the process of printing in his time did not involve computers, the factors as to the halachic decision are the same). On the other hand, the Aruch HaShulchan (Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, 1829-1908) wrote (Yoreh Deah 276:24) that one may—only for great need—obliterate the abbreviated symbol of Hashem’s Name that is printed in the siddur, in contradistinction to the full Name printed in the siddur, which may not be obliterated under any circumstances, by Torah law.
Most, if not all, Torah print media organizations today do not print the Name of Hashem in Hebrew characters. The reason for this general policy is that discarding the Name in a manner that is not appropriate—that is, in a manner other than genizah—would be a violation of a Torah law, akin to violating the laws of kashrut, according to many, if not most, poskim.
As this issue lies within the realm of one of the 613 mitzvot, it is important to be knowledgeable, and careful, in terms of how we treat the Name of Hashem in Hebrew characters if we do encounter it in a print media forum. As always, in terms of one’s personal actions with regard to this issue, one should consult his or her posek for halachic guidance.
Rabbi Saul Zucker is head of school at Ben Porat Yosef.