The Name of G-d
There are many people who are of the opinion that saying the Shem Hameforash (the “Tetragrammaton”) is permissible and/or necessary. These people use the Name in everyday conversation, and some even hold to a belief that unless you say the Shem Hameforash you “cannot be saved.” This use of the Name is often linked to a desire to “get back to the Biblical practice” of using the Name in everyday conversation. Many also say that they are more interested in “following the Scriptures” than they are in “keeping Jewish tradition.”
Whatever their reasoning, the use of the Shem Hameforash is troubling to me. While I can understand a desire to follow G-d, I cannot accept breaking with the intent of G-d’s commands. The proper use of his Name is “not in heaven”—we can understand how to use it in the proper context and with the proper respect, based on what G-d himself tells us and on what is the accepted practice within the Jewish community.
The Scriptures Say...
To delve deeper into this topic, let’s take a look at what the Scriptures tell us about it. The third of the Ten Words gives us our foundational understanding of the holiness of G-d’s name, straight from His own mouth.
You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your G-d, in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes his Name in vain.
The first part of that verse says in Hebrew:
לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת־שֵׁם־יי אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא
Notice that in Hebrew, the name of G-d specifically stated is the Shem Hameforash. We are told that we must not take that name in vain (i.e., in a vain oath). Why? Because it is His personal name. It is the name that best expresses His character and His nature.
Now, you might be thinking, “That is all the more reason to use the Name.” However, G-d is very protective of this name, and He wants to keep it special, set apart, holy. G-d is so protective of His name that He did not even reveal it to the Patriarchs.
G-d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Hashem. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but with My Name “Hashem” I did not make myself known to them.”
- Shemot 6:2-3 - Artscroll Tanakh
Why would G-d not reveal His Name to the Patriarchs of Israel? Why would He keep them from seeing the aspects of His character and nature that are seen in that Name? Based on the rest of Scripture, it appears that G-d was trying to be protective of His Name, wanting to save it for revelation at the proper time and place.
As a matter of fact, there is a hint at this protective instinct in another part of the Torah. When Hashem was talking to Moshe from the burning bush, Moshe asked what name he should use to show the Israelites that he was being sent by the right G-d. Hashem said to tell them:
Hashem the G-d of your forefathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob has dispatched me to you. This is my name forever, and this is My remembrance from generation to generation.
- Shemot 3:15 - Artscroll Tanakh (emphasis mine)
The Hebrew of that italicized text is:
Notice that last word, לְעֹלָם. It is marked by the Masoretes as l’olam, the Hebrew word for “forever.” However, there is a difference between the spelling of the word in this instance and the spelling of it elsewhere (לְעוֹלָם): it is missing the vav (ו). Since Hebrew does not have vowels, and the Masoretic vowel point additions are much later than the original text, this word can actually be pointed לְעַלֵּם, l’aleim, which means “to conceal.” Since Hashem included this “misspelling” here for a reason, it looks like He is hinting to us that His name is to be concealed, and to be remembered for generations. (For more about this, see Rashi in Pesachim 50a.)
After he revealed it to Moshe, Hashem ordained that His Name be used in the holiest elements of the Israelite religious service. He told Moshe to place the Name on the head-plate of the Kohen Gadol (Shemot 28:36), which the Kohen wore with other special garments when he went into the Mishkan to perform his duties. There was an inherent holiness in these clothes, and it is indicative of Hashem’s desires for the holiness of His Name that He specified its use on them.
There is another reference in the Torah that sheds some light on how important Hashem regards the use of his name to be.
The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name and blasphemed — so they brought him to Moses... Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: ... The entire assembly shall stone him. And to the Children of Israel you shall speak, saying: Any man who will blaspheme his G-d shall bear his sin; and one who pronounces blasphemously the Name of Hashem shall be put to death, the entire assembly shall stone him; proselyte and native alike, when he blasphemes the Name, he shall be put to death.
- Vayikra 24:11-14 - Artscroll Tanakh
Hashem is so protective of his name that he pronounced a death sentence in the Torah against anyone who uses it blasphemously. If this is the case for such an individual, it makes sense that we should be careful even regarding casual use of the Name.
This is especially true as it relates to our interactions with people who do not follow Hashem. At least eight times in the book of Ezekiel (20:9, 20:14, 20:22, 36:20, 36:21, 36:22, 36:23, 39:7) G-d states that He performed some act of judgment against the Israelites “for the sake of [His] name, that it should not be desecrated in the eyes of the nations” or that the people of Israel had already profaned His name among the nations. This profaning of the name of G-d is exactly what G-d was hoping to avoid by giving His name to the Israelites. He wanted to keep his name holy, and His commands regarding its use were intended to give His followers the same attitude.
The use of the Shem Hameforash in everyday discussions was expressly forbidden by Chazal as a result of these judgments that G-d brought upon the people. Chazal saw that using the Name of G-d in any context except the service of the Beit Hamikdash only commonizes the holy and makes it possible for the Name to be used improperly and be profaned among the nations. They were so convinced of this fact that they listed pronouncing the Name as one of the six things that will revoke a person’s share in the world to come.
