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The Most Sacred Name
An Overview

By Shlomo Phillips © 12.29.2010 (last updated 09.30.2013)

NOTE: This page contains the Sacred Name for the purposes of study. If you print this page out please dispose of it with care in order to honor the Sacred Name.

A Jew is a member of the Covenant (with its 613 Mitzvot) established between the One God and the descendents of Avraham and Sarah as recorded in the Torah.

Those who are not members of this ancient extended family are Gentiles or non-Jews. Those Gentiles who worship the God of Israel may embrace the Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach (the Covenant of Seven Laws given to Noach and his descendents). Both groups are fully accepted by the God of all the Earth.

The Giver of these two Covenants has a Personal Name. That Name is utterly sacred and not to be lightly spoken (nor written). Those who desire His blessings will honor His Sacred Name because they honor Him. May He be exalted throughout all existence and all of time and space!

Torah warns:

Exodus 20:7 "You are not to use lightly the Name of Adonai your God, because Adonai will not leave unpunished someone who uses His Name lightly.
The Judaica Press version has it this this way:
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
As Strong's Concordance notes: The word "vain" or shav in Hebrew, used in the Third Commandment, refers to: This is a stern warning. Merely speaking this Name without good cause can bring about the displeasure of HaShem (may it never happen to us!). This is because the absolute Oneness of HaShem is all inclusive. In other words, HaShem and His Name are eternally One. To dishonor the Name is to dishonor the Named. There is no oneness like His Oneness.

In early biblical history the Sacred Name was apparently spoken more freely, however by the Second Temple Period uttering the Name had become much less common. Eventually only the high priest spoke the Sacred Name and then only once a year. This is because, as time passed, our sages realized ever more thoroughly just how sacred the Name is and how important it is to honor it. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE its utterance was eventually banned in order to honor it more completely. Today the Sacred Name is rarely spoken by those who honor HaShem.

It is true that not everyone agrees with this rabbinic injunction however history has shown that when the Sacred Name is commonly spoken it is seldom handled with the honor it deserves. Since HaShem and His Name are One honoring it is vitally important. The ban seeks to build a fence or hedge around the Sacred Name reminding us that we should be in awe of the Holy One at all times.

Of course, balance is needed in all things. We do not want to view the Sacred Name as something to be feared or viewed with superstition. The Name brings life and freedom not superstition and bondage. At the same time, due to our deep respect for HaShem (literally "The Name") we continue to avoid uttering it without good cause.

The Sacred Name is: יהוה

This Hebrew Name transliterates as the English letters: Yod Hay Vav Hay or YHVH -- blessed be He for all eternity. Despite the claims of some, the proper pronunciation of this four letter Name is uncertain. Volumes have been written by both Jews and non-Jews seeking to support diverse theories on the proper pronunciation. When HaMashiach comes he will doubtless reveal it, until then, the debates continue. However even if we knew for sure how to pronounce the Sacred Name the rabbinic ban would still be in place and so there would be little practical benefit in this knowledge.

The Sacred Name is Unique

In addition to our desire to show proper respect for the Sacred Name, may He be pleased, there are deeply religious, spiritual and mystical reasons why we do not utter the Name lightly.

Consider that common names merely identify the named: "That's Yochanan" (John). John (in its various forms) is the second most common name there is (after the name Muhammad). John could just as easily have been named Tom or Joe because John is "just a name." Converts to Judaism choose "Jewish names" to reflect their entry into the Covenant, however these are "just names" despite the fascination that many have with them. For created beings living in the duality of time and space names are little more than identifiers within the community. We are not our names. People named "John" do not necessarily have anything in common with one another nor with their name. We usually a first, middle and last name in Western cultures. While naming customs have changed since biblical times, the last name usually identifies our lineage (family name) while the first is our individual place within the lineage. "John is of the lineage of the Galt family" for instance.

However the Holy One exists without beginning, middle or end. Because the Eternal is echad (utterly One) He is utterly unique and completely indivisible, without origin and without lineage. Likewise He is One with His various attributes. He is One with His Name. In Him there is no division:

Sh'ma Y'israel Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad
"Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One."

