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Q & A: What Constitutes Shemot (Part I)

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Question: Since my daughter in high school started researching the topic of shemot for her school newspaper, I have become more and more confused. Does shemot only include items, such as books and sheets of papers, with Hashem’s name on them? Or does it even include items containing Torah concepts or even just Hebrew letters? For example, how do you advise I dispose of The Jewish Press? Finally, concerning Hashem’s name, must the name be spelled out fully in Hebrew to constitute shemot? What if it is in English in abbreviated form – “G-d,” for example?

Shlomo Newfield
(Via E-Mail)


Answer: The Mechaber (Yoreh De’ah 276:9-10) states: “It is forbidden to erase even one letter of the seven [Holy] Names that are never to be erased. And one may not erase one of the letters that follow them – for example the final chaf of Elokecha and the chaf and final mem of Elokeichem. And these are the seven Names: The name of Hava’yah, the name of Adnut, Kel, Elokah, Elokim, Sha-dai, Tzevakot, and some include also Eh-yeh asher Eh-yeh. If one wrote Kel from Elokim, Kah from the Name [of Havayah] or he wrote the Name Kah, they are not to be erased. However, as regards shin daled [without the yud] of Sha-dai or tzadi bet of Tzevakot they may be erased.”

The Rema (ad loc.) notes: “The same applies if one wrote alef daled of Adnut or alef heh of Eh-yeh. There are those who are stringent in this matter. However, as regards to the Name comprised of two yuds joined together, [it] may be erased if the need arises.”

The above halachot are mentioned in the context of Hilchot Sefer Torah regarding writing or repairing Sifrei Kodesh. Yet, as we will see, these are the basic halachot regarding any writing of Divine Names.

You asked about G-d’s name written in abbreviated form. My uncle, Harav Sholom Klass, zt”l, was the one of the first people to popularize writing G-d’s name in this way, doing so in The Jewish Press from its very inception (in the winter of 1960). Thus let us cite from his Responsa of Modern Judaism II, where he discussed this matter in detail in two related responses.

We first quote from one of them (p. 535): “Usually, if the name G-d is written in English, it is not considered holy and may be discarded [my uncle he is referring to secular, non-Jewish texts]. Only if written in Hebrew is it not permitted to be discarded.

“The Mishna and Gemara Sotah 38, states the following: In the Beth Hamikdosh the name of G-d was pronounced as it is written, Jeho-a (Yud Kay Vav Kay) but throughout the land it was pronounced (as we do today) Ahdo.

“The Gemara Yoma 39b, then continues with this subject by saying that when Shimon Hatzadik died, his brother Kohanim refused to say the Shem Hameforash (Holy Name) even in the Beth Hamikdosh.

“The Gemara Menachos 109b explains that after the death of Shimon Hatzadik, the Kohanim began to fight and jealousy arose. Tosafos in Sotah 38a explain further that the Shechina (Holy Spirit) departed from the Beth Hamikdosh and therefore the Kohanim weren’t allowed to use the Holy Name.

“The Rambam (Hilchos Tfilos chap. 14:10) explains that they stopped using the Holy Name so that disrespectful and unruly people would not learn it.

“The Maharsha in Kidushin 71a considers G-d’s name, Adoshem, as pertaining to the ‘Middas Hadin’ attribute of judgment which is applicable to this world, while the name Jeho-a is the ‘Middas Harachamim,’ the attribute of mercy which pertains to the other world. Only in the next world, which is all good and compassionate, will we be able to pronounce his name the way it is written.

“The Gemara Kiddushin 71a narrates: G-d says, ‘I am not pronounced as I am written. I am spelled “Yud Kay…” and I am pronounced “Ado…” (Alef Daled…)’

“Our Rabbis taught: At first G-d’s twelve-lettered name used to be entrusted to all the people. When unruly men increased, it was confided to the pious of the priesthood and they swallowed it (pronounced it indistinctly) during their chanting of their brother priests.

“Rabbi Judah said in Rab’s name: ‘The forty-two-lettered name of G-d is entrusted only to him who is pious, meek, middle-aged, free from bad temper, sober and not insistent on his rights…’ [Rashi ad loc. s.v. “v’eino ma’amid al midotav,” explains we are concerned that someone who lacks the latter attribute might use that name to exact retribution against an adversary.]

“The Midrash Rabah explains that the Holy Name of 12 letters represents the letters of Alef, Daled, Nun, Yud, Kay, Vav, Yud, Kay, Alef, Kay, Yud, Kay, which totals twelve letters. The Holy Name of 42 letters is the spelling out of each letter of the above words (such as the letter of Alef) which then total 42.

“The Gemara Sofrim, Chap. 4:1 and the Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana itemize seven names of G-d which must not be erased (or thrown away). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14) counts and itemizes 70 names pertaining to G-d which must be treated with respect.

“Our Gaonim and Poskim now go into the various versions of the name of G-d and the Halacha is as follows:

“The Shach in the Yoreh Dayeh 179:11 says: ‘The name of G-d is holy only in Hebrew but in a secular language it is not considered as the true name of G-d, and you are allowed to erase the name if it appears in secular languages such as Polish, Russian, etc.

“ ‘However,’ the Shach continues, ‘I say that in advance (Lachatchila) we should be careful as much as possible, but when it can’t be helped, it can’t be helped.’

“The Beth Yosef (Tur Yoreh Dayeh 276) quotes the Rashbatz that if one wrote the name of G-d without having the intention of holiness, then it isn’t holy and one may erase it.

“The Beth Lechem Yehuda (Yoreh Dayeh 276:10) agrees with this view especially if it’s in a secular language, such as English, but if it’s intended for a holy purpose then we aren’t allowed to erase it (or discard it). But coins which bear the name of G-d are not intended for a holy purpose; therefore we are permitted to discard them.

“The Noda B’Yehuda (Shailos and Tshuvos, Tannina, Yoreh Dayeh 181) was angry at people who inscribed the name of G-d on the holy ark and he said that we should avoid the use of the Holy Name any place.

“The Pischei Teshuva (Yoreh Dayeh 276:13) also opposes the custom of engraving the name of G-d on candelabras.

“The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Dayeh 276) quotes the Rama and other Poskim who claim that the name of G-d which appears in our Siddurim in the form of two letters ‘Yud’ may be erased if necessary, for the real name is spelled with four letters (Jeho-a).

“He also quotes the Tashbatz that if the name is used in different languages it is not considered the true name of G-d and if necessary they may be erased. ‘However,’ he concludes, ‘even in another language we must be very careful, and warn women and laymen who write out the name of G-d, that though it may not be holy, it is still prohibited. Because if we discard it or throw it into a trash basket, it will put the Holy Name to shame and therefore many great people prohibit writing out G-d’s name in full.’

“The Aruch HaShulchan (Choshen Mishpat 27:3) continues as follows: ‘Many great people have complained at the custom of writing letters and using the name of G-d, regardless of whether written in Hebrew or in a foreign language, because these letters are discarded and G-d’s name is put to shame, causing poverty to descend on the world due to the lack of respect for G-d.

“Our Sages once created a holiday when the Israelites stopped using G-d’s name in deeds and contracts, because when the loan was repaid then the contract was thrown into the rubbish (Rosh Hashana 18b).

“Therefore, we should all be very careful never to use the full name of G-d in letters and if it is written then the name of G-d should be cut out and hidden before you discard the letter (or the book).”

(To be continued)

Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

Rabbi Yaakov Klass

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

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