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The name of God is more than a mere distinguishing title. It represents the Hebrew conception of the divine nature or character and of the relation of God to His people. It represents the Deity as He is known to His worshipers, and stands for all those attributes which He bears in relation to them and which are revealed to them through His activity on their behalf. A new manifestation of His interest or care may give rise to a new name. So, also, an old name may acquire new content and significance through new and varied experience of these sacred relations.
The various names of God in the Bible include: YHWH, Elohim, El, Shaddai, ‘Elyon, Adonai, Ba’al, and Ẓeba’ot. Hebrew lacked vowels, and the English translation of “Yhwh” often inserts vowels to become “Yahweh”.
The divine name is often spoken of as equivalent to the divine presence or power or glory. In Ex. xxiii. 20-23 it is promised that Yhwh’s angel will lead and give victory to His people, who must yield reverent obedience, for, the Lord says, "my name is in him." The devout Israelite will not take the name of a false god upon his lips (Ex. xxiii. 13; Josh. xxiii. 7; Hosea ii. 16-17; Ps. xvi. 4). To make mention of Yhwh's name is to assert confidence in His strength and present and efficient aid. The name excites emotions of love, joy, and praise (Ps. v. 11; vii. 17; ix. 2; xx. 1, 7). That name is, therefore, especially connected with the altar or sanctuary, the place where God records His name (Ex. xx. 24), or "the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there" (Deut. xii. 5; comp. I Kings viii. 16, 29; ix. 3; Jer. vii. 12). The Temple is "the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, the mount Zion" (Isa. xviii. 7). In one or two comparatively late passages "the Name" ( ) is used absolutely, doubtless as an equivalent for "the name of Yhwh" (Lev. xxiv. 11, 16; comp. Deut. xxviii. 58).
The name Yhwh is considered as the Name proper; it was known in the earliest rabbinical works simply as the Name; also as Shem ha-Meyuḥad ("the Extraordinary Name"; Sifre, Num. 143); as Shem ha-Meforash ("the Distinguished Name"; Yoma vi. 2); as Shem ben Arba' Otiyyot ("the Tetragrammaton" or "the Quadriliteral Name"; Ḳid. 71a); and as Yod He Waw He (spelling the letters of Yhwh). The pronunciation of the written Name was used only by the priests in the Temple when blessing the people (Num. vi. 22-27); outside the Temple they used the title "Adonai" (Soṭah vii. 6; p. 38a). The high priest mentioned the Name on Yom Kippur ten times (Tosef., Yoma, ii.; 39b). R. Johanan said the sages delivered to their disciples the key to the Name once in every Sabbatical year. The sages quoted, "This is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations" (Ex. iii. 15). Here the word "le-'olam" (forever) is written defectively, being without the "waw" for the vowel "o," which renders the reading "le-'allem" (to conceal; Ḳid. 71a).
Prohibition on Saying God’s name
There was a restriction on saying God’s name out of respect for God. Some have compared this restriction to Oriental etiquette against calling a teacher by name.
For naming his master Elisha, Gehazi was punished with leprosy (II Kings viii. 5; Sanh. 100a). After the death of the high priest Simeon the Righteous, forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the priests ceased to pronounce the Name. From that time the pronunciation of the Name was prohibited. "Whoever pronounces the Name forfeits his portion in the future world" (Sanh. xi. 1). Hananiah ben Ṭeradion was punished for teaching his disciples the pronunciation of the Name ('Ab. Zarah 17b). It appears that a majority of the priests in the last days of the Temple were unworthy to pronounce the Name, and a combination of the letters or of the equivalents of the letters constituting the Name was employed by the priests in the Temple. Thus the Twelve-Lettered Name was substituted, which, a baraita says, was at first taught to every priest; but with the increase of the number of licentious priests the Name was revealed only to the pious ones, who "swallowed" its pronunciation while the other priests were chanting. Another combination, the Forty-two-Lettered Name, Rab says, was taught only to whomever was known to be of good character and disposition, temperate, and in the prime of life (Ḳid. 71a; comp. Rashi to 'Ab. Zarah 17b). Maimonides, in his "Moreh," thinks that these names were perhaps composed of several other divine names.
The Incommunicable Name was pronounced "Adonai," and where Adonai and Yhwh occur together the latter was pronounced "Elohim." After the destruction of the Second Temple there remained no trace of knowledge as to the pronunciation of the Name (see Jehovah). The commentators, however, agree as to its interpretation, that it denotes the eternal and everlasting existence of God, and that it is a composition of (meaning "a Being of the Past, the Present, and the Future"). The name Ehyeh ( ) denotes His potency in the immediate future, and is part of Yhwh. The phrase "ehyeh-asher-ehyeh" (Ex. iii. 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" (Ex. iii. 12). Other authorities claim that the whole phrase forms one name. The Targum Onḳelos 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. The name Yah ( ) is composed of the first letters of Yhwh. There is a difference of opinion between Rab and R. Samuel as to whether or not "hallelujah" is a compound word or two separate words meaning "praise ye Yah" (Yer. Meg. i. 9; Pes. 117a). The name Ho ( ) is declared to be the middle part of Yhwh and an abridged form of the Name (Shab. 104a; Suk. iv. 5).
- ↑ The original version of this entry was copied and adapted from the public domain version of The Jewish Encyclopedia.