Fixing God's Name
Fixing God's Name*
B. Barry Levy
In ancient times, the personal name of the God of Israel was routinely
spelled with four Hebrew letters, yod-heh-vav-heh. This name served
as a surrogate for the deity; at times, it was the object of worship.
Unfathomable degrees of sanctity were associated with it, and in some
contexts it was considered to possess untold amounts of power.
Other terms applied to God in the Biblee.g., El, Elohim,
and Shaddaiessentially mean “Almighty” or “Lord,”
and some were routinely used for pagan deities as well. Occasionally we
find shortened forms of the divine personal Name, as in the initial theophoric
element of Yochebed (Moses’ mother) and the final one of
Yesha`yahu (Isaiah); a different theophoric element appears at
the end of Yisra’el. Sometimes such elements seem to have
been interchangeable, as, indeed, appears on occasion to be the case with
various terms for the divinity. Interpreters usually associate the meaning
of the Name with the verb “to be”; in addition, numerous halakhic
requirements relate directly to the Name.
Contemporary usage of the term “sanctification of the Name”
(qiddush Ha-Shem) refers mostly to sacrifice and
martyrdom rather than to treatment of the Name itself; but the literal
meaning still appears in the Kedushah and in other prayers, which
keeps it in the public eye. Our concern for sanctifying the Name
itself is expressed largely through avoidance of using it in inappropriate
places or for frivolous purposes and in not erasing it, which is an important
aspect of the laws about production and correction of Torah scrolls. Many
halakhot are devoted to treatment of defaced passages containing
the Name, errors that result from not writing it properly or writing it
instead of Yehudah (which differs in only one letter), and the
The Torah speaks of a requirement to take oaths in God’s Name (Deut.
6:13) – but prohibits using the Name in vain (Ex. 20:7, Deut. 5:11).
It also calls upon its adherents to destroy pagan idols and not to treat
God likewise (Deut.12:4). These laws thus lead us to enhance the Name
through its use, which means to use it properly and respectfully, and,
in contrast, to avoid anything that disgraces or defaces it (since it
would be impossible to destroy God literally). But frequent use of the
Name increases the likelihood of its being used inappropriately, and these
passages thus place us between two competing forces, one that prescribes
sanctifying the Name through its use and another that proscribes its desecration
through its abuse. Moving in any direction off the relatively narrow path
toward fulfillment of each commandment is likely to lead to violation.
These concerns deal, in essence, with treatment of the Name as written
and as pronounced.
The tetragrammaton (as the Name is called because of its four letters)
also appears, for example, in the inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (dated
in the ninth century B.C.E.) and the Hebrew letters from Lachish (dated
to the seventh). The usage in the Moabite stele indicates that this form
of the divine Name was known and used in non-Israelite circles (though
the geographic proximity of the Land of Moab to the Land of Israel is
matched by Moabite’s linguistic similarity to Hebrew). One may assume
that the ancient pronunciation followed the spelling, and concrete evidence
to that effect appears in the Lachish letters. There a one-word oath is
spelled het-yod-heh-vav-heh; in the Bible (1 Sam. 20:3, 21, etc.),
this same phrase appears as two words, het-yod plus the tetragrammaton.
Since eliding them into one word assumes the two contiguous yods
were pronounced similarly, it is reasonable to conclude that, at least
in this time and place, the tetragrammaton was pronounced as written.
Since the Lachish letters are brief, private documents written on potsherds
and not in any sense sacred or even permanent texts, it is also reasonable
to assume that writing the Name in full in such contexts was not considered
to pose a problem. Of course, one also could assume that the writers were
ignorant of or insensitive to the law, if one could demonstrate that a
law proscribing writing the Name this way actually existed at that time,
but this spelling does seem to offer important evidence about pronunciation.
Appearance of the Name in other epigraphic texts can support either assumption,
but the former one seems more cogent.
Divine names and titles received special treatment in some Dead Sea Scrolls.
There one finds texts written out fully in square script (very much like
that in our Torah scrolls), while these special words were sometimes written
in paleo-Hebrew, the alphabet of most ancient Northwest Semitic texts
(including the Moabite and Hebrew documents mentioned above). One opinion
in the Talmud and the general consensus of modern scholars assume that
the Torah was originally written in paleo-Hebrew (what the Talmud calls
ketav ivri) and this script was replaced by the square rabbinic
script (what the Talmud calls ketav ashuri) in ancient times. If
so, preservation of the divine Name in the older script would seem to
reflect a desire to retain the sanctity of the older form. Some later
rabbinic texts prohibit writing divine names in gold letters, which suggests
that on occasion this was done or considered, perhaps in imitation of
Christian practices. A few Greek Bible manuscripts recorded the tetragrammaton
in paleo-Hebrew letters; others offer evidence that the name was written
as PIPI. This undoubtedly results from copying into a line of Greek
the four Hebrew letters, written from right to left in square form, which,
when read from left to right, would look to a reader of Greek, very much
like pi-iota-pi-iota (Sweete, pp. 38-40).