If we can get a handle of the immensity of this truth, we can understand how it is that while we have love, He is Love. While we have justice, He is Justice and so on.

For this reason it is not that the Sacred Name is God's Name, it is that God and His Sacred Name are echad -- Blessed be He for all eternity. In other words, He is non-different than His Name because He alone is truly One. By honoring the Sacred Name therefore we not only honor a name, we honor the Named One and acknowledge His Oneness.

In Judaism most everything is debated. This point however is not. Jewish authorities sometimes debate why we do not utter the Sacred Name without very good cause (and what the exceptions are), but they are unanimous that we don't do it. One should never utter the Name without very good cause and then only with kavana and emuna (complete intention and faith).

Because the Transcendent Name is so Sacred we traditionally use one of two titles rather than write or pronounce the Name. This is done to honor the Sacred Name not out of superstition against using it as some critics imagine.

Adonai

When reading the Holy Scriptures (and in some traditional prayers) we see the Sacred Name written in Hebrew letters. The Sacred Four Letter Name is used in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) more than 7970 times. At such places we read the Sacred Name as Adonai ("LORD") rather than pronouncing the letters. This title is commonly pronounced in one of two different ways:

In practice the differences between these and other Jewish groups (such as the Adot HaMizrach -- "communities of the East," the Bnei Menashe, the Cochin Jews, Bene Ephraim, the Romaniotes of Greece; the Italkim or Bene Roma of Italia, the Teimanim Jews of Yemen and Oman, the African Lemba and Mizraḥi Jews) has more to do with historically observed liturgical traditions of ones ancestors than with geography. This diversity is not relevant to our present study, however it is important to understand that the House of Judah (Y'hudah) is not a culturally nor linguistically monolithic tradition. Jews have been living in diaspora (i.e. outside of the Land of Israel) for so long (since the 6th century BCE) that they have adopted many customs and traditions from the other nations and developed many more. One does not have to be Semitic nor a member of any particular group to be fully Jewish (for more on this go here). This adds to the richness of our Traditions and deepens the traditional Jewish respect for other cultures and beliefs.

Regardless of pronunciation, "Adonai" is usually translated as LORD (or L-RD), proclaiming that the Named One is LORD over all lords. In the following verse note how the Sacred Name has been rendered as "ADONAI."

Exodus 20:7 "You are not to use lightly the name of ADONAI your God, because ADONAI will not leave unpunished someone who uses his name lightly.
Whereas the Judaica Press Version has it this way:
Exodus 20:7 You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not hold blameless anyone who takes His name in vain.

HaShem

We more frequently employ the title HaShem outside of Scripture reading and certain prayers.

"HaShem" means that He is "the-Name" -- "the Name of four letters": the Tetragrammeton in Greek). This ascribed title proclaims that the Named One is KING over all kings. For religious Jews and Noahidim the Named One is both King of kings and Lord of lords. And He is eternally echad and indivisible.

Both of these titles are accurate and both should be held in mind when referring to the One True God Who alone is King of kings and Lord of lords. These are the divine titles that are best used to refer to the Holy One, blessed be He although there are many others. Again, The actual Sacred Name should rarely if ever be employed.

Some Jewish sages maintain that the prohibition against using God's Sacred Name in vain found in Third Commandment: "You shall not take His Name in vain" specifically prohibits taking oaths with the Sacred Name. While that certainly is part of it, it is not the complete meaning. As the great Jewish theologian Rambam (Maimonides) tells us:

It is not only a false oath that is forbidden. Instead, it is forbidden to mention even one of the names designated for G-d in vain, although one does not take an oath. For the verse commands us, saying: "To fear the glorious and awesome name" (Deuteronomy 28:58)." Included in fearing it is not to mention it in vain.

Therefore if because of a slip of the tongue, one mentions [G-d's] name in vain, he should immediately hurry to praise, glorify and venerate it, so that it will not have been mentioned in vain. What is implied? If he mentions G-d's name, he should say: "Blessed be He for all eternity," "He is great and exceedingly praiseworthy," or the like, so that it will not have been [mentioned entirely] in vain (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Vows 12:11).

