Writing BS”D – Popular, but Problematic?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The letters are so commonplace, appearing on anything from letters to newspapers to internet sites. It can be found on magnetic business cards for plumbers and the plastic sleeves used by dry cleaners (although it probably won’t be found on the top right of this publication). The letters Bet-Samech-Daled (בס"ד) have become ubiquitous on today’s written materials. What is astonishing about this development is that among the major poskim, there is no source whatsoever for this practice. No Shulchan Aruch, no Mishneh Berura…and yet it is considered a norm in many circles. Is there a basis for this custom?

Contemporary responsa point to the fairly recent rise of this practice, yet the starting point comes from the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b):

“‘On the third of Tishri the mention [of God] in bonds was abolished: for the Grecian Government had forbidden the mention of God's name by the Israelites, and when the Government of the Hasmoneans became strong and defeated them, they ordained that they should mention the name of God even on bonds, and they used to write thus: ‘In the year So-and-so of Johanan, High Priest to the Most High God’, and when the Sages heard of it they said, ‘To-morrow this man will pay his debt and the bond will be thrown on a dunghill’, and they stopped them, and they made that day a feast day.” 

To clarify this just a bit, the Greeks, among their many different decrees, banned the mention of the name of God. So the Chashmonaim, after their victory, decided to go to the other extreme; they decreed that some mention of the name of God should exist on every document, regardless if the content had any Torah relevance. The chachamin expressed a seemingly obvious concern regarding this practice, specifically that people would write the Name of God on, for example, a contract of purchase. Once the purchase would be complete, and there would no longer be a need for the document, it would be thrown away. Therefore, they put a stop to it. Why the need for a "feast day"? Rashi explains that this custom took hold relatively quickly among the people and there was concern as to whether they would be able to  uproot such a custom. In a sense, it was somewhat miraculous they were able to do so with the people's consent. As such, a quasi-yom tov was created.

Putting aside the question of this conclusion being miraculous or not, the overall assumption by the Chashmonaim and subsequent rejection by the chachamin each require some further analysis. Is it not such a far-fetched conclusion to think that people would end up throwing these papers away? Did this problem just escape the thinking of the Chashmonaim? Furthermore, how do we understand the reaction of the Chashmonaim? 

It is interesting that the Greeks included this decree among their many evil edicts against the Jewish people. What did they hope to accomplish by forbidding any mention of the name of God? In just about every religion, the deity worshipped and the religion itself are intrinsically tied to one another. The deity exists for the religion, and the religion, along with its adherents, exists to serve the will of the deity. The Greeks objective was to break this tie, to “kill off” the Deity of the Jews, by limiting any mention of Him. By stifling the mere utterance of His name, the break between the two would be complete, furthering their objective of destroying Judaism.

The Chashmonaim, after securing their victory, decided to demonstrate a significant flaw in the thinking of the Greeks, and most other nations. In other religions, the deity is, in a sense, limited by the religion itself. However, Hashem is qualitatively distinct in this regard. He exists outside of the religion, as the Creator of the universe. Whether or not the Jewish people ever existed has no effect on Hashem – He is omniscient. This idea is demonstrated in the Name of God being included in areas outside of Torah. Every document would now contain a reference to Hashem, showing that He was not to be viewed as intrinsically tied to the Jewish people, transcending not just the religion, but the universe.

While this idea was philosophically valid and appropriate, it also was dangerous, as indicated by the decision of Chazal to stop this minhag. The issue was not the practical likelihood of people throwing away the document as a consequence of being forgetful or no longer having a need for the document – that is too obvious of a reason. Instead, it would seem the concern was the changing perception of the different names/descriptions of God, and how they would end up being minimized in their importance – eventually leading to this discarding of the document. When referring to Hashem as “kel elyon”, the “Most High God”, we are not simply offering praise. Contained within this description is an idea about Hashem, a greater insight into Him. The same could be said of all other type of descriptions. Each serves as a vehicle to a specific idea, all tied to yediyas Hashem. To have the name of God on every document would produce one effect – the name of God becoming mundane. After a certain point, it would no longer function as this gateway to further knowledge. Instead, it would be ordinary. And once this takes place, the person will end up throwing it away. He won’t distinguish between the importance of the name of God and the un-importance of this document. Therefore, it was imperative that this minhag be stopped.

If we ended here, one would assume that any mention of God on a secular document, whether a plastic sleeve or a business card, should be avoided. The above approach clearly precludes any concept of mentioning Hashem on any secular document. Nonetheless, we do see the minhag today as being a derivation of the original attempt, a method to “get around the problem” of actually mentioning the name of God on a document. At first, there was the shift to Bet and Heh, B”H, signifying Baruch Hashem. There is a considerable debate as to when this minhag started, and who adhered of it. For example, it would seem R Chaim Soloveitchik and the Chasham Sofer did not write B”H or anything else on the top right of their documents (see examples at http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2005/12/blog-post.html). On the other hand, the Sfas Emes and Chidushei HaRim both wrote B”H on the top of their documents (shu”t Btzel Chachma 4:105). The debate about who did and who did not should not be construed as a competition, but rather as an indication of how this custom was, and still is not, universally accepted. 

What is even more interesting is that this custom gave birth to another very questionable stringency. In the above teshuva of the Btzel Chachma, he discusses the potential “problem” with the “H” in B”H. The Radbaz explains that if one writes a letter of God’s name with the intent of writing the entire name of God, it is forbidden to erase it. For example, writing the Aleph in “elokim” and then stopping would still mean one cannot erase this letter. For this reason, a question was raised as to whether there would be a problem writing the “H”. The flaw in this question is that the “H” is referencing “Hashem”, not one of the Names of God. Therefore, there seems to be no reason why this would be a problem (which is the general conclusion of the poskim). In this particular teshuva, one is considered praised if he chooses to use BS”D instead (it is unclear why if indeed there is no problem using B”H). 

Rav Ovadia Yosef (3:78) also discusses the issue at length, tracing its history through different poskim. He notes the problem of writing God’s name on a secular document, as introduced in the Talmud; therefore, he says there is nothing forbidden with writing B”H. He ends his teshuva saying it is permitted to write B”H, and goes as far as to say it is a good practice to follow. It is difficult to understand why he supports the position, as he offers no clear rationale for writing B”H.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe YD 2:138) also takes up this issue. He notes the minhag among many to write B”H on every document, and questions the rationale for the practice. He even expresses a sense of wonder that one would consider associating anything to do with God with a secular document that contains nonsense or something forbidden, such as lashon hara. He also is emphatic in saying there is no reason to be concerned with writing B”H, but if one would be, there certainly is no issue with writing BS”D. Clearly, though, Rav Moshe is not indicating any real support for this custom.