On the surface, all these cases, even the use of Hebrew letters in Greek
texts, seem to reflect special treatment of the divine Name directly attributable
to its great sanctity. But later rabbinic law suggests that Hebrew texts
written in paleo-Hebrew are less holy than those written fully in square
letters, and how one should understand the usage in at least these Dead
Sea Scrolls and their potential relationship to the halakhah recorded
later therefore remains a matter of speculation. The scrolls may have
been written this way because they were less holy (in some sense analogous
to the level of sanctity of a Torah scroll in which someone wrote heh-shin-mem
instead of yod-heh-vav-heh) or because some ancient non-halakhic
custom saw this as a way to increase their sanctity. In either case, later
rabbinic standards avoided such practices.
By the second century C.E., the Mishnah counted among those who forfeit
their place in the world to come “one who pronounces the Name according
to its letters.” This suggests that some people (perhaps sectarian
Jews, against whom the rest of the two lists of those who are to suffer
the same fate seems to be directed) still pronounced the Name as in earlier
times. In contrast, the rabbis preferred a consistent substitution or
circumlocution that follows many biblical passages in the use of alef-dalet-nun-yod,
a form of the word adon, “master,” in places where
the tetragrammaton is expected. Presumably this was done to decrease the
use of the divine Name in inappropriate contexts, and its widespread use
in non-Jewish magical texts from around the Mediterranean world suggests
one factor that perhaps contributed to the change. Whatever the motivation,
this attitude is still very prominent. Indeed, over the years the principle
underlying it has been expanded enormously, perhaps far in excess of what
the authors of the mishnaic statement ever imagined. The Koren Bible (mid-twentieth
century) and some subsequent editions do not vocalize the divine Name,
which highlights its status as a Qqere perpetuum, a routine
change from the written form to the accepted pronunciation. But previously
published Hebrew Bibles created a composite word that included the consonants
yod-heh-vav-heh and the vowels of adonai, which led to the
introduction in English Bibles of the bizarre Latinized and undoubtedly
incorrect form “Jehovah.”
Hebrew recognizes two different words vocalized in English as adonai.
If the last syllable contains a patah, the word means “my
masters”; if a qamets, it is the substitute for the divine
Name. Unvoweled texts are often ambiguous, and sometimes the midrashic
or masoretic traditions of vocalization are divided as to the preferred
vowel and interpretation, as a comparison of the first verses of Genesis
18 and 19 in their midrashic and masoretic forms reveals. A desire to
avoid the ambiguity of using one pronunciation for both words underlies
the recent tendency of some people who otherwise use Ssefaradi
pronunciation of Hebrew to adopt the ashkenazi pronunciation
of the Name in prayer and Torah reading. Note that the Yemenite tradition
of pronouncing qamets resembles the ashkenazi, not the sefaradi.
As time marched on, mystical and magical assumptions about the divine
Name mushroomed. A question to Rav Hai Gaon solicited information about
a divine Name of 72 letters. In the introduction to his Torah commentary,
Nahmanides noted that the entire Torah is a name of God. And a popular
story about Maharal of Prague describes how, in the sixteenth century,
he reportedly created an active golem by placing a divine Name
under the tongue of a clay creature he had formed; subsequent removal
of the Name caused the creature to return to his former, inert state.
Medieval kabbalists devoted much attention to the individual letters of
divine names and based many meditations and contemplative exercises on
permutations and combinations of their letters. They also inaugurated
a change in the notation of Hebrew numbers. The Hebrew forms of 15 and
16 used to be spelled yod-heh (10+5) and yod-vav (10+6),
as we see in many early manuscripts, but because in other contexts these
appeared to be sacred names, tet-vav (9+6) and tet-zayin
(9+7) were substituted.
Medieval and post-medieval times also saw the composition of numerous
religious poems. Though most were never incorporated into public worship,
some found a niche elsewhere, and often they included the divine Name.
In the popular Tsur mi-Shello Akhalnu,
to take one of many possible examples, the divine Name is paired with
emunai. Clearly the rhyme calls for pronunciation of the Name as
Adonai and not a surrogate like Ha-Shem, though one often
hears the song sung this way today. Contemporary musical recordings demonstrate
how singers often create their own innovative substitutions for the Name
that do not violate the rhyme but do avoid the liturgically proper pronunciation.
Today we see a hyper-sensitivity to pronouncing the accepted substitution
of the divine Name in any context other than a formal religious service,
though in many cases halakhah does not require such behavior; indeed,
sometimes it actually opposes it.