Likewise the frequent command in the Bible to "Praise His Name" and so on does not direct us to pronounce the Sacred Name. It is most precious. Many sincere people inadvertently misuse the Name while intended to praise it. We are to honor the Name by "not using it lightly" (Exodus 20:7) and by regarding the Name as a thing of most precious beauty and utter sacredness. The command then, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains (see: Likkutei Torah, Behar 41a, et al), is based on the fact that our praises of God arise from our emotional and/or intellectual appreciation of His Greatness. Something so grand and sacred should never be used as part of common speech. It should be held close to our heart and cherished.

How, the noted Rabbi Zalman ponders, can finite beings such as we even begin to know about His Glory in order to offer Him due praise and worship? No one has seen God at any time (as we read in passages like Exodus 33:20). So that He can partially be conceived and known and praised HaShem reveals His glory to us through His Torah and His Torah proclaims His various Aspects, Names and Titles (i.e. as Elohim, El Gibor, El Shaddai etc.).

Therefore we understand that the command to "Praise His Name" refers to praising His attributes, His Kindness, His Power, His Mercy and so on. HaShem's Oneness knows no division. He has no equals nor partners. Through His various attributes we are empowered to enter His omnipresence with thanksgiving (Psalms 69:30, 95:2) with some slight degree of comprehension of His greatness. As we do we hold the Sacred Name in the awe it deserves as best we can.

Note that the Sacred Name is never used in the Christian New Testament (in neither the Greek nor the Aramaic versions). There it is only present as part of other words and proper names like hallelujah ("praise Yah") and Yochanan (John: "Yah is gracious"). In the New Testament the title generally translated as "Lord" comes from the Greek word kurios. Often kurios is not referring to God at all (for instance at Matthew 10:24, II Corinthians 8:9 etc). This word, like the word ba'al, often means "master" or one in authority, as with the European titles "lords" and "ladies." The intended meaning of this title must always be determined from the context in which it is used. The Sacred Name however only refers to the One True God.

Religious Jews and Noahidim (Gentiles who worship the God of Israel) always seek to honor the Sacred Name.

If one is to err it is better to err on the side of holiness. To this end some rabbinic authorities "build a fence" or "hedge" around the Sacred Name by also restricting the use of the term Adonai (Ad-nai) and only using the term HaShem. Others write G-d or L-rd rather than God and Lord for the same reason. Such khumra are like fences one might place around a flower garden to protect the plants from being accidentally trampled:

"Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue [Ezra et al].
A khumra is a requirement that exceeds the actual commandment in order to protect the initial observance. The rationale is based on this verse:
Deuteronomy 22:8 When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof].

On this important verse Rashi notes:

that the one who falls should fall: i.e. That one [who would fall] deserves to fall [to his death on account of his sins]; nevertheless, you should not be the one to bring about his death, for meritorious things are executed through meritorious people, while things of ill-fortune are executed through guilty people. — [Sifrei 22:68]
There are a lot of people today who are treating the Sacred Name of God disrespectfully. Many of these people sincerely (albeit wrongly) believe they are honoring the Name by doing so. They utter the Name (or some mispronounced version of it) as though it were any other common name. They scribble it on web pages and blogs with no more thought than when they write "John Galt" or the name of some celebrity. These people do so at their own peril as the above verse from Exodus and the quote from Rambam make clear. If a person is going to dishonor the Sacred Name he/she will do so, however those who love HaShem want no part of it, and hence many will add an extra "fence" around the Name.

In any case, the Sacred Name should only be uttered or written with full intention and emuna and with all due respect, and then only when the alternative forms (Adonai, HaShem etc) do not suffice to convey the intended meaning. It is the most Sacred Name in all existence. If one is to err it is better to err on the side of holiness. We can not stress this point enough.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh

HaShem ("the Name") is not bound by time nor space. While the proper pronunciation of the Sacred Name of Four Letters is not known, His title Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh ('I Am') affirms that as a Mighty Wind the Eternal is Omnipresent as the Sole Being of Past, Present and Future ("I will be what I will be"). His Presence breaths life into the creation and as the most Mighty Wind of all it blows where it It wills.

Shalom



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