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The names of God in Judaism

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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.

Table of contents
1 Names of God
2 Jewish laws of writing divine names
3 The tradition of seven divine names
4 Other Jewish names of God include
5 Related Article

Names of God

The Tetragrammaton

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 for quite a long period of time considered it blasphemy to pronounce, the correct pronunciation of this name was forgotten — the original Hebrew texts only included consonants. Modern scholars conjecture that it was pronounced "Yahweh". The Hebrew letters are named Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, and if your browser supports a Hebrew font it is written thus: יהוה (Note that Hebrew is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English). In English it is written as YHVH or YHWH depending on transliteration convention. The Tetragrammaton was written in Paleo-Hebrew characters in some of the oldest surviving square Aramaic Hebrew texts, and it is speculated that it was even then read as Adonai 'My Lord' when encountered.

According to Jewish tradition, in appearance, YHVH 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." With this explanation agrees 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 Hebrew thought.

The idea of life was traditionally connected with the name YHVH from medieval times. God is presented as a living God, as contrasted with the lifeless gods of the heathen, and God is presented as the source and author of life (comp. 1 Kings 18; Isaiah 41:26–29, 44:6–20; Jeremiah 10:10, 14; Genesis 2:7; etc.)

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. But though in classical Hebrew Yahweh, the final Heh was not pronounced the medial Heh would have almost certainly been pronounced.

Adonai

Jews also call God Adonai, or "my Lord." Since pronouncing YHVH is considered sinful, Jews would use Adonai instead in prayers. When the Masoretes added vowel pointings to the text of the Tanakh in the first century A.D, they gave the word YHVH the vowels of Adonai, to remind the reader to say Adonai instead. Many Christian bible translators misinterpreted this to mean that God's name was Jehovah, which is the result of combining Adonai's vowels with YHVH's consonants, written using Latin orthography in which "J" is pronounced as the English "Y." This name is cognate to the name of the Greek god Adonis which is a borrowing from Phoenician.

Pronouncing the tetragrammaton

All modern denominations of Judaism teach that the four letter name of God, YHVH, is forbidden to be uttered except by the High Priest, in the Temple. Since the Temple in Jerusalem is no longer extant, 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 YHVH 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 was first used in Leviticus 24:11). Many Jews also write "G-d" instead of "God". While this later substitution is by no means required by their religion (only the Hebrew name, not the English, is holy), they do it to remind themselves of the holiness attached to God's name.

English translations of the Bible generally render YHVH as "the LORD" (in small capitals), and Adonai as "Lord" (in normal case). In a few cases where "Lord YHVH" appears the combination is written as "Lord GOD".

Elohim

A common name of God in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim.

Despite the -im ending common to many plural nouns in Hebrew, the word Elohim, when referring to God, is grammatically singular, regularly taking singular predicate forms in the Hebrew Bible. The word elohim may have had an origin in a plural grammatical form. When the Hebrew Bible uses elohim not in reference to God, it is usually takes plural forms of the verb (e.g. Exodus 20:3).

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.

In Ethiopic, Amlak ("lords") is the common name for God.

The Hebrew form Eloah (which looks as though it might be a a singular form for Elohim) is comparatively rare, occurring only in poetry and late prose (in 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; etc.) or for one god (Exodus 32:1; Genesis 31:30, 32; etc.). 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".

El

The word El appears in other northwest Semitic languages such as Phoenician and Aramaic and in Akkadian ilu as an ordinary word for god. It is aso found also in the South-Arabian dialects and in Ethiopic, and as in Hebrew it is often used as an element in proper names. In northwest Semitic texts it appears to be often but not always used of one single god, of "the God", the head of the pantheon, sometimes specifically said to be the creator.

El 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.

Shaddai

The name Shaddai, which occurs along with El, is also used independently 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'.

A more modern theory is that it is a derivation of a Semitic stem that appears in 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. But the doubling in Hebrew might possibly be secondary.

Shaddai was also a late Bronze age Amorite city on the banks of the Euphrates river north of Damascus Syria, in modern Arabic the site of its ruin mound is called Tell eth-Thadyen; "Thadyen" being the modern pronunciation 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.

‘Elyon

The name ‘Elyon occurs with El, with YHVH, with 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'.

YHVH Tzevaot

The names Yhwh and Elohim frequently occur with the word tzevaot ("hosts"), as YHVH Elohe tzevaot ("YHVH God of Hosts") or "God of Hosts"; or, most frequently, "Yhwh of Hosts." To this last Adonai is often prefixed, making the title "Lord Yhwh of Hosts." This form is traditionally translitered in Latin as Sabaoth, a form that will be more familiar to many English readers.

This compound divine name occurs chiefly in the prophetic literature and does not appear at all in the Pentateuch or in 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 and the large golden grape vine with golden grape clusters over the door on the Herodian temple led to identification by Romans with the god Sabazius.

Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh

The name Ehyeh denotes God's potency in the immediate future, and is part of YHVH. 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.

Yah

The name Yah is composed of the first letters of YHVH. The Rastafarian Jah may derive from this.

Jewish laws of writing divine names

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 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, R. Jose considered tzevaot a common name (Soferim 4:1; Yer. R. H. 1:1; Ab. R. N. 34). R. 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).

The prohibition of blasphemy, for which capital punishment is prescribed, refers only to the Name proper, YHVH (Soferim iv., end; comp. Sanh. 66a).

In many of the passages in which "elohim" occurs in the Bible it refers to gentile deities, or in some instances to powerful men (comp. Genesis 3:5), to judges (Exodus 21:6), or to Israel (Psalms 81:9, 82:6). Adonai sometimes refers to a distinguished person.

Shalom

The Talmud says Shalom ("Peace"; Judges 6:23) is a name of God; consequently one is not permitted to greet another with the word "shalom" in unholy places (Talmud, Shabbat 10b). The name Shelomoh (from shalom) refers to the God of Peace, and the Rabbis assert that the Song of Solomon is a dramatization of the love of God: "Shalom" to His people Israel = "Shulamite."

Other Jewish names of God include

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