The primary halakhic concern with pronouncing the divine Name in the
Adonai form is the avoidance of any sense of impropriety, meaning
that the word can be used not only in worship but in any context of sufficient
gravitas. Reading biblical texts, for example, requires this pronunciation,
even during practice. But bar mitsvah trainees who are taught for
a year to say “Ha-Shem” in all their
Bible texts not only do so unnecessarily; they often habitualize the practice
to the point of finding it impossible to change back during the formal
reading in the synagogue. Such educational activities require the proper
pronunciation. And when students in class read a verse from beginning
to end, they are required to pronounce the Name correctly. Substituting
“Ha-Shem” is actually improper,
and everyone should get used to not interrupting someone who is reading
properly. (See the three responsa listed below, especially that
of Rabbi Jacob Emden, which records the reaction of the Hakham Zvi.)
Writing the divine Name is perhaps more serious than pronouncing it,
because the text becomes subject to subsequent error or misuse by others.
For this reason, one normally sees some combination of letters substituted
for the tetragrammaton. Medieval manuscripts contain various configurations
of one or more yods, sometimes presented as a triangle of three,
a diamond of four, or a line of from two to four abreast. I recall a Hebrew
teacher saying not to copy the two yods regularly printed in the
siddur. Instead we were told to use heh-apostrophe. A later
teacher nixed that in favor of dalet-apostrophe. Early printers
who were troubled by similar concerns often substituted a dalet
for one of the hehs in the tetragrammaton. This change is so subtle
that I have seen students use such texts for months without ever noticing
Often Hebrew variations, like “Adinoi,” are substituted
in liturgical settings for the correct pronunciation of the Name. Recent
European practice notwithstanding, this is not the proper substitution
for the name of the God of Israel, and insistence on such errors is inappropriate,
to say the least. Yiddish substitutionslike the nominative form
Keviyokhl (“the as-it-were”); the grammatically common
Der Eybeshter (“the one above”), and the dative and
accusative zayn libm nomen (“his beloved Name”)further
underscore the tradition of not using the divine Name, though medieval
Yiddish manuscripts and modern Yiddish books do contain the fully spelled
forms Got or Gat. The additional substitution, dem vemens
nomen me tor nisht dermonen di hent umgevashn, “whose Name cannot
be said with unwashed hands,” speaks for itself.
While the sanctity of the Name is obviously a major interest on both
the halakhic and popular levels, these concerns are generally limited
to the various forms of the divine names and epithets in Hebrew, written
in the square script we commonly use. Were the same level of sanctity
attributed to the English “God” (and for the sake of argument
I will assume the same deity is intended), it would be impossible to carry
into the bathroom any American currency containing the slogan “In
God We Trust.” While one should be careful not to destroy Hebrew
citations from the Bible or to deface texts of religious importance, it
is unnecessary to avoid using the word God in serious English publications.
This is so, even if they are of only ephemeral use, though one should
dispose of them in a dignified way and not use them as garbage can liners.
Substituting Ha-Shem, Hash-m, or G-d, is unnecessary, and
such practices often mislead people as much as they express devotion to
the Name. Indeed, the use of spellings like “Hash-m”
treats this universally acknowledged substitute as a real divine name,
a situation that has become all too common. The following statement appeared
in a recent synagogue bulletin, perhaps as a citation from a published
work: “The Mishkan’s one hundred sockets together formed the
foundation of the Mishkan. The Hebrew for “socket” is “adon,”
which is related to the same term meaning “my master,” Adonei
[sic] the name we use for Ha-Shem.” Which is the divine
Name and which is the circumlocution?
In discussing the nature of acquisition, the Talmud employs the concept
shinui ha-shem qoneh, which means that the change of something’s
name, like an irreversible change in its physical makeup, may contribute
to the transfer of ownership of a stolen object. I cannot help thinking
that, for many of our fellow Jews, changing and personalizing the divine
Name is a form of acquiring it, of building greater commitment to God
and to halakhic observance, and perhaps of building barriers against Jews
who use other names, substitutions, circumlocutions, or pronunciations.
If we do not share at least one common designation for our deity, do we
actually share a religion?
For Further Reading
Emden, Jacob. She’eilat Yavetz (reprint, New York: E.
Grossman, n.d.) Vol.1, 81.
Feinstein, Moses. Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Vol. 2 (New York: 1964)
Yosef, Ovadiah, Yabia Omer, Vol. 3 (Jerusalem: 1972) #14.
Brichto, Herbert C. The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical
Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) pp. 3-36 [critical].
Cassuto, Umberto. The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the
Pentateuch (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1961) pp. 15-31 [A classic response to
early Bible critics].
Sweete, Henry Barclay. An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek
(reprint, New York: Ktav, 1968) pp. 38-40.
Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk
Religion (New York: Behrman House, 1939) pp. 78-103 [The Name in Jewish
law and lore].
* The author thanks Rabbi Dov Linzer,
Professor Eugene Orenstein, and Mr. Joel Linsider for their contributions.
Any remaining flaws should be attributed to the author.