At the bottom of the hands, the two letters on each hand combine to form יהוה (YHWH), the name of God.
In Judaism, the name of God is more than a distinguishing title. It represents the Jewish conception of the divine nature, and of the relation of God to the Jewish people. The various Jewish names of God represent God as he is known, and represents divine attributes. Awe at the sacredness of the names of God and as manner to show respect and reverence for them, made the scribes of scriptures pause before copying them.
The numerous names of God have been a source of debate amongst biblical scholars. Some have advanced it as proof that the Torah has many authors, while others affirm that the different aspects of God have different names, depending on the role God is playing, the context in which he is referred to and the specific attributes highlighted.
Names of God
Earliest depiction of the Tetragrammaton - circa 600 B.C. Portion of writing on silver scroll with the "Priestly Benediction" (Numbers 6:24-26)
The most important name of God in Judaism is the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God. This name is first mentioned in the book of Genesis and is usually translated as 'the Lord'. Because Jews have, for a long period of time, considered it blasphemy to pronounce, the correct pronunciation of this name has been forgotten — the original Hebrew texts only included consonants. Modern scholars conjecture that it was pronounced "Yahweh". The Hebrew letters are named Yod-Heh-Waw-Heh: יהוה (Note that Hebrew is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English). In English it is written as YHWH or YHVH depending on the transliteration convention that is used. The Tetragrammaton was written in contrasting Paleo-Hebrew characters in some of the oldest surviving square Aramaic Hebrew texts, and it is speculated that it was, even at that period, read as Adonai, "My Lord", when encountered.
According to Jewish tradition, in appearance, YHWH is the third person singular imperfect of the verb "to be", meaning, therefore, "God is," or "God will be," or, perhaps, "God lives," the root idea of the word being, probably, "to blow," "to breathe," and hence, "to live." This expalanation agrees with the meaning of the name given in Exodus 3:14, where God is represented as speaking, and hence as using the first person — "I am". The meaning would, therefore, be "He who is self-existing, self-sufficient," or, more concretely, "He who lives," the abstract conception of pure existence being foreign to classical Hebrew thought.
Portion of column 19 of the Psalms Scroll (Tehilim) from Qumran Cave 11. The Tetragrammaton in paleo-Hebrew can be clearly seen five times in this portion.
The idea of 'life' has been traditionally connected with the name YHWH from medieval times. God is presented as a living God, as contrasted with the lifeless gods of the heathen: God is presented as the source and author of life (compare 1 Kings 18; Isaiah 41:26–29, 44:6–20; Jeremiah 10:10, 14; Genesis 2:7; and so forth)
The name YHWH is often reconstructed as Yahweh. The name Yahweh is likely to be the origin of the Yao of Gnosticism. A few also think it might be cognate to Yaw of Ugaritic texts. If the Hehs in the Tetragrammaton are seen as sacred augmentation similar to those in Abraham (from Abram) and Sarah (from Sarai), then the association becomes clearer. Though the final Heh in Yahweh was not pronounced in classical Hebrew, the medial Heh would have almost certainly been pronounced.
The prohibition of blasphemy, for which capital punishment is prescribed in Jewish law, refers only to the Tetragrammaton (Soferim iv., end; comp. Sanh. 66a).
Pronouncing the tetragrammaton
The Tetragrammaton in Phoenician (1100 BC to AD 300), Aramaic (10th Century BC to 0) and modern Hebrew scripts.
All modern denominations of Judaism teach that the four letter name of God, YHWH, is forbidden to be uttered except by the High Priest, in the Temple. Since the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists, this name is never pronounced in religious rituals by Jews. Orthodox Jews never pronounce it for any reason. Some non-Orthodox Jews are willing to pronounce it, but for educational purposes only, and never in casual conversation or in prayer. Instead of pronouncing YHWH during prayer, Jews say Adonai.
Jewish law requires that "fences" be built around the basic laws, so that there is no chance that the main law will ever be broken. As such, it is common Jewish practice to restrict the use of the word Adonai to prayer only. In conversation, many Jewish people will call God HaShem, which is Hebrew for "the Name" (this appears in Leviticus 24:11). Many Jews also write "G-d" instead of "God". While this later substitution is by no means required by religious law (only the Hebrew name, not the English, is holy), it is done to remind the reader of the holiness attached to God's name.
English translations of the Bible generally render YHWH as "the LORD" (in small capitals), and Adonai as "Lord" (in normal case). In a few cases, where "Lord YHWH" appears, the combination is written as "Lord GOD".
See also Tetragrammaton.