All Israel has a share in the world to come, as it is said: “Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of My planting, My handiwork, in which to take pride.” But the following have no share in the world to come: He who says that there is no resurrection of the dead, and [he who says] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and an apikorot [translated variously as Epicurean, atheist, unbeliever, or heretic]. R. Akiva says: Also one who reads the heretical books or who whispers a charm over a wound and says, “I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians, for I am the L-rd that healeth thee.” Abba Shaul says: Also he that utters the divine Name according to its letters.
- Sanhedrin 90a (Mishnah Chapter 10:1)
The Shem Hameforash is so holy that Chazal were even cautious about its use in the Beit Hamikdash.
Our Rabbis taught: In the year in which Simeon the Righteous died, he foretold them that he would die. They said: Whence do you know that? He replied: On every Yom Kippur an old man, dressed in white, wrapped in white, would join me, entering [the Holy of Holies] and leaving [it] with me, but today I was joined by an old man, dressed in black, wrapped in black, who entered, but did not leave, with me. After the festival [of Sukkot] he was sick for seven days and [then] died. His brethren the priests forbore to mention the Ineffable Name in pronouncing the [priestly] blessing.
- Yoma 39b
The commentary on this passage from the Schottenstein Edition of Talmud Bavli states: “Menachot 109b. Tosaf Sotah 38a suggests that the Ineffable Name could be pronounced only when there was some indication that the Shechinah rested on the Sanctuary. When Simeon the Righteous died, with many indications that such glory was no more enjoyed, his brethren no more dared utter the Ineffable Name.”
Chazal did, however, state that the pronunciation of the Shem Hameforash would return in the world to come, when the universe is restored to its proper state of holiness as in Gan Eden:
“And His name will be One” [Zechariah 14:9] — is His name not One even on this world? [This verse means to say the following:] The World to Come is unlike this world. In this world, [the Holy Name] is written one way, yet it is pronounced another way, but in the World to Come, the Name will be pronounced the way that it is written."
- Pesachim 50a
Sacred Name Arguments
Some adherents to Sacred Name teachings try to base their use of the Shem Hameforash on historical and textual grounds. It is often noted that the Name is printed in many Hebrew manuscripts (particularly in the Dead Sea Scrolls) in a Paleo-Hebrew script, even when the rest of the text comes from a later period and is not written in Paleo-Hebrew. It is also pointed out that in the earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint the Name is written in Hebrew, not Greek. These facts are often pointed out as an apologetic supporting the use of the Shem Hameforash today.
I would counter, however, that the use of the Name in these texts more readily shows the high respect the scribes had for Hashem’s Name, not even wanting to change it from the earlier Hebrew script or from Hebrew into Greek for fear of improperly using it. There is no inherent requirement that these manuscript conventions be interpreted to mean that the Shem Hameforash should or can be spoken in conversation today. That is a great leap in logic that cannot be clearly derived from the facts. As a matter of fact, there is a better chance that these conventions were used for the express purpose of keeping people from using the Name. For instance, if the scribes who copied the Septuagint had wanted to help the readers pronounce the Name, it would have been easier for them to transliterate it into Greek, not write it in Hebrew.
Many adherents to the Sacred Name teachings also try to integrate the Shem Hameforash into Yeshua’s name in a way that makes it somehow more holy or special in their eyes, usually by spelling it “YaH-shua.” However, this spelling can not be correct if you are basing the transliteration off the Hebrew spelling of Yeshua’s name. The Peshitta spells his name יֵשׁוּעַ. This cannot produce the above transliteration because there is no requisite ה in it. The same goes for other Hebrew texts that give us spellings of Yeshua’s name.
Proper Use and Conclusion
The logical question to ask at this point is, “What should I call G-d?” Well, during prayer it has become common to substitute the Name of G-d with Ad-nai, which means “Lord” or “Master.” Outside of synagogues or prayers the common substitution used is Hashem, literally “the Name.” Other common substitutions include Hakadosh Barukh Hu (“the Holy One, Blessed Be He”), Ribbono Shel Olam (“Master of the Universe”), and Avinu Shebashamayim (“Our Father in Heaven”), all of which can be properly used in any setting.
Additionally, there is a prohibition against defacing or erasing the Shem Hameforash. We see this prohibition when Hashem is telling the Israelites what to do to the idols they find in the land of Canaan:
You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; and their sacred trees shall you burn in the fire; their carved images shall you cut down; and you shall obliterate their names from that place. You shall not do this to Hashem your G-d.
- Devarim 12:3-4 - Artscroll Tanakh (emphasis mine)
Chazal concluded from this command that we should not erase or deface the Name of Hashem. This is why on this and other web sites you see words like “G-d” spelled with a dash in the middle. This is done to ensure that no one can accidentally deface or treat improperly a Name of G-d.
The Name of G-d is holy, and we are enjoined by the Scriptures and by Chazal to regard it as such in our daily lives. I hope that this study has helped you see the need for protecting that holiness, as well as the beauty that can be experienced in being reminded daily of that holiness through the use of other names for G-d.