Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In the Name of Gd

[Please read: White House cleanses Israel from website (h/t Life in Israel)]

A few months ago, I received an email asking why I don't write out G O D when referring to the Creator. In case the question is on anyone's mind, or in case anyone is thinking about this in terms of their own writing, here's the reply I sent:

I have three reasons for writing "Gd". None of them have the force of law, of course, but I find each of them compelling in its own right. In no particular order:

1. The status of a Name written in a language other than Hebrew is not entirely clear; significant halachic authorities, such as the Tashbetz and R' Akiva Eiger, ruled that it is, indeed, invested with sanctity. A classic example is R' Yonatan Eibschitz's ruling that one may not write "Adieu". If you are interested in researching this, I'd be glad to provide references. Classic sources are the Shulchan Aruch's comments in Yoreh Deah 276 and the commentaries there, and Rabbi J. David Bleich wrote on the topic in Tradition 11:3.

2. As someone who spends a lot of time on "Gd matters", I am concerned about desensitization to what Torah really means, what it's "about", so I take extra steps to try (not always successfully) to remind myself that Judaism is not my career, it's my religion. I try to be careful about conversing in a shul or beis medrash, for example. I don't use the Name in songs on Shabbos, although I believe it is entirely permissible. This spelling is another example.

3. The fourth perek in Pesachim teaches that one may not permit that which people normally prohibit (דבר שהציבור נהגו בו איסור). Certainly, there must be boundaries to this, for this maxim cannot be sanction to perpetuate every foolish trend to pop up, but I do think it applies to well-meaning practices which are designed along halachic lines and don't overburden the community.

My questioner also noted the halachic principle of "אין לדבר סוף", that we do not create decrees which will create endless problems. As an example: The kohen gadol of Yom Kippur is supposed to be married, but, per the beginning of Masechet Yoma, we did not establish a 'backup wife' in the event that something happen to his wife just before Yom Kippur, lest we then need backups for backups.

However, I'm not sure that this case qualifies. אין לדבר סוף is a concern for creating obligations which cannot be met because they are too broad in scope. The kohen gadol's wife is a perfect example - Once you require a second backup, you require a millionth backup automatically. On the other hand, here the law would apply to any word created to refer to Gd, but the scope depends on the number of words you invest with that meaning.

So those are my thoughts on the topic. What are yours?


  1. I remember when I was at school, one rabbi shocked us by writing G-d out in full on the board and later erasing it at the end of the lesson, saying that the name in English had no sanctity or significance.

    I got in the habit of writing the name in full when at university, on the grounds that my tutors would question 'G-d'. I initially kept the hyphen in my notes, until I accidentally copied it into an essay, which did arouse comment from my tutor, especially as it was supposed to be in a direct quotation where the hyphen was obviously replaced with an 'o'.

    Since then I have used the name in full for blogging (I feel the chance of someone printing my blog post and then not dispossing of it correctly is slim), but sometimes use the hyphen (or just 'G') on the rare occasions I need to write the name on paper. Possibly I am open to a charge of hypocrisy here.

  2. The issue of "desensitization" to Torah is an interesting one. A non-observant friend of mine explains that he hates to attend shul because of all the talking and gossiping that occur during davening, and because the little childen are allowed to run around and scream. He says that it doesn't "feel very holy" to him. He has a point. Many people who attend shul regularly feel so at home there that they act freely, as if they really were at home. We have all seen similar behavior during a chuppah, or a bris, or a bar mitzvah aliyah. The Rabbi's assistant was loudly crunching almonds as I was receiving my get! Familiarity can breed indifference if we are not careful. If not writing out the full name of G-d helps to remind us of the sanctity of the name, then it is indeed a good practice.

  3. Rabbi,
    First, I'm interested in the sources, please - it's always good to follow through with any topic. Thanks in advance.
    Second, I'm intrigued with the fact that you don't pronounce the names during zemirot; the zemirot are considered devarim b'kedusha, after all (see Seridei Eish on kol isha, etc.). From the Chassidic perspective, this is even more compelling reasons to pronounce the names by zemirot, as it is considered to be an extremely potent and important form of avodah on Shabbos and Moadim...

  4. I'd like to add my reason for including the dash in G-d's name.
    People will ask.
    Then, a (hopefully fruitful) conversation ensues.

  5. I think "Ein Ladavar Sof" comes into play if you want to treat as holy any string of characters that refers directly to HKB"H. Is "G-d" any less a name of the Almighty than "God"? I'd argue that it's more so, since "G-d" only ever refers to (that is, is mukdash for use in referring to) H' Echad, while "god" (and even sometimes when capitalized) can also refer to the entities supposed by polytheists.

    I have seen the davar lacking sof in the wild, in the form of people writing "H-shem."

  6. Daniel-
    Yes, that kind of back and forth can be confusing, certainly.

    Crunching almonds? That is terrible. Maybe he was trying to set everyone at ease by breaking the tension... or something...

    Sure, when I'm back in town; please email me to remind me. For now I'd definitely recommend the SA and the article by R' Bleich.
    Re: Zmiros - Why would that require the Shem, though?


    As long as it's a finite class, there is a sof!

