What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II
I always look forward to the first time one of my B’nai Mitzvah students encounters the Name of God in Torah. The student will pause (because as printed the word is unreadable), and then look at me. I will respond to the unasked question, “That’s pronounced, ‘Adonai.’” The student will then give me a look that says, “How on earth can that word be read Adonai?”
In Judaism, a name is not merely an arbitrary designation, a random combination of sounds. It expresses the thought, history, reputation, nature and essence of the thing being named. A person or thing’s “good name” is a valuable commodity, and Jews will go to extraordinary lengths to protect it. The rabbis even teach that if one defiles or ruins someone’s name (or reputation), it is if one had murdered the person whose name was defiled. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Name of God, in all its forms, is treated with enormous respect and reverence in Judaism.
The first Name used for God in Torah is Elohim. It is the masculine plural of a word which is used to refer to princes, gods and other powerful beings. The singular, Eloha, probably came from the Canaanite word for god – El. In fact, God is sometimes called El Elyon (God Most High). El Elyon was the Canaanite name of the lord of all the gods. When the Jews took possession of the Promised Land, it would have been natural for them to adopt this title for their One God.
In Genesis 17:1, we read, “When Abram was 99 years old, the Eternal appeared … and said to him, “I am El Shaddai – walk along before Me and be pure of heart.” El was most likely borrowed from the Canaanites. The meaning of Shaddai is unknown, and it is often translated as “Almighty.” There is a wonderful Midrash which says that it means, “The One who said ‘dai’” (“dai” meaning enough or sufficient) and comes from the fact that when God created the universe, it expanded until He said “DAI!”
Of the many names of God in the Tanach (the combined books of Torah, Prophets and other Writings), that which occurs most frequently (6,823 times to be exact) is the so-called Tetragrammaton, represented by the four Hebrew letters, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey (YHVH). It is the distinctive, personal name of the God of Israel. There is a vast literature of work dealing with this Name. Many scholars believe that it is related to the Hebrew root Hey-Yud-Hey (to be), and reflects the fact that God’s existence is eternal.
In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses says, “When I come to the Israelites … and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God replies “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” This phrase is usually translated, “I Am that I Am.” But, while the word “Ehyeh” is indeed the first person singular of the verb “to be,” the tense is not clear. It could mean, “I am,” or “I will be,” and the repetition of the name renders such possibilities as, “I am that I am,” or “I am that I will be,” etc. Such is the beauty of Torah – endless interpretations are possible!
But, I digress. Back to my B’nai Mitzvah student … why is the word pronounced, “Adonai?”
There is nothing in Torah or Mishnah which prohibits a person from pronouncing YHVH. However, by the time of the Talmud, the Name was considered so holy, that it had become the custom to use a substitute. The word, “Adonai” (My Lord) was used for the Name inside the synagogue when praying or reading Torah. The only time that the Name was pronounced was in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur afternoon. The High Priest would come out and say the Name of God, and all who were present would prostrate themselves. However, then the Temple was destroyed and Jews were scattered around the known world, the pronunciation of the Name fell into disuse. Scholars passed down knowledge of the correct pronunciation of YHVH for many generations, but eventually the correct pronunciation was lost, and we no longer know it with any certainty.
The Masoretes, a group of Jewish scribes and scholars who wrote out the words of Torah, adding vowels and cantillations during the 6-10th centuries, took the vowels from the actual Hebrew word, “Adonai,” and put them with the letters YHVH. Ostensibly, this was to remind the reader not to pronounce the Name, but to substitute Adonai. Interestingly, a Christian writer of the 16th century, who was unaware of this substitution, wrote out the word as he saw it – “Jehovah” – and this has become a common name for God amongst Christians.
My students eventually learn to say, “Adonai” when they see “YHVH.” Turns out there is a quite a lot of meaning in a name, after all! May your name and those of your loved ones be forever linked with joy, happiness and goodness toward those around you!