The name of G-d

The names we call G-d are often as not a job specification rather than a name.

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Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai
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Q. Does God have a name?

A. “God” and “Lord” are not the Almighty’s actual names but, in a sense, His job specification.

Yet He does have a name, as is clear when the Ten Commandments say, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”.

Technically known as the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Divine name spelt Y-H-V-H is never pronounced by Jews because of its sanctity (the Christian version, Jehovah, is quite ungrammatical). The four letters derive from the Hebrew verb “to be”, so the name denotes His unique existence – the fact that He is, and that He causes all existence.

When Moses asks God straight out, “What is Your name?”, the answer he gets is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I am what I am”.

Technically this name is in the future tense, “I will be what I will be”, which Jewish commentary explains as denoting, “I am eternal and ever-present and do not change”.

When Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translated the Bible into German, they were impressed by the notion of calling God “He who is there”. Centuries before, the Rashbam had said, “He calls Himself ‘I-am-there’ and we call Him ‘He-is-there'”.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, criticised this approach as too cold and impersonal because though it says that God exists, it lacks any indication of relationship with the world. Hirsch’s preference was to say simply “God”.

In rabbinic tradition He is known by more than 90 other names, though none is personal but reflects human perception of Him: HaMakom, “He who is everywhere”; HaRachaman, “He who is merciful”; HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “The Holy One, Blessed be He”; Shaddai, “Almighty”, etc.

The rabbinic name that most closely indicates Biblical origins is probably HaKadosh Baruch Hu, since Isaiah (e.g. 1:4) calls Him K’dosh Yisrael, “The Holy One of Israel”.

Arthur Marmorstein (“The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God”) says that when the daughter religion began venerating human beings as “holy ones” (saints) to whom it eventually accorded cultic status, Judaism insisted that there was only one “Holy One”, who was God Himself.

Another name with Biblical antecedents is Tzur Yisrael, “Rock of Israel”. In Parashat Ha’azinu the Torah says HaTzur Tamim Po’olo, “The Rock, His work is perfect” (Deut. 32:4), which the Targum renders Takkifa, “The Strong One”.

Because the Divine names are sacred, written material in which they appear must not be discarded or destroyed but given respectful burial in a Jewish cemetery. Matter accumulated for this purpose is called a g’nizah, “stored” or “hidden away”.

Material of this kind which is still extant is a great source of literary, religious and historical information. The most famous g’nizah was in Cairo, where a vast quantity of manuscripts and fragments was found in an old synagogue just over a 100 years ago. Scholars at Cambridge University are still engaged on identifying and studying material from Cairo, and having to reconsider the historical narrative as they go.

When Jews write the Divine name in Hebrew, they use substitutes or abbreviations. Some will not even write “God” or “Lord” in English, preferring “G-d” and “L-rd”.

The last and the lost?

Many years have passed since Jacob and Joseph saw each other last. A lengthy period has separated them.

Finally comes the news that Jacob hardly dreamed of hearing, Od Yosef chai – "Joseph is still alive".

The question is what Jacob means by the word "alive".

In a physical sense it obviously indicates that Joseph is not dead. He walks, he stands, he speaks. More than this, he has a high position in the Egyptian government and has made a success of his life.

But there is another dimension to Jacob’s joy. The old father rejoices because Joseph is alive – as a Jew.

He has not dropped his Jewish practices. He has not abandoned his Jewish beliefs. Nothing has succeeded in making a pagan out of him. He remains part of Jewish destiny.

When you read the story you want to weep for Jacob. This is true Jewish joy. But you also know that it could easily have gone the other way. Egyptian civilisation was alluring and tempting but Joseph found the strength to resist and remain himself.

It all happened of course in ancient history, but it is a question for every generation, our generation too.

Shall we all, you and I, be blessed to echo the words of Jacob – or are we scared that we will be the last Jewish generation and our children the lost generation?



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