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On Uttering the Sacred Name of G-d

By Shlomo Phillips © 9.12.11 (last updated 06.20.2013)


When it comes to uttering the Sacred Name of the Eternal what is permitted and what is to be rejected? On the Net there are a great many sites and videos that write and utter the Sacred Name (or some version of It) as though It were as common as Bob and Joe. Others rail against the horrors of failing to put a - in the word G-d lest the Name be offended! What are we do?

Today anti-Jewish sects like the so-called "Holy Names Movement" are cheapening the Sacred Name by misuse, overuse and indiscriminate use. For this reason (among others) I believe that the ancient Jewish tradition of never uttering the Sacred Name needs to be reinforced and carefully observed by all who love and honor HaShem, lest we inadvertently offend the Sacred Name: The Sacred Name should not be uttered. In this way it is honored and kept apart as something Sacred.

Here at this is the practice, you will not find the Sacred Name written here (with this exception). On my Facebook I do what I can to keep the Sacred Name from being posted to my timeline including removing contacts who post it indiscriminately. In the following piece I am making an exception to this policy however because I believe it is important to understand this material and why the Name is honored in this way. The following excellent educational article is from a highly respected Jewish source: Rabbi Louis Jacobs of My Jewish Learning. All emphasis' are mine:

The Tetragrammaton is the four-letter name of God formed from the letters yod, hey, vav, and hey, hence YHVH in the usual English rendering. The older form JHVH is based on the rendering of yod as jod [Note: there is no jod in Hebrew, this was an English substitution made during the 1600's CE].

This name is usually translated in English as "the Lord," following the Greek translation as kyrios. All this goes back to the Jewish practice of never pronouncing the name as it is written but as Adonai, "the Lord." In printed texts the vowels of this word are placed under the letters of the Tetragrammaton. (Hence the name was read erroneously by Christians as "Jehova," a name completely unknown in the Jewish tradition.) The original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton has been lost, owing to the strong Jewish disapproval of pronouncing the name. The pronunciation Yahveh or Yahweh is based on that used by some of the Church Fathers but there is no certainty at all in this matter. Most biblical scholars, nowadays, prefer to render it simply as YHWH or JHVH without the vowels. This name occurs 6,823 times in the present text of the Hebrew Bible.

What does the name mean? In Exodus 3:14-15 the name is associated with the idea of "being," and hence some have understood the original meaning to be "He-Who-Is," or "He who brings being into being."

Generally, as [scholar Umberto] Cassuto and others have noted, the name Elohim ("God") is used in the Bible of God in His universalistic aspect, the God of the whole universe, while the Tetragrammaton is used of God in His special relationship with the people of Israel.

The Tetragrammaton in Post-Bibical Literature

The Tetragrammaton is known in the rabbinic literature as Ha-Shem ("the Name") or Shem Ha-Meforash, meaning either the "special" name or the name uttered explicitly, that is, by the High Priest in the Temple. The Rabbis also refer to it as Shem Ha-Meyuhad ("the Unique Name") or as "the Four Letter Name." There is evidence that even after the change-over (between the fourth and second centuries BCE) from the old Hebrew writing to the so-called "square" script now used, the Tetragrammaton was sometimes written in the Scrolls in the old script. Although the Rabbis rejected this procedure, it is attested to as late as the fifth century CE in a fragment of Aquila's Greek translation and is mentioned by Origen as well as being found in some of the Qumran texts.

The data regarding the prohibition of pronouncing the Tetragrammaton as it is written are complicated but the following are the main details. Philo (Life of Moses, ii. II) observes that on the front of the High Priest's miter were incised the four letters of the divine name which it is lawful only for the priests to utter in the Temple (in the priestly blessing) and for no one else, to utter anywhere.

The [midrash] Sifre (Numbers 43) similarly states that in the Temple the priestly blessing was given with the pronunciation of the special name (Shem Ha- Meforash) but outside the Temple with the substitute name (Adonai). The Mishnah (Sotah 7: 6; Tamid 7:2) also states that that in the Temple the name was uttered as written but outside the Temple by its substitute. In another Mishnah (Yoma 6: 2) it is stated that on Yom Kippur when the High Priest uttered the Shem Ha-Meforash the people fell on their faces and proclaimed: "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever."

The most relevant text for the prohibition against uttering the Tetragrammaton as it is written is the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) in which Abba Saul declares that one who pronounces the divine name with its letters (i.e. as it is spelled) has no share in the World to Come....

The reason why Jews were reluctant to utter the Tetragrammaton is not too clear, but appears to based on the idea that this name is so descriptive of God that it was considered to be gross irreverence to use it. It is also possible that the use of this name in some circles for magical purposes was a further reason why its pronunciation was forbidden. In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 50a) there is a homily on the verse: "In that day shall the Lord be One, and His name One" (Zechariah 14:9). This is understood to mean that in this world the Tetragrammaton is read as Adonai but in the Messianic age the name will once again be pronounced as it is written.

Generally in the rabbinic literature, the Tetragrammaton is interpreted as referring to God in His attribute of mercy and Elohim to God in His attribute of judgment. Thus a Midrah explains why the Tetragrammaton is used together with Elohim in the second chapter of Genesis while Elohim on its own is used in the first chapter, on the grounds that God created the world with His attribute of strict justice but added the attribute of mercy so that the world could endure.

The Tetragrammaton in Medieval Philosophy

Judah Halevi in his Kuzari (iv. 1-17) has Elohim represents divinity but does not necessarily refer to God. Sometimes in Scripture this name refers to the gods of polytheistic religion. The Tetragrammaton, on the other hand, is God's personal name...

For Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 1.61) all the divine names are simply descriptions of God's actions. This includes the name Adonai, which simply expressed the lordship of God and lordship is applicable, too, to human beings. The sole exception is the Tetragrammaton, which, unlike other names, gives a clear, unequivocal indication of God's essence. This name has no derivation. The prohibition against pronouncing the Tetragrammaton exists because this name is indicative of the divine essence in a way that no created thing is associated with Him.

When the Rabbis say that before the world was created there was only God and His name they call attention to the special nature of this name and how it differs from all the other names for God. The other names are derived from God's acts in the world and therefore could only have come into being after the world had been created. But the Tetragrammaton indicates God's essence and was therefore in being before the world was created.

Maimonides takes strong issue with the doctrine, popular in his day, that the Tetragrammaton has magical power or that there are a number of divine names by which magical influences can be brought to bear on the world. The Tetragrammaton is nothing else than the four-letter name, distinguished from all others solely because it is indicative of God's essence....

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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