Responsa in a Moment: Volume 15, No. 2, February, 2021
(Yoreh Deah 276:9 and 179:8 in the Shakh subparag. 11; Hoshen Mishpat 27:1)
In memory of my father-in-law
Daniel Rotnemer z”l
on his 25th yahrzeit.
Question from four rabbis/laypeople from Israel and the United States: It is common practice among many Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, to write G-d instead of God. Is there any halakhic basis for this practice? Should it be followed?
Responsum: Indeed, this is not only the custom among English-speaking Jews. We will see testimony below that some Jews wrote “Allah” in an abbreviated fashion in Judeo-Arabic in Genizah fragments, “B-g” instead of “Bog” in Russian and Polish in the 17th century, and “G-tt” instead of “Gott” in German and Yiddish in the 19th-20th centuries. In addition, until today, some French-speaking Jews write God’s name as D.ieu, D’, D., or D….
The Jewish people have always taken the name of God very seriously. It says in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:7) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain [or: you shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God].” As a result, Jews were always very reluctant to take an oath. The Torah also forbids cursing God, which is punishable by death (Leviticus 24:10-23; cf. Exodus 22:27 and Job 2:9). Indeed, there is a famous responsum by the Rosh, Rabbeinu Asher (Germany and Toledo, ca. 1250-1327) about a Jew in Cordoba who cursed God in Arabic and the Rosh recommended that he be punished by severe physical punishment (Responsa Rosh 17:8). Finally, “Rav said: a person who hears the pronunciation of God’s name from his fellow, must excommunicate him… for every place where the unnecessary mention of the Divine Name is found, there poverty is found.” (Nedarim 7b; codified by the Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 6:14).
Now let us return to our specific question re writing God’s name in languages other than Hebrew. At the outset, I want to explain that I will not differentiate in this responsum between writing God’s name by hand, in print or on a computer. Since computers came into common use in the 1980s, there has been much disagreement as to whether writing on a computer or a smartphone is actually considered writing.(1) In general, I agree with those who say that it is writing, since, today, this is the main form of writing used by a large percentage of people on earth. On the other hand, I was lenient regarding this issue before Pesah 5780 (2020) in order to find a way for people to participate in a Seder via zoom.(2) However that was bishat hadehak, in an emergency situation, which is obviously not the case under discussion here.
The main issue regarding this question is whether God‘s name in a foreign language is still considered God’s name, or is it only a kinuy, a substitute for the Divine Name, or perhaps it is simply a word devoid of any sanctity. This has been a subject of debate since the medieval period.
It says in Deuteronomy 12:3-4:
Tear down their altars… and cut down the images of their gods, and you shall obliterate their name from that site. You shall not do so to the Lord your God…
This was explained as follows in the Tannaitic midrash, Sifrei Devarim (paragraph 61, ed. Finkelstein, p. 127):
Rabbi Yishmael says: From whence do we derive that a person who erases one letter from God’s name transgresses a negative commandment? As it is written: and you shall obliterate their name from that site. You shall not do so to the Lord your God…
In this midrash, which appears with variations in many other rabbinic sources (3) and which was codified by Maimonides (Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 6:1), Rabbi Yishmael learns from the juxtaposition of verses 3 and 4 that it’s forbidden to erase even one letter from the Name of God.
Yet these passages do not define “the Name of God”. That definition is found in a baraita, a teaching of the Tannaim, found in Shevuot 35a:
There are names [of God] which are erased and names which are not erased. What are the names which are not erased? [Names] such as: E-l, E-lohekha… Sha-dai, Tze-vaot…, these are not erased.
Maimonides (loc. cit. 6:2) and the Tur and Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 276:9) codified this list. Rabbi Yosef Karo writes: “It is forbidden to erase even one letter from the seven names which are not erased… and these are the seven names… and some add …”.