  7. My point is that even if you start with a finite class of character strings that refer to the Ribono shel Olam, each time you create a dashified version of a member of that class and use it to refer to Him, you've added another member to the class. Assuming that you intend to apply dashification consistently to all members of the class before using them, by induction, the class grows to infinite size.

  8. >Re: Zmiros - Why would that require the Shem, though?

    I wouldn't say that it requires it, but if you don't say it when you sing it, then what's the point of having the shem in these songs at all? It basically turns these into mini Tetragrammatons, ksiv ve-lo kri. There is the famous example in Tzur Mishelo where "emunai" and "adonai" are meant to rhyme (first pointed out by R. Yehosef Schwarz, and made famous, I think, by R. Ovadya Yosef).

  9. To add to what "S." wrote above:

    According to the Seridei Eish (and others), zemirot are devarim b'kedusha; their status ensures that there is a certain amount of reverence when performed, which prevents hirhurim, so kol isha is not necessarily a problem (predicated on the assumption that the main issue is hirhur in kol isha). Using the Shemot as intended emphasizes the nature of the zemirot...

  10. Isaac-
    Why? Why isn't it just finite*2?

    Understood, and I very much agree regarding the rhymes (although singing Tzur MiShelo itself is a question...), but I don't see that this is necessarily a bad thing.

    Definitely an interesting point - but do you think people genuinely view the songs as devarim sheb'kedushah?

  11. Elliott Shimoff a"h would tell (on scj) a childhood story about when a teacher in Maimonides told the class that it was prohibited to write "God". R' JB Soloveitchik happened to be walking by and heard. Without saying a word, RYBS entered the room, wrote "God" on the blackboard, then erased it.

    Another reason: "God" is how Xians denote their trinitarian deity. G-d is something different than that.

    My main reason: Right or wrong, that is what I was taught and habituated in as a child. So now, to switch to writing the name out would require making a point of overcoming that upbringing. While I don't see a problem in writing it out, I do have discomfort with the notion of getting used to not respecting G-d in this way.


  12. Rabbi -

    I can't answer for others, only myself, and the answer is "yes".

    However, although the common conceptionmay not be that way, I don't see how that lessens the the essence of their (the zemirot) nature. Does tefillah lose its status because its not treated with the appropriate respect (a caveat of course is the dubious comparison between zemirot and tefillah, but you get my drift)?

  13. R' Micha-
    Agreed. (And I remember Elliot ע"ה, and scj, well.)

    I meant that since people don't view the zmiros that way, adding the Name isn't likely to change that.
    And if your point is inherent kedushah of the zmiros, I don't believe that removing the Name detracts from that.

  14. Why it's not finite^2:

    The tetragrammaton is holy, so we say the shem adnut instead.

    The shem adnut is holy, so we say "Hashem" instead.

    Now "Hashem" becomes holy, so we write "H-shem" instead.

    Now "H-shem" becomes holy, so we write "H'" instead.

    Now "H'" is holy, so we write "D'" instead.


    Bottom line: In the spirit of your point #1, how can it be improper to write/erase "God" but fine to do so with "G-d"? (I realize that point #2 effectively distinguishes between the two, and point #3 does if you accept the form but not what I think is the underlying logic of the popular convention.)

  15. Why was it commendable or at least unremarkable for Tanach characters to invoke Hebrew sheimot in conversation but not proper for us to use an English "sheim" in writing or a Hebrew sheim in zemirot? Two examples that come to mind are Ya'akov Avinu when speaking in what his father exclaimed was "kol Ya'akov" and Bo'az and his employees exchanging greetings, but I'm sure there are many more.

    Yeridat Hadorot? Were Bo'az' field hands all expert in self-control enough to work in tefilin all day, or something?

    (Apologies if this comparison appears snide; I mean it seriously.)

  16. I have heard that yud-yup as a stand-in for His (H-s?) name was originally a 'quote' sign used the same way we use the 'ה now that has experienced significant kedusha inflation.

  17. I don't think so. I think it evolved from three yuds either in a triangle (as in this page from R' Saadia Gaon's siddur) or in a line (as in this page). Although the latter might just be the effect of the printing press on later copies making it easier to keep your letters in a line.

    The Encyc Talmudit ("askaros") gives three meanings to the three yuds:

    1- Medrash Leqach Tov (Shemos 3:15): they are the yuds from Shakai, E-lokim and Ekyeh.

    2- Medrash Leqach Tov (Bamidbar 6:26): they represent the three Birkhos Kohanim, each of which begins with a yud.

    3- Teshuvos haRadvaz (1:206): three yuds equals 30 equals the gematria of the sheim havayah plus its 4 letters.

    My guess is that just as some printers put the three yuds in a line, others just used the two that were already in the normal printing position.


  18. Isaac-
    Infinite - Ah, I see what you mean - but I don't believe that is the meaning of אין לדבר סוף. The principle allows for an expanding set of applications, just not an unlimited one.

    Re: Pseudonyms taking on the meaning of the Name - Yes, I often wonder about this.

    Re: Boaz - See Berachos 63a.

    I've heard that explanation as well, but see R' Micha's reply.