Other names of God
Jews also call God Adonai, Hebrew for "Lord" (Hebrew: אֲדֹנָי). Formally, this is plural ("my Lords"), but the plural is usually construed as a respectful, and not a syntactic plural. Since pronouncing YHWH is considered sinful, Jews use Adonai instead in prayers, and colloquially would use Hashem (The Name). When the Masoretes added vowel pointings to the text of the Hebrew Bible in the first century CE, they gave the word YHWH the vowels of Adonai, to remind the reader to say Adonai instead. Christian Bible translators misinterpreted this to mean that God's name is Jehovah, which is the result of combining the vowels of Adonai with the consonants YHWH (written using Latin orthography in which "J" and "V" are pronounced as the English "Y" and "W"). This name is cognate to the name of the Greek god Adonis which is a borrowing from Phoenician. Adonai is sometimes used to refer to a distinguished person.
The name Ehyeh (Hebrew: אֶהְיֶה) denotes God's potency in the immediate future, and is part of YHWH. The phrase "ehyeh-asher-ehyeh" (Exodus 3:14) is interpreted by some authorities as "I will be because I will be," using the second part as a gloss and referring to God's promise, "Certainly I will be [ehyeh] with thee" (Exodus 3:12). Other authorities claim that the whole phrase forms one name. The Targum Onkelos leaves the phrase untranslated and is so quoted in the Talmud (B. B. 73a). The "I am that I am" of the Authorized Version is based on this view.
I am that I am' (Hebrew: אהיה אשר אהיה, pronounced Ehyeh asher ehyeh) is the sole response used in (Exodus 3:14) when Moses asked for God's name. It is one of the most famous verses in the Hebrew Bible. Hayah means "existed" or "was" in Hebrew; ehyeh is the first-person singular imperfect form. Ehyeh asher ehyeh is generally interpreted to mean I am that I am (King James Bible and others). The Tetragrammaton itself may derive from the same verbal root.
The word El appears in other northwest Semitic languages such as Phoenician and Aramaic. In Akkadian, ilu as the ordinary word for god. It is also found also in Old South Arabian and in Ethiopic, and, as in Hebrew, it is often used as an element in proper names. In northwest Semitic texts it often appears to be used of one single god, perhaps the head of the pantheon, sometimes specifically said to be the creator.
El (Hebrew: אל) is used in both the singular and plural, both for other gods and for the God of Israel. As a name of God, however, it is used chiefly in poetry and prophetic discourse, rarely in prose, and then usually with some epithet attached, as "a jealous God." Other examples of its use with some attribute or epithet are: El `Elyon ("Most High God"), El Shaddai ("God Almighty"), El `Olam ("Everlasting God"), El Hai ("Living God"), El Ro'i ("God of Seeing"), El Elohe Israel ("God, the God of Israel"), El Gibbor ("Hero God"). In addition, names such as Gabriel ("Hero of God"), Michael ("Who is Like God"), and Daniel ("God is My Judge") use God's name in a similar fashion.
See also El (god).
A common name of God in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim (Hebrew: אלהים).
Despite the -im ending common to many plural nouns in Hebrew, the word Elohim, when referring to God, is grammatically singular, and regularly takes a singular verb in the Hebrew Bible. The word elohim probably had an origin in a plural grammatical form. When the Hebrew Bible uses elohim not in reference to God, it usually takes plural forms of the verb (for example, Exodus 20:3). There are a few other such uses in Hebrew, for example Behemoth.
Some scholars interpret the -im ending as an expression of majesty (pluralis majestatis) or excellence (pluralis excellentiae), expressing high dignity or greatness: compare with the similar use of plurals of ba`al (master) and adon (lord). For these reasons, Christian theologians now largely accept that it is an exegetical fallacy to draw support for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity from the apparently plural ending of the word elohim, as once was done. Many Christian believers, however, disagree that it is an exegetical fallacy and cite this as clear evidence for such an essential Christian doctrine.
The Hebrew form Eloah (אלוה, which looks as though it might be a singular form of Elohim) is comparatively rare, occurring only in poetry and late prose (in the Book of Job, 41 times). What is probably the same divine name is found in Arabic (ilah) and in Aramaic (elah). This unusual singular form is used in six places for heathen deities (examples: 2 Chronicles 32:15; Daniel 11:37, 38;). The normal Elohim form is also used in the plural a few times, either for gods or images (Exodus 9:1, 12:12, 20:3; and so forth) or for one god (Exodus 32:1; Genesis 31:30, 32; and elsewhere). In the great majority of cases both are used as names of the one God of Israel.
The root-meaning of the word is unknown. One theory is that it may be connected with the old Arabic verb alih (to be perplexed, afraid; to seek refuge because of fear). Eloah, Elohim, would, therefore, be "He who is the object of fear or reverence," or "He with whom one who is afraid takes refuge".