Finally, some of the poskim (halakhic authorities) we shall cite below quote Rosh Hashanah 18b:(4)
[It says in Megillat Ta’anit, a late Second Temple period Aramaic list of days when it’s forbidden to fast:] “On the third of Tishrei, the mention of God’s name was eliminated from legal contracts.” [The Talmud then explains in Hebrew:] For the Greek Kingdom made a decree not to mention God’s name in their mouths. And when the Kingdom of the Hasmoneans defeated them, they made a decree that they should mention God’s name even in legal contracts and this is what they used to write: “in the year so-and-so of the Yohanan the High Priest of E-l E-lyon [=God, the Most High]. And when the Sages heard this, they said: tomorrow this one will repay his debt and the contract will be found thrown in the dunghill, and [therefore] they did away with this practice, and that day they made a festival.
It’s clear from the above sources that, according to Jewish law, it’s forbidden to erase even one letter of the seven names of God and therefore Jews were always very reluctant to write the names of God in Hebrew except in the Bible, the Siddur and other sacred texts. This is why Jews write the letter heh (ה’) and many other abbreviations for the name of God (5) and why when sacred texts become worn out they are buried or placed in a genizah.
The question is whether the sanctity of the seven names of God in Hebrew extends to translations of those names.
Most of the poskim who have dealt with our topic ruled that God’s name in other languages is not holy and may be erased:
In general, they wrote “Allah” in full in Judeo-Arabic, though in a few manuscripts we find various forms of abbreviations due to the sanctity of [God’s] name even in other languages… This is an excessive stringency, which was not accepted as the halakhah for future generations… As is well-known, thanks to the [Cairo] Genizah, we have in our possession today many writings written by Maimonides himself, including secular letters, and in them he wrote ‘Allah’ in full…
In other words, Maimonides himself, who was very strict regarding writing the name of God in Hebrew, wrote ‘Allah’ in full when writing in Judeo-Arabic.(6)
…or they [=the verses] are written in Aramaic and the names of God are translated [into Aramaic], for they can be erased, for there is no prohibition to erase except for the seven names [of God] which are explicitly stated in [Shevuot 35a as above]. And if it was forbidden to erase Aramaic [names of God] there would be more than [seven listed], and an Aramaic translation of God’s names is not preferable [in sanctity] to other kinuyim [such as Gadol, Gibor, Nora, Adir etc.], which may be erased, as it says there [at the end of the baraita]. And the Rambam z”l wrote [Hilkhot Shevuot 2:2] that the names [of God] in other languages are considered kinuyim regarding oaths.
In other words, the names of God in Aramaic and other languages may be erased and, at most, are considered like kinuyim or substitutes for the Divine Name.
but the Name [of God] in Hebrew is ]the[ Name, but in a secular language, it’s not a Name at all, … for it’s permissible to erase a Name which is written in a secular language, such as “Gott” in German or “Bog” in Polish and Russian and the like…
This lengthy apologetic is not convincing. Rabbi Marcus Lehmann, who founded and published Der Israelit from 1860-1890, was a well-known Orthodox Jew. He wrote “Gott,” in the newspaper because, as the Shakh and Rabbi Bachrach stated above, it never occurred to him or to most other Jews that one must treat God’s name in other languages as holy. It is clear from the question at the beginning of this responsum that by 1930, there was pressure to force Jews to write “G-tt”. Therefore, after showing that there is really no problem, Rabbi Grodzinsky wrote the apologetic paragraph at the end of his responsum.
Thus we see that most poskim ruled that the names of God in other languages have no sanctity and are, at most, kinuyim for God.
And it should be asked about the books of the Gentiles which they write today in their languages, and they are our Holy Writings [=the Tanakh], if they require genizah… and if one should worry about God’s name in them not to swear falsely by them and not to erase them, for one who erases the Name [of God] transgresses – and it appears to me to be strict about this, as explained in Kuntress Hari’ayot [=A Booklet of Proofs].
The Riaz asked whether God’s name in translation has the same sanctity as God’s name in Hebrew and he ruled that we should be strict about this. Unfortunately, his Kuntress Hari’ayot has only survived on four tractates, not including Shabbat, so we do not know why he decided to rule strictly. Even though Piskei Hariaz containing this passage was only published in 1964, it was nonetheless known from a quotation by Rabbi Yehoshua Boaz (Italy, 16th century) in his Shiltei Hagiborim to the Rif (on Shabbat, Chapter 16, ed. Vilna, fol. 43a), which was then quoted in an abbreviated fashion by the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gumbiner, Poland 1637-1683; to Orah Hayyim 334, subparagraph 17).
