From a Jewish view, what is the true name of G_d? It is my understanding that one name was given to Abraham and another to Moses. Can you please clarify this for me? As an example of the confusion, in the KJV (Christian bible, King James Version) there are three spellings of G_d, LORD and Lord and they each seem to have different meanings. So is there one true name of G_d to call upon and to pray to? Thank you for your response.
Asking after God’s “true” name leads to a question that even God avoids answering. In the book of Shmot (Exodus), Moses asks God (Ex. 3:13), “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘what is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” The medieval commentator Rashbam suggests Moses does not actually know God’s name, while Ibn Ezra sees Moses asking about which specific name noting that “God does not perform signs (see Ex. 3:12) as ‘Shaddai.'” For Rashbam, God’s name is an unknown entity, while for Ibn Ezra, God has a number of names. God responds “Ehiye - Asher - Ehiye” a name which literally translates as “I will be what I will be” but what the tradition recognizes as another name for God. This is picked up upon in mystical literature by the 16th century Kabbalist Yosef Gikatilla, in his book Shaarei Orah, which charts out each of the ten sefirot - enumerations of creation, connecting them to names of God.
Recognizing the multiple names of God in the Torah and their different meanings does not diminish the truthfulness of any of these names. As Yochanan Muffs has pointed out, “He was a whole pantheon in Himself. He was not only God the father, God the husband, the king and, ultimate master but also God the spice maker, architect, interior decorator of the mishkan (Tabernacle), artist (The Personhood of God, 4).” God plays a host of roles and thus we call after the Divine names appropriate to each role. The distinction between God and LORD for example is the translator’s way of distinguishing between Elohim and YHVH.
Ultimately, searching for the one true name of God in the Torah, requires us to recognize the constraints of language and the limits of human access to revelation. At Sinai, we are told (Ex. 20:1) “God spoke all these words, saying…” Rashi notes that, “this teaches that He spoke all of the Ten Commandments in a single utterance, something no human could do.” Here, Rashi identifies the absurdity of divine revelation. How could the limits of human speech possibly communicate the ideas of the Infinite? While speech certainly has the power to affect status – enable transactions, enact and nullify vows, invoke prayer – it is a tool for human existence and not a guaranteed key for Divine interaction.
From a Jewish view, what is the true name of G_d? It is my understanding that one name was given to Abraham and another to Moses. Can you please clarify this for me? I would like to know the true name of G_d. As an example of the confusion, in the KJV (Christian bible, King James Version) there are three spellings of G_d, LORD and Lord and they each seem to have different meanings. So is there one true name of G_d to call upon and to pray to? Thank you for your response.
1. Hebrew is the official language of the Jews and the Bible is the official book of the Jews. The Jew looks for the most rational reading of its official book as well as its Oral Torah when answering questions such as these.
2. Exodus 4:13 sees God, as E-lohim, announcing that “I am as I am.” God’s four letter name, Y-h-w-h, refers to “being.” Nothing “is” more that God is. The grammatical form is an imperfect verb, indicating that God’s being is continuous
3. Exodus 6:2-3 finds E-lohim telling Moses that God was perceived by the patriarchs as E-l Sh-addai, but the name “Y-h-w-h” was not made known [Hebrew, noda’ati, a reflexive/passive form]. Only here does God appear and announces His personal name, Y-h-w-h.
4. Ruth 2:4 finds that people used “Y-h-w-h” as a name in everyday speech. Ruth joins Israel by using “Y-h-w-h” in everyday speech. Ruth 1:17.
5. bSan 101b finds Abba Shaul ruling that pronouncing the name “Y-h-w-h” according to its letters forfeits one’s portion in the world to come. The name is pronounced in the holiest precinct by the great priest on the Day of Atonement, which is the exception that proves the rule. I suggest that just as Jewish law does not permit the calling of the parent by name, the divine name “Y-h-w-h” gets the same respect.
6. bShavu’ot 35a lists the names of God that are not to be erased or defaced. “Y-h-w-h” refers to the divine subject and may not be pronounced; the other names are predicates, descriptions, or what humans perceive as attributes.
7. We call upon the name of the Lord, the Master. We say the word “A-donai” when referring to God by name, which we do not articulate. See Deuteronomy 32:3. We address the Lord, thinking about the Name, with familiar intimacy, but refer to the Being as Lord/Master out of respectful awe.
Jewish tradition has several names for God, as well as other designations that may be understood as titles or circumlocutions, rather than names. The following is a partial list, including the most widely used names and titles. Hebrew words are presented in English characters, but italicized, for easy identification:
1. According to the Bible, YHWH is the set of four consonants that make up God's personal name. This is apparent from many sources, most famously, God's self-identification at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, "I am YHWH your God..." (Exodus 20:2).
In contrasting the name of God given to Moses with that given to Abraham, the questioner is alluding to Exodus 6:2-3. That is an important piece of evidence for the multiplicity of religious traditions that compose the Bible. In that passage from Exodus, God discloses His personal name, YHWH, as a way of reassuring Moses of the ultimate success of the process of confronting Pharaoh and demanding the freedom for the Hebrew slaves. Having that superior knowledge of God's name, the Bible implies, will confer additional power to Moses' cause. On the other hand, Genesis 4:26 states that the name YHWH came into use in the generation of Enosh, many generations earlier. The stories of the patriarchs in Genesis can be divided on the basis of how they refer to God. Some use the name YHWH, consistent with the point of view of Genesis 4:26, while others refrain from using that name, consistent with the point of view of Exodus 6:2-3. Bible scholars refer to the former set of texts the "J" source, and the latter set, the "E" source.
