God on your screen
Does Jewish law allow one to erase God’s name from a computer disk or monitor?
When I first encountered this question, I assumed that it was a joke. What if the response were negative? Would one have to bury old computer disks? What if God’s name appears on a computer monitor? Would one then have to avoid deleting it and instead of switching off, hope for a power cut?
In a passage dealing with the requirement to eradicate idolatry from Israel, the Torah urges us to ‘eliminate their name from that place’. (Devarim 12:3). This is followed by the warning, ‘do not do so to the Lord your God’. (ibid. 4) The Talmud and the legal codes understand this to constitute the Biblical prohibition of erasing any of God’s names (Sifri Devarim 61).
This has many applications: most notably the prohibition of destroying a text in which God’s name appears. In religious circles, people avoid writing God’s name in full (at least in its original Hebrew form) so that they can later dispose of the text. And every Jewish community has a ‘genizah’, where items containing God’s name, such as worn-out Mezuzot and Siddurim are stored until they can be buried.
But would Jewish law allow one to erase God’s name when it appears in a readable or audible form, although not actually written or printed? May one, for example, dispose of a tape recording of God’s name, or record something over it? What is the status of text stored digitally: for example, a word-processing document saved on a computer’s hard drive?
This question was first addressed in reference to the forerunner of the gramophone – the phonograph, a device in which a needle detected grooves on a revolving foil or paper sheet, amplifying them into sound. In a landmark responsum, Rabbi Z.P. Frank ruled that the markings on the paper are not actually letters (as they can’t be read or even seen) and so the prohibition of erasing God’s name does not apply to smoothing out the paper. He notes that the great Rabbi Shmuel Salant only prohibited this because he didn’t understand how the phonograph worked!
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein takes a slightly more circumspect approach to tape recordings: in a responsum dated 1963, he acknowledges that there are no real letters and hence no clear prohibition of erasing the tape, yet he feels that it is improper to erase the tape directly. He recommends an indirect approach (presumably recording something over the name of God, rather than merely wiping the tape blank).
While there are more stringent views, it seems that these rulings can also be applied to magnetic storage devices such as computer hard drives, which may be erased irrespective of their content. However, how would halachah address God’s name displayed on a computer monitor, when one can actually read the letters?
In the case of a CRT monitor, electrons are fired at the inside of the screen, forming light patterns that can be seen from the front. They are constantly refreshed, but at a rate that the human eye cannot detect: in reality, therefore, each letter is formed from a series of pixels (dots) each of which only appears on the screen for a moment before being replaced by another. Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach is quoted as ruling that since no complete letter ever actually exists, this does not constitute ‘writing’; it follows that deleting God’s name from this type of screen cannot be prohibited.
More modern TFT LCD monitors operate in a different way: the pixels forming the letters are all lit at once. The RJJS Journal quotes a Rabbi Hecht who was once asked about installed light bulbs that spelled out the name of God, would it be permissible to unplug them? He responded positively: since the lights are constantly ‘rewriting’ God’s name, cutting off the electric supply does not delete the name, but prevents it from being written. This reasoning, together with other principles, will suffice to allow us to delete God’s name from a computer screen, since anyway, the erasure is performed indirectly. What a relief!
Someone with a Divine name written on his skin may not wash nor stand in an unclean place. Should he be obliged to immerse in a mikveh, he should do so normally, as only direct erasing is prohibited. (Shabbat 120b)
But for a non-obligatory purpose, even erasing the name indirectly is prohibited, for there is no greater shame than causing God’s name to be erased. (Noda BeYehudah 2:OC:17)
One who erases one of the God’s holy names transgresses a Biblical prohibition. (Rambam, Yesoday HaTorah 6:1)
With respect to a phonograph: if one smoothes out the wrinkles on the paper so that the impression is lost and one can no longer hear the sounds… there is no issue of erasing God’s name… for in reality, there are no actual letters. Even though Rabbi Shmuel Salant wanted to be stringent, it seems that he wasn’t properly aware of how the device works. (Har Zvi, OC 1:280)
With respect to tape recordings, there is no prohibition of erasing God’s name as there are no real letters. Nonetheless, it is improper and one should try to do it indirectly. (Iggrot Moshe YD 2:142)
Shooting electrons is not considered by the Torah as writing, but storing those letters on the diskette may be considered to transgress the Shabbat prohibition of ‘building’... (Nishmat Avraham, quoting Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach)
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.