The Truist Name of God

Image: Cartoon of many people speaking, different colored speech balloons. (RudieStrummer / Shutterstock)

Recently I was answering a question about the names of God. In Judaism, there is only one deity but that one deity has LOTS of names: Biblical names like

  • El – name of an ancient Canaanite deity
  • Yud-Heh-Vav-Hey – The name we never say. (Ex. 3:14)
  • Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh – (“I am who I will be”)
  • El Shaddai – (Genesis 17:1)
  • Elohim – (looks like a plural, but refers to one God) (Genesis 1:26)
  • Adonai – (also looks plural, and isn’t) Psalm 136:3

and newer names like

  • Shechinah – the Presence of God)
  • HaMaqom – “The Place” – God is everywhere, and right here.)
  • HaShem – “The Name” – a substitution for the name we don’t say, and for Adonai in some communities.
  • Ein Sof – The highest Kabbalistic name of God.
  • HaRachaman – “The Merciful One.”
  • Ribbono Shel Olam – “Master of the Universe”
  • Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Father, Our King”

… to name just a few!

As I was explaining, I flashed back on a wonderful memory. At Temple Sinai we used to use the Gates of Prayer siddur , which had gendered language in reference to God. (He/him, etc.) The congregation felt that this was not appropriate, and the clergy came up with a fix. Whenever we came to any name for God or pronoun for God in the service, everyone was encouraged to say whatever name of God they liked – any of the above or dozens others.

So our prayers would periodically erupt in a glorious cacophany of names, for example:

Blessed are You, {cacophany of names}, {cacophany of names} our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to light the candles of Shabbat.

Soon I came to feel that the real name of God was that eruption of voices and names, all the names together. The name of God was the sound of many Jews saying all the names of God, together.

By the time I came back from rabbinical school, the new prayer books had arrived, and there was no need to worry about gendered language: it had all been written out of the new siddur. It’s nice and tidy and tame, but sometimes the wild Jew in me would love to hear once again the cacophony of all the names of God, all together, spoken in love and awe.

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What Does Hallelujah Actually Mean?

There are a number of words in Hebrew that have made their way into English. One of them is Hallelujah.

Hallel means “praise.” There is an entire service of praise we sing to praise all the many attributes of God. We sing Hallel on all major festivals, on Rosh Chodesh, and at Chanukah. It includes parts of several psalms (notably Psalms 113-118) and other prayers, and hallelujah in various forms is repeated many times.

The “oo” sound in the middle lets us know that in this case, hallel is actually a verb. Hallelu means “We praise.”

Finally Yah (often transliterated “jah”) is one of the many names of God, possibly a shortened form of the Tetragrammaton, the name of God that Jews do not pronounce. In the Bible, Yah appears in Psalm 68:5 (in a Jewish Bible) and Psalm 68:4 in other Bibles. We also see it as part of names: Elijah means “My God is Yah;” Isaiah means “Yah is salvation;” and Hezekiah means “Strengthened by Yah.”

Thus Hallelujah means “We praise God,” which is exactly how it is used by both Jews and Christians. In pop culture, we most often hear the word used by fundamentalist Christians, but the origins of the word are Jewish and in fact, observant Jews sing or pray psalms every day containing the word.

Hallelu-yah!

Why “G-d” instead of “God?”

A reader recently asked: “Why do some Jews type ‘G-d’ when they are writing about God? And why don’t you type it that way, Rabbi Adar?”

Jews traditionally hold the name of God, yud-hey-vav-hey in great reverence. We do not ever pronounce it (in fact, it’s been so long we don’t even remember how to pronounce it correctly) and if we write it, we treat the material it was written on with reverence. Here’s what it looks like in Hebrew letters:

יהוה

Part of our story is that God revealed this Name, God’s personal Name, to Moses at Sinai.

When I met the President of the United States, I did not say, “Hey, Barack!” I addressed him with his title: “Hello, Mr. President.” Had I met Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton when they were President, I would have addressed them the same way, with the same respect.

So it is our tradition as Jews to address God by way of titles, rather than to be too familiar. When we see the name above in Scripture, we say, “Adonai” (My Lord) or “Hashem” (the Name), or “the Eternal.” We are aware that other people might say “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (two attempts at pronouncing the name) but we don’t go there. God is too holy for us to presume to be on a first name basis. I do not ever use those words that attempt to pronounce the name except when I’m teaching about it.