The consonants YHWH are not vocalized-- i.e. the name is not actually sounded out-- because Judaism developed religious restrictions on pronouncing that name of God. The Rabbis interpreted the Third Commandment, "Do not take the name of YHWH in vain" (Exodus 20: 7), to mean that only the High Priest was permitted to pronounce that name, and only on the Day of Atonement, when standing in the most sacred section of the Temple. Therefore, the Rabbis vocalized the Hebrew letters Yud/ Hey/ Vav/ Hey, composing the consonants of the name YHWH, with the vowels of the word "Adonai", meaning "Lord". That was their way of directing the biblical reader to say "Adonai" instead of pronouncing the actual name of God. In many Bible translations, to differentiate the use of "lord" as a substitute for God's name from any other use of the word "lord", the divine title is rendered in capital letters, thus: LORD.
2. In time, "Adonai" began to feel like a name of God, rather than a title substituted for the name, and therefore, Orthodox Jews do not pronounce it, either, except when praying or reading Torah in the course of worship. They substitute the expression "Ha-Shem", "The Name", for it. Recent, popular Orthodox usage conveys the loose impression that "Ha-Shem" is also a name of God, whereas it is clearly a circumlocution, designed to avoid pronouncing God's name.
As part of the progressive expansion of the force of the commandment not to take God's name in vain, pious Jews would desist from writing God's name unnecessarily, because any document with God's name written on it would need to be disposed of in a manner befitting the holiness of the text. Typically, such documents would be stored in an archive, known as a Genizah, and then would be buried. To avoid writing the Hebrew letters YHWH, traditional, non-Biblical Hebrew texts would use other abbreviations, such as Y"Y, often seen on the printed neckpieces of tallitot (prayer shawls). Other substitutions are the letters D' or H'.
Ultimately, Orthodox Jews extended this expansion of the restrictive force of the tradition still further, desisting from writing the word "God" in languages other than Hebrew as well as in the original Hebrew. That is what accounts for the written form "G-d" instead of "God". Most recently, one can also see "L-RD" instead of "LORD". From the Masorti/ Conservative standpoint, these expansions are unnecessary.
3. In the Bible itself, God is known by other names and titles, too, mostly involving the Hebrew words "El" or "Elohim", meaning "God". In Genesis 1:1, the first reference to God, the generic "Elohim" is used. Later in the Pentateuch, the Bible employs "El-Shaddai", perhaps best translated as "God Almighty", and "El Elyon", translated as "God Most High". From "Elohim", Hebrew generates the standard form "Elohenu", "Our God", as used in the common liturgical form, "Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheynu, Melekh Ha-Olam...", meaning "Blessed are you, O LORD, our God, Ruler of the universe..."
4. The Rabbis, too, writing in the centuries after the conclusion of the Bible, employed various terms to designate the Deity. Three of the most important are Ha-Makom, "the Omnipresent One" (literally, "the place"), Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, "The Holy Blessed One", and Ribbono shel olam, "Master of the Universe". These terms are often encountered in rabbinic literature. The first of these is part of the rabbinic formula of condolence, offered to mourners: Ha-Makom yinnachem etkhem...", "May the Omnipresent One comfort you".
5. In the Kabbalah (Jewish mystical tradition), still other names for God became popular. Kudsha Berikh Hu, the Aramaic form of "The Holy Blessed One" came into widespread use, along with a companion term, Shekhinah (God's Presence). Incidentally, the term "Shekinah", thus spelled, is gaining popularity in the Christian evangelical community.
In sum, Jewish tradition treats the act of naming God with great reverence; but it is not accurate to conclude, with the questioner, that there is "one true name of G-d to call upon and to pray to", because the ever-evolving religious civilization of Judaism has found inspiration and solace in different names, and each bears its own authenticity.
Our Sages had the same problem. There are dozens of names of God in the Bible. What's going on here?
Our Sages have suggested that each name reflects one of God's attributes. Adonai (YHVH) is mercy, Elohim is justice, and so on. That may be the case. And, it may be the case that each name of God reflects a particular tribal affiliation with each tribe giving God a different name.
The practice of spelling G-d as such, and not 'God' was to prevent the name of God being destroyed. It is an old way of respecting the name of God. The funny thing is, however, that 'God' is not God's name. In fact, putting the '-' in any of God's names was simply a way to put a fence around the notion of disrespecting God's name. It is a practice that is rooted both in a sense of respect but also in superstition since the belief is that if you destroy God's name, God will punish you. I am afraid that too many people are still bound by that belief. But it goes to the question you are asking. What is God's real name?
According to the Torah, God has many 'real names' but the Torah evolved, as did Jewish history, with two primary names, Elohim and YHVH, the latter known as the Tetragrammaton (the four letter name of God). So holy was this name considered that only the High Priest on Yom Kippur could pronounce it and knew how it was pronounced (sinced each letter in the Masoretic Text - the text with the vowels - put in two vowels per letter!). Why? Because the belief was that if you could pronounce the very name of God, you could engage in magic. Really. As well, the idea that if you are too familiar with God, you would not be able to handle it and so tradition evolved that the very vocalization of the word made it impossible to pronounce.
So our Sages gave the YHVH the pronounciation of 'Adonai', or 'Lord' and there are NT editions that call that name 'Jehovah' and scholars tend to use the word 'Yahweh' to identify which author wrote what, which religious entity they are speaking about, and so forth.
The issue of prayer that is concerning you is not the concern of our Sages. Addressing God does not rely on God's name believing that, if you don't address him with the 'proper' name, God won't listen. There are many manifestations of God's presence and each manifestation tells us about God in the world. My advice is to not worry about God's name itself - worrying too much about it tells me you are afraid of your prayers not being heard. Rather, concern yourself with authentic prayer. No matter what God is called, our rabbis teach us, God will hear it.
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