437. Ain't That a Sheimos?: The prohibition against destroying God’s Name

You shall not do this to Hashem, your God. (Deuteronomy 12:4)

After telling us to destroy idols and everything associated with idolatry, we are commanded not to do thus with things associated with the service of God.

Seriously? Do we really need a mitzvah to tell us not to destroy synagogues or (God forbid) burn Torah scrolls? Rather, in addition to these very obvious (and, frankly, counter-intuitive) acts, this mitzvah also includes a prohibition against erasing the Name of God. It is the basis for what we call "sheimos" (literally, "names"), the practice to properly dispose of worn-out Judaica and religious objects. This is why old siddurim (prayer books) and no-longer valid tefillin are buried rather than merely tossed out in the trash. (Even objects that do not require burial, such as old tzitzis, should still be disposed of more respectfully than just tossing them in the can alongside the egg shells and coffee grounds. For example, they should be placed in a plastic bag, which is then disposed of.)

This mitzvah prohibits us from erasing or otherwise destroying any one of seven Names of God (exception: erasing the document of the sotah as described in Mitzvah #365). For this reason, people are extra careful with writing the Name of God. Just as we say "Hashem" ("the Name") instead of God's Name in conversation to avoid saying it needlessly (see Mitzvah #30), we avoid writing it unnecessarily, writing a Hebrew letter hei instead of the Tetragrammaton, or substituting a letter kuf in place of other letters in various Names, such as "Elokim."

The reason for this mitzvah is to show great reverence to the Name of God. For this reason, many people choose to write such things as "G-d" instead of "God" and "Al-mighty" instead of "Almighty." This is not required by Jewish law as these English terms are not actual Names of God. Nevertheless, many voluntarily do so out of the same sensitivities that motivate the actual mitzvah.

Biblically, this mitzvah may only apply to Names of God but rabbinically it includes verses from Tanach that do not include His Name. It also only refers to names written by a Jew in good standing. Names written by non-Jews are to be "hidden away" (i.e., placed in sheimos), while those written by apostate Jews are actually to be burned as a move against heresy.

This mitzvah applies to men and women in all times and places. It is discussed in the Talmud in tractate Shabbos (116a-b). It is codified in the Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Deah 146. This mitzvah is #65 of the 365 negative mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos and #157 of the 194 negative mitzvos that can be observed today as listed in the Chofetz Chaim’s Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzar.