Ask the Expert: Who do some people write three letters on the top corner of their notes?
What do those three letters stand for?
Question: I am a college student, and I notice that some Jewish students, particularly Orthodox students, write what seems to be three Hebrew letters in the upper right hand corner on the page of their notes.
I haven't gotten close enough to decipher them and am embarrassed to ask why they do this because I feel I should know the answer! What are they writing? Thanks!
--Janice, Long Island
Answer: I can't speak for the students in your school, but when I was in college I used to write In the name of all that is good and holy in this world, when will this class be over? on the top right hand corner of my notes. Could that be it?
Actually, Janice, I think what you're referring to is the three letters bet samekh daled, which stand for Besiyata Dishmaya, an Aramaic phrase meaning "with the help of God." Many observant Jews have the custom of writing these letters on top of every document as a reminder that everything they do is done with the aid of God.
Occasionally you may see just two letters, bet and hey, which stand for B'ezrat Hashem, a Hebrew phrase that also means "with the help of God." The Aramaic phrase is more popular because there is some concern among rabbinic authorities (specifically Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover, a Belarussian Hasidic rabbi of the early 20th century) that the letter hey symbolizes the name of God and thus should not be written on the top of any document that might be destroyed or otherwise disrespected. You might also see a bet and a daled, where the daled stands in for the hey.
The practice of writing this acronym on all kinds of documents goes at least as far back as the 15th century, where it was mentioned by Rabbi Yitzhak Karo, a Spaniard who was the head of a yeshiva in Toledo. Rabbi Karo connected the practice to a verse in the Book of Proverbs, "In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths smooth." (3:6) Though the practice has been debated and discussed by rabbinic authorities for hundreds of years, it is a custom and is not mandated or codified by Jewish law.
The idea of attaching either Besiyata Dishmaya or B'ezrat Hashem to everything doesn't occur only in written documents. Some who are very stringent in the observance of this custom even add the Hebrew letters to emails or websites, and you may sometimes find the letters BS"D or B"H on English documents when a Hebrew font is not available. In Jewish communities all over the world you can find store signs and advertisements with a little shout out to God in the top right hand corner.
You may find that if you are speaking with an observant Jew and you ask her how she's doing, she'll preface her answer with the words, "Thank God" or perhaps the Hebrew, "Baruch Hashem." This is a similar concept, making sure to credit God or thank God for the ability to answer a question as simple as "How are you?"
If you pay attention you may find these "thank God" moments all the time. For instance, when I trip while lugging my groceries home and end up faceplanting in the middle of the sidewalk I try to say "Thank God!" Because you know, I could have faceplanted in the middle of the street, and that would have been way worse.