To Dash or Not To Dash? G-d Only Knows
A number of you have written regarding my column of two weeks ago. In it, I commented rather acerbically on the habit some Jews have of not pronouncing the names of such cities as San Diego and Saint Louis, which are named after Christian saints, and on the more widespread custom of spelling the English word “God” as “G-d.” Harold Warren of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Mark Friedman of Englewood, N.J., both point out that the rationale behind the latter practice is not, as I implied, that the English word “God” is considered too holy to utter. Instead, when written it is in danger of being thrown out one day along with the document in which it appears, thus constituting disrespect for, or desecration of, the Divinity.
The fear of desecrating God’s name in this way is, of course, the reason for the old Jewish custom of maintaining a genizah (from the Hebrew verb ganaz, to store away), a special room in which discarded Hebrew books and documents are kept instead of being dumped in the trash. (The largest genizah on record, the one discovered in the 1890s in the loft of Cairo’s Ezra Synagogue, has proved to be an inexhaustible treasure for researching the world of medieval Jewry.) And yet as another reader, Yossi Yaffe, observes, despite some controversy, most rabbinic authorities have held that such desecration is to be avoided only with writings in Hebrew — whose sacredness for Jews, as I said in my column, gives the desecration a different status from that of other languages. Mr. Yaffe wrote a brief halachic summary, calling these authorities by their accepted appellations in rabbinic discourse:
“The Shakh [Rabbi Shabtai Meir Hacohen, 1621-1662] rules that there is no prohibition against erasing [i.e., throwing out] God’s name in a language other than Hebrew. The Havat Ya’ir [Rabbi Ya’ir Bachrach, d. 1702] disagrees and rules that it is forbidden to erase God’s name when written in any language, provided that [as, for example, in Yiddish] it is written in Hebrew letters; however, he adds that even if it is written in other scripts we must treat it with respect and may not denigrate it (e.g., by throwing it in the garbage). Rabbi Akiva Eiger [(1761-1837] cites the Rashbatz [Rabbi Shimon ben Tsemach Duran, b. 1361], who holds that God’s name in languages other than Hebrew has the status of a kinui, or ‘nickname’ and may, therefore, be erased. The Minhat Hinukh [Rabbi Joseph Babed, 1800-1874] follows the Shakh in saying that only God’s name in Hebrew has sanctity, but argues that this is true regardless of the script used to write it.”
In a word, since rabbis like Hacohen, Eiger and Duran outrank Bachrach as halachic authorities, Jewish law does not insist on either writing the English word “God” as “G-d” or making sure it ends up in a genizah. You can call the practice of doing so a superstition, as I did in my column, or simply an unnecessary affectation, but I still say we would be better off without it.
And on a related subject, Corinna Kaiser of Jerusalem chides me for saying in my September 9 column, in which I reviewed a newly published book of Yiddish botanical terms collected and coined by the late Mordkhe Schaechter, that these terms are unlikely ever to be used by anyone but an improbable “botanical Hasid.” She writes:
“I ran out of St. Johnswort pills the other day and learned that they are hard to find in Israel, especially if the Hebrew word for them is not in your dictionary and the pharmacists have never heard the English word. My Hebrew is still too poor to give pharmacists long and complicated medical explanations, but I took Yiddish classes at the university and I can communicate in Yiddish better than in Hebrew — and so after I read a few days ago that health food stores are trendy in Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where a lot of Yiddish is spoken, it struck me that even if I am not your ‘botanical Hasid,’ but a secular Jew, I am the living proof that this dictionary could be useful in everyday life. Unfortunately, no library in Jerusalem holds a copy of it and I will thus probably never find how to say St. Johnswort in Yiddish”
For Ms. Kaiser’s information, Schaechter’s word for St. Johnswort is shedimshutz or “demons’ protection.” This strikes me as having been his own coinage (Jews in Eastern Europe were likely to have used the Russian zveroboya or the Polish djiurawca), based on the Greek name for the plant, hypericum. The name comes from the verb hyperestamai, “to protect” (hence its scientific name of Hypericum perforatum), and the Latin Fuga Daemonum, “demons’ flight” — both alluding to St. Johnswort’s reputed ability to cure or prevent illnesses considered the work of evil spirits.
And in case you’re wondering about “St. Johnswort” itself, it is, like its German cousin, Johanneskraut, a medieval term deriving from St. John’s Eve. Once a widely celebrated holiday of the summer solstice, St. John’s Eve was the time of year when the plant was thought to have its greatest potency. Although I’m not sure that shedimshutz would help Ms. Kaiser even in a Haredi pharmacy in Jerusalem, it would at least avoid the need to refer to a Christian saint.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.