In Hebrew, we often use an abbreviation to stand in for the Name:

יי

That’s two yuds: “yud, yud.”  Hebrew readers know that that stands in for the four letter Name, and so we substitute whatever title is appropriate instead of saying the Name.

Some English speakers and writers have extended the abbreviation to the word “God,” which then looks like “G-d.” It’s a form of reverence, and perhaps a way of remembering the holy four-letter Name without mentioning it.

I don’t choose that particular form for three reasons:

  • “God” is a title, not the Name. Only the Name is the Name.
  • “G-d” looks too much like the way people abbreviate profanity, and I don’t want to associate the Holy One (there’s another title) with profanity.
  • My grandmother, of blessed memory, did not like profanity, but when she had to quote someone else who had said, “God damn” she would abbreviate it “G-D.” So, again, profanity. Yikes.

Piety is individual. I am pretty fussy about saying and writing the Name. If it is meaningful to someone else to abbreviate the word “God,” it isn’t my business. It doesn’t work for me, so I don’t do it.

Is there a name or title of God that you particularly like? One you really don’t like to use, ever? Why?

What is God’s Name?

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God has a lot of different names and titles in Judaism. Here is a short guide to just a few of them:

For teaching purposes, I am writing most of these names out as they would be pronounced. Some Jews do not pronounce certain names of God out of reverence except it prayer, or at all. 

Names

YUD-HEY-VAV-HEY (never pronounced aloud) –  This is the personal name of God, four letters that appear to be related to the verb “to be.” It has not been pronounced aloud since the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. For a long time before that, it was pronounced only by the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur. When an observant Jew sees this name, he or she substitutes other names for it in Hebrew, usually “Adonai” or “HaShem” (more about them below.)  Some English translations transmit it as “LORD,” often in caps. Some modern Jewish translators prefer “The Eternal” as a substitute for translation.  This name is also referred to as “The Tetragrammaton” (Greek for Four Letter Word).

EHYEH-ASHER-EHYEH – (pronounced as written) – This Hebrew phrase is one of the answers given when Moses asks the name of God in Exodus 3:14. It translates in English to “I will be what I will be” or “I am what I am” or “I am what I will be.” In the same verse, God also gives Moses the shortened form of the same name “Ehyeh”. The next verse, Expdus 3:15, gives the Tetragrammaton as the name.

 

Substitutions

ADONAI (ah-doh-NIGH) – This is the word most often substituted for the name that isn’t pronounced. It is usually translated as “Lord” or “My Lord” in English. Many observant Jews do not even speak this word aloud except in prayer.

HASHEM (hah-SHEM) – “The Name” – This is not a name per se, but it is used as a substitution for the four letter name of God. In English, it’s usually rendered as “God” or simply as “Hashem.”

 

Attempts at Pronunciation

JEHOVAH (not used by Jews) – This is a vocalization of the four letter name for God, an estimation made by Christian scholars using the four consonants of the Tetragrammaton combined with the vowels in Adonai. It appears in William Tyndale’s English (Christian) Bible as the translation of the Tetragrammaton. This pronunciation is now thought by most scholars to be in error.

YAHWEH (not used by Jews) – This is the vocalization of the Tetragrammaton used by most academic Biblical scholars today, although there are still questions about whether it is the pronunciation used by the ancient Jewish priesthood. However, observant Jews will seldom if ever pronounce this word – they will instead use one of the substitutions above.

 

Titles

Often, God is not referred to by name but by title, just as one might refer to Elizabeth of Windsor as “The Queen of the UK.”

ELOHIM (el-loh-HEEM)  – This is the first title of God that appears in the Torah, in Genesis 1:1. It is a curious word, since it is technically in the plural, although it is understood as a singular title. Generally English translations render it as “God.”

EL (EHL) – This is both the Hebrew word for “god” and the name of a Canaanite deity.

GOD – God is an English title, not a name of the Eternal. The word has Germanic roots.

LORD – This title is from the Old English Hlaford, meaning “master.” It was also used to translate the Latin word Dominus.

 

Bottom line: Modern Jews avoid pronouncing the four letter name of God. First, we don’t know how to say it correctly. Secondly, tradition forbids saying it. To some it may seem silly; we know that lightning will not strike if we say it. It is a matter of respect, and a way of reminding ourselves that the Eternal is, above all, a great mystery beyond any words we can say or any image we might make.

Image by Emily Rose, some rights reserved.