In many of the passages in which Elohim occurs in the Bible it refers to non-Israelite deities, or in some instances to powerful men (Genesis 3:5), to judges (Exodus 21:6), or to Israel (Psalms 81:9, 82:6).
See also Elohim.
The name `Elyon (Hebrew: עליון)occurs in combination with El, YHWH or Elohim, and also alone. It appears chiefly in poetic and later Biblical passages. The modern Hebrew adjective "`Elyon" means "supreme" (as in "Supreme Court") or "Most High". El Elyon has been traditionally translated into English as 'God Most High'. The Phoenicians used what appears to be a similar name for God, Έλιον.
See also Elyon.
Hashem (Hebrew: השם) means The Name. Another similar term is Hadavar (Hebrew: הדבר), meaning "the thing that cannot be described"). It does not occur in the Bible, and was firstly used by the Rishonim (Medieval Rabbinic authorities).
The name Shaddai (Hebrew: שַׁדַּי), which occurs both independently and in combination with El, is used as a name of God chiefly in the Book of Job. According to Exodus 6:2, 3, this is the name by which God was known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the Septuagint and other early translation it was translated with words meaning 'Almighty'.
The root word "shadad" (שדד) means "to overpower" or "to destroy". This would give Shaddai the meaning of "destroyer" as one of the aspects of God, as in "Shiva" the destroyer in the Hindu trinity, "creator, preserver, destroyer".
Another theory is that 'Shaddai' is a derivation of a Semitic stem that appears in the Akkadian shadû, 'mountain', and shaddā`û or shaddû`a, 'mountain-dweller'. This theory was popularized by W. F. Albright but was somewhat weakened when it was noticed that the doubling of the medial d is first documented only in the Neo-Assyrian period. However, the doubling in Hebrew might possibly be secondary.
Shaddai was also a late Bronze age, Amorite city on the banks of the Euphrates river, in northern Syria. The site of its ruin-mound is called Tell eth-Thadyen: "Thadyen" being the modern Arabic rendering of the original West Semitic "Shaddai." It has been conjectured that El Shaddai was therefore the "god of Shaddai" and associated in tradition with Abraham, and the inclusion of the Abraham stories into the Hebrew Bible may have brought the northern name with them. (See Documentary hypothesis.)
Shalom ("Peace"; Hebrew: שלום)
The Talmud says "the name of God is 'Peace'" ("Pereḳ ha-Shalom"; Shab. 10b), (Judges 6:23); consequently, one is not permitted to greet another with the word "shalom" in unholy places such as a bathroom (Talmud, Shabbat 10b). The name Shelomoh (from shalom, Solomon, שלומו) refers to the God of Peace.
Rabbis assert that the Song of Solomon is a dramatization of the love of God.
Shekinah (Greek: δόξα, Hebrew: שכינה) is the presence or manifestation of God which has descended to "dwell" among humanity. In the Hebrew Bible, the word appears in passages when speaking of God dwelling either in the Tabernacle or amongst the people of Israel. The root of the word means "dwelling". The term 'Shekinah' also appears as "light" in the Apocrypha and the New Testament, in passages which mentions radiance.
The name Yah is composed of the first letters of YHWH. The Rastafarian Jah may derive from this.
The names YHWH and Elohim frequently occur with the word tzevaot or sabaoth ("hosts" or "armies", Hebrew: צבאות) as YHWH Elohe Tzevaot ("YHWH God of Hosts"), Elohe Tzevaot ("God of Hosts"), Adonai YHWH Tzevaot ("Lord YHWH of Hosts") or, most frequently, YHWH Tzevaot ("YHVH of Hosts"). This name is traditionally translitered in Latin as Sabaoth, a form that will be more familiar to many English readers, as it was used in the King James Version of the Bible.
This compound divine name occurs chiefly in the prophetic literature and does not appear at all in the Pentateuch, Joshua or Judges. The original meaning of tzevaot may be found in 1 Samuel 17:45, where it is interpreted as denoting "the God of the armies of Israel". The word, apart from this special use, always means armies or hosts of men, as, for example, in Exodus 6:26, 7:4, 12:41, while the singular is used to designate the heavenly host.
The Latin spelling Sabaoth combined with the large, golden vine motif over the door on the Herodian Temple (built by the Jewish King Herod) led to identification by Romans with the god Sabazius.
Lesser used names of God
- Abir — "Strong One".
- Avinu Malkeinu — "Our Father, our King".
- Boreh — "the Creator".
