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Deleting the Digital Name of God

Is it a desecration to delete a text with God’s name? A review of the relevant digital halacha tries to come up with an answer

David Auerbach
August 27, 2018

Handwritten and printed writing grows less sacred by the day because there is increasingly less of it. I grew up during the dawn of the digital computer and always typed more fluently than I wrote, so the pen on the page never held quite the power for me that it did for previous generations. When I became a programmer at Microsoft and Google, the power of algorithms to analyze and change the world seemed as strong if not stronger than the power of the written word. When I left programming to become a writer, I struggled to imbue my words with the level of significance my code had possessed. I am a digital and screen-based creature, for whom words and code on a screen hold as much significance as those on a page.

This presents a challenge for Jewish law to come to grips with the increasing centrality of digital text. It is a longstanding prohibition that one cannot erase Shem Hashem, the holy names of God (or G-d, for those who feel the prohibition extends beyond Hebrew). Writings containing the names cannot be destroyed or mutilated—or taken into the bathroom, for that matter—but must be stored in a geniza for later burial. This restriction has had the happy side effect of giving us archival treasures like the Cairo geniza, whose hundreds of thousands of manuscript fragments fueled the histories of S. D. Goitein and others.

But what are we do to with monitors, hard drives, and Kindles? Bury them all? Halachic consensus has tended to be pragmatically permissive, ruling that there is no prohibition on the erasure of God’s names on a screen, on a disk, or in some other digital form. But there has been little agreement on exactly why there is no prohibition.

The most common rationale is that digital representations of the name of God are not permanent. Rav Mordechai Friedman noted similar debates among halachic scholars around chalkboards and galleys. By one line of thinking, “A medium which is regularly erased or disposed of would automatically define the Name to lack sanctity.” In the age of cathode ray tubes, which redrew the screen 60 times per second, one point at a time, this was a powerful argument. The letters never existed in toto to begin with, they flickered in a proto-form for fractions of an instant. “Shooting electrons is not considered by the Torah as writing,” declared Rav S. Z. Auerbach (no known relation).

But technology changes. In the case of LCD screens, the constituent components of the letters exist concurrently and persistently. An alternate argument exists for these cases: that text on a screen isn’t actually writing to begin with. Rav Mordecai Kornfeld writes:

The letters that appear on a screen are not produced by physical changes in the light-reflecting properties of the screen (unlike ink that binds to the surface of a sheet of paper). Rather, light is produced by part of the screen while the rest remains dark, giving the appearance of written text. This can be compared to a group of flashlights that, when shined upon a surface, produce the letters of a Holy Name. We could hardly suggest that by turning off the lights one is erasing a Holy Name.

Kornfeld’s reasoning touches on the deeper issue of the writing. Even a permanent projection of God’s name is not writing because it is not a construction of a physical object. Unfortunately, along came e-Ink devices like the Kindle to worsen things. The display technology on Kindles is “bistable,” meaning that its letters persist even in the absence of any power. Millions of microcapsules contain oppositely charged black and white particles. Applying a charge flips a capsule’s outward orientation from black to white, creating the patterns which form text. Electricity is only used to change what’s on the screen, not maintain it. Perhaps these enduring microcapsules are still closer to flashlights than ink on paper, but how different are they from tracing letters in sand, which is halachically writing? The writer Joshua Cohen told me, “To my amateur un-smicha’d mind, it’s the physical act, the physical act’s permanency, that’s important. Making the mark. Gashing, incising, permanently cutting into a substance, and, in the process, imbuing that substance with another.”

Then there is disk storage. Even if what’s on a screen is temporary and nonphysical, what about the far more permanent and physical storage of data on hard drives, flash drives, and optical discs like CD-ROMs (ROM standing for read-only memory)? When I asked my 7-year-old daughter about this problem, she suggested an eGeniza: “There should be an app that prints a copy of the file with the Holy Name and gives it to you to bury in a cemetery and erases that file.” I told her that it was admirable how seriously she took the problem.

Generally, electronic storage has troubled halachic scholars less than computer screens, on the basis that the names of God must be humanly visible and unencoded in order to be sacred. But as I write in my book Bitwise: A Life in Code, the difficulty is that everything is encoded somehow (whether in Hebrew, English, binary, or grooves), and the issue is drawing the line between those encodings which are sacred and those which aren’t. Alluding to this problem, Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote in 1957 that tape recordings containing the Holy Names were not legible writing and not sacred, but Feinstein still cautioned against erasing such tapes to avoid the appearance of erasing holy words. To quote the KOF-K Kosher Supervision guidelines:

Many times one has tapes with Hashem’s name recorded on it and after a while he wants to copy over the tape (or a CD) in order to copy something else on to it. If one wants to copy over it he should let a goy do it for him or a young child.

Ironically, this may be what is happening. The migration of data into the cloud has made local storage increasingly transient, just a cached stopping point on the way to permanent storage in in a server somewhere halfway across the country. Each of the hundreds of millions of disks that store everything on the web and in the world will eventually fail, whereupon they will be sent to a landfill. Much of that code on these disks will have been overwritten many times before failure. But some of these disks will inevitably contain digital representations (in one form or another) of the Holy Names written into their physical hardware at the time of disposal. To write on a networked device today is to spread potentially permanent copies of one’s writing with little to no control over their final provenance.

The idea of burying Kindles, hard drives, and screens in cemeteries seems absurd at first glance, but as writing moves into the digital realm, it also seems implausible to claim that the increasingly dominant vehicle of communication and writing is incapable of possessing sanctity. I discussed this with my friend, the scholar Joshua Harrison, whom I met many years ago via a shared enthusiasm for Hans Blumenberg, the assimilated Jewish philosopher whose writings beat with reverence for the secular texts they discuss. Harrison told me, “There’s a sense that sacred writing is its own sui generis, physical artifact. It’s presumed to be outside the level of mechanical and digital reproduction and manipulation. At some point we collectively decided that the loci of holiness are going to be concentrated and somatic.” The internet, however, asks why holiness should be specific to one physical instantiation, and why the mixture of ink and paper is sacrally proscribed but the mixture of mind and silicon is not.

David Auerbach is the author of Bitwise: A Life in Code (Pantheon). He is a writer and software engineer who has worked for Google and Microsoft. His writing has ap­peared in The Times Literary Supplement, MIT Technology Review, The Nation, Slate, The Daily Beast, n+1, and Bookforum, among many other publications. He has lectured around the world on technology, literature, philosophy, and stupidity. He lives in New York City.