Rabbi Yehonatan Eibeschutz (Prague, Metz, Altona, 1690/95-1764) commented on the latter source in his Urim V’tumim ad loc. (in the Urim section to Hoshen Mishpat 27, subparagraph 2, ed. Dubnow, 1806, fols. 52b and 53b):
And due to our many sins, most of the masses are not careful and they say in German (or Yiddish): “God should punish him! God should strike him!” and they transgress a negative commandment in the Torah. And in any case, due to our many sins, they are not careful [about cursing] with a kinuy, and they think that what is written or said in a Gentile language is only an adjective and they are mistaken.
And they write in all their correspondence (8) “adieu” and in French this is a kinuy which means “with God” (9) and “it is thrown in the dunghill” (Rosh Hashanah 18b quoted above) and the Sages already made a festival that the Name of God should not be mentioned in contracts “because tomorrow this one will repay his debt and the contract will be found thrown in the dunghill” (ibid.). And now, due to our many sins, they learned from the actions of Gentiles and the matter has returned to its disgrace in the extreme… and this requires cleverness and the diligence of the rebuke of the sages of the generation to abolish this from the masses.
Rabbi Eibeschutz was a famous posek, but with all due respect, this ruling is problematic for two reasons. First of all, there is a clear difference in the sources quoted above between writing God’s name in another language, which is not considered holy, and saying God’s name in another language in an oath or a curse, which is considered holy. Yet Rabbi Eibeschutz wanted to transfer the sanctity of the oral name of God in a foreign language to the written name of God. Second, his only proof-text is the passage from Rosh Hashanah 18b – which proves the opposite of his contention. The Sages there decreed that one could not write “E-l Elyon” in a contract in Hebrew lest the contract end up in the dunghill. Thus, their decree had nothing to do with writing God’s name in another language.
In the second passage, in Yoreh Deah 276:24, written in the early 1890s,(11) he begins by quoting the lenient rulings of the Tashbatz and the Shakh which we have quoted about (section II, Nos. 2-3). He then returns, however, to what he wrote in Hoshen Mishpat, that women and Amei Ha’aretz [=ignorant men] who write God’s name in Yiddish in letters – even though they do not contain holiness, this involves a prohibition, for the letters come to disgrace in the dunghills, and there is no disgrace greater than this, and they should be prevented from doing this.
Thus, just like Rabbi Eibeschutz and Rabbi Ya’akov of Lissa, Rabbi Epstein’s only proof-text is the passage in Rosh Hashanah 18b, which does not discuss God’s name written in other languages.(12)
The Talmud and the major medieval codes such as Rambam, Tur and Shulhan Arukh rule that one must be very careful about writing and erasing one of God’s seven names in Hebrew. As a result, Rambam, Rashbatz, the Shakh, Rabbi Yair Hayyim Bachrach, Rabbi Akiva Eger, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinsky, as well as five more recent Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, all ruled that God’s names written in other languages are not sacred. They do not need to be abbreviated, they can be erased and they do not require genizah. This is clearly normative halakhah regarding this issue.
On the other hand, of the four major poskim who ruled strictly on this issue, the first, the Riaz, gives no reason for his strict ruling and refers to his other work Kuntress Hariayot which is no longer extant. The other three – Rabbi Eibeschutz, Rabbi Ya’akov of Lissa, and Rabbi Epstein – all rely on Rosh Hashanah 18b about not throwing God’s name in the dunghill. But since that passage explicitly refers to one of God’s names in Hebrew, it does not prove their point.
In conclusion, we must be very careful about writing and erasing the seven names of God in Hebrew, but these restrictions do not apply to writing God’s names in other languages.
5 Adar 5781
Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol. 1, 1977, pp. 202-206
Entziklopedia Talmudit, Volume 31, cols.347-349, s.v. kinuyei hashem
All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.