- Ehiyeh sh'Ehiyeh — "I Am That I Am": a modern Hebrew version of "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh".
- Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzchak ve Elohei Ya`aqov — "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob".
- El ha-Gibbor — "God the hero" or "God the strong one".
- Emet — "Truth".
- Ein Sof — "endless, infinite", Kabbalistic name of God.
- Ro'eh Yisrael — "Shepherd of Israel".
- Ha-Kaddosh, Baruch Hu — "The Holy One, Blessed be He".
- Kaddosh Israel — "Holy One of Isarel".
- Melech ha-Melachim — "The King of Kings".
- Makom — literally "the place", meaning "The Omnipresent".
- Magen Avraham — "Shield of Abraham".
- YHWH-Yireh (Jehovah-Jireh) — "The Lord will provide" (Genesis 22:13, 14).
- YHWH-Rapha — "The Lord that healeth" (Exodus 15:26).
- YHWH-Nissi (Jehovah-Nissi) — "The Lord our Banner" (Exodus 17:8-15).
- YHWH-Shalom — "The Lord our Peace" (Judges 6:24).
- YHWH-Ra-ah — "The Lord my Shepherd" (Psalms 23:1).
- YHWH-Tsidkenu — "The Lord our Righteousness" (Jeremiah 23:6).
- YHWH-Shammah — "The Lord is present" (Ezekiel 48:35).
- Tzur Israel — "Rock of Israel".
Miracles of the divine names
In the Haggadah (the traditional Hebrew Passover text) it is written that the divine names of God could be used to perform miracles if one knew their combination.
The system of cosmology of the Kabbalah, explains the significance of the names. One of the most important name is that of the En Sof אין סוף ("Infinite" or "Endless"), who is above the Sefirot.
The forty-two-lettered name contains the combined names אהיה יהוה אדוני הויה, that when spelled in letters it contains 42 letters. The equivalent in value of YHWH (spelled הא יוד הא ואו = 45) is the forty-five-lettered name.
The seventy-two-lettered name is based from three verses in Exodus 14:19-21) beginning with "Vayyissa," "Vayyabo," "Vayyet," respectively. Each of the verses contains 72 letters, and when combined they form 72 names.
The kabbalistic book Sefer Yetzirah, explains that the creation of the world was achieved by the manipulation of the sacred letters that form the names of God.
Laws of writing divine names
The Psalms in Hebrew and Latin. Manuscript on parchment, 12th century.
According to Jewish tradition, the sacredness of the divine names must be recognized by the professional scribe who writes the Scriptures, or the chapters for the tefillin and the mezuzah. Before transcribing any of the divine names he prepares mentally to sanctify them. Once he begins a name he does not stop until it is finished, and he must not be interrupted while writing it, even to greet a king. If an error is made in writing it, it may not be erased, but a line must be drawn round it to show that it is canceled, and the whole page must be put in a genizah (burial place for scripture) and a new page begun.
The tradition of seven divine names
According to Jewish tradition, the number of divine names that require the scribe's special care is seven: El, Elohim, Adonai, YHWH, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, Shaddai, and Tzevaot.
However, Rabbi Jose considered Tzevaot a common name (Soferim 4:1; Yer. R. H. 1:1; Ab. R. N. 34). Rabbi Ishmael held that even Elohim is common (Sanh. 66a). All other names, such as 'Merciful', 'Gracious', and 'Faithful', merely represent attributes that are common also to human beings (Sheb. 35a).
- Driver, S.R., Recent Theories on the Origin and Nature of the Tetragrammaton, Studia Biblica vol. i, Oxford, (1885)
- Mansoor, Menahem, The Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids: Baker, (1983)
- Harris Laird, Archer, Gleason Jr. and Waltke, Bruce K. (eds.) Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vol., , Moody Press, Chicago, 1980.
- Joffe, Laura, The Elohistic Pslater: What, How and why?, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, vol 15-1, pp. 142-169 Taylor & Francis AS, part of the Taylor & Francis Group., June 2001.
- Kearney, Richard, The God Who May be: A Hermeneutics of Religion, Modern Theology, January 2002, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 75-85(11)
- Kretzmann, Paul E., Popular Commentary of the Bible, The Old Testament, Vol. 1. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Mo. 1923.
- Shaller, John, The Hidden God, The Wauwatosa Theology, vol. 2, pp. 169-187, Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1997.
- Stern, David. Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., Clarkville, Maryland, 1996.
- Strong, James, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, New York and Nashville, 1890.
- Tov, E., Copying a Biblical Scroll, Journal of Religious History, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 189-209(21), Blackwell Publishing, June 2001
- Vriezen, Th. C., The Religion of Ancient Israel, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1967.