By Any Other Name

22 09 2010

God has many names. Famously, in Exodus 6:2-3, he informs Moses that his real name is Yahweh, but that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) only knew him as El Shaddai. This claim is problematic for several reasons. First of all, the name El Shaddai only turns up a handful of times in Genesis, but there are numerous instances in which God announces himself as Yahweh, and in which prominent biblical characters (Noah, Eliezer and Hagar, amongst others, but also Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) either address him or refer to him as Yahweh. And, to make matters worse, Moses’ mother’s name is Yochebed, which is a “Yahwistic” name: a name that incorporates part of the word Yahweh, and thus evidences familiarity with it.

Whatever the text might mean in this, its final form, is subject to debate. Less debateable is the simple fact that, over time, people have liked to call God all manner of different things, and have put in his mouth all manner of injunctions as regards what we should call him and what we should not. If he existed, perhaps he would blush. But whether you believe that he does or does not, the fact remains that some names are encouraged, while others are taboo. Even the simplest and most matter-of-fact names might upset people when used in an “incorrect” context. In February of this year, for example, riots erupted in Malaysia over the fact that Christians (how dare they) used the name Allah to refer to “their” god, despite the fact that Allah, in Arabic, is no more proper a name than is God, in English.

Within the Jewish tradition, while El (and even Elohim) continue to simply mean “God”, “god” or “gods”, various other names came to denote the Hebrew deity more directly and have been treated, historically, with great care as a result. You will forgive me then the inappropriate comparison when I note that the word for “toilet”, in English, has undergone no less rapid a variety of mutations in the effort to divest it of any scatological inference. Just as “toilet” (or “WC”, “dunny”, “lavatory”, “loo”, etc), by virtue of its intrinsic nature, cannot ever escape this association and must always, one assumes, be forced to undergo continued euphemisation, so too must “God”, by virtue of its ineffable referrent, be forced to undergo a continued tabooisation of its own.

Indeed, the proper name Yahweh, however it might have originally been pronounced, was treated as taboo by the masoretes, who were vocalising it already by the 9th century with the vowels for the word “Adonai” (lit. “my lords”) instead. The word frequently turns up amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, written in an old Hebrew script that stands out from its orthographically modern cotext, which might inform us that it was already taboo in the last century before the Common Era. That last observation is highly speculatory, of course, although the evidence from the Middle Ages does inform us of the extreme tabooisation that the word eventually underwent, however it may have got there.

In Exodus 20:7, and again in Deuteronomy 5:11, we are told not to take this name in vain. It is unclear what taking in vain might denote (insincere oaths, perhaps?), for we have extensive biblical and extra-biblical indication that people did use the name Yahweh in their everyday discourse. Exactly when this changed is unclear, although the Mishna does include the minority opinion that pronouncing it is forbidden, and so we can assume that the change took place some time after the start of the 3rd century. The passage is an interesting one, and so I reproduce it below:

כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא שנאמר ועמך כלם צדיקים לעולם יירשו ארץ… ואלו שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא האומר אין תחית המתים מן התורה ואין תורה מן השמים ואפיקורוס רבי עקיבא אומר אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים והלוחש על המכה ואומר כל המחלה אשר שמתי במצרים לא אשים עליך כי אני ה’ רפאך אבא שאול אומר אף ההוגה את השם באותיותיו

All Israel [ie: every Jew] has a portion in the world to come, for it says “Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever” (Isaiah 60:21)… But these are the ones who do not have a portion in the world to come:
• Those who say that, according to the Torah, there is no resurrection of the dead;
• [Those who say that] the Torah is not divine;
• Those who think that God has no involvement with the world¹.

Rabbi Akiva adds:
• Those who read “external books”;
• Those who whisper over wounds, saying “I will not place on you any of the diseases that I placed on the Egyptians, for I, the LORD, am your healer” (Exodus 15:26).

Abba Shaul adds:
• Those who pronounce the name according to its letters.
– Sanhedrin 10:1

There is much within the above paragraph that is of interest! For a start, there is the declaration that only some Jews merit the afterlife², and that certain “thought crimes” might render them unfit for this prize. Secondly, there is Rabbi Akiva’s prohibition of “external books”, which is a designation that is taken by some to denote books that are not within the canon of biblical literature. Does Akiva forbid reading anything that is not the Bible? And if he does, can we harmonise this statement with the fact that he is quoted, on more than one occasion, referencing an idea in the extra-biblical Ecclesiasticus (or, “The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach”)? That Akiva also forbids incantations might be a third item of interest, but the primary feature of the above passage is the statement that is attributed to Abba Shaul.

A 2nd century Palestinian Jew, Abba Shaul forbids the pronounciation of the name Yahweh, and suggests that this is a crime for which the speaker loses his portion in the world to come. And yet, in commenting upon this, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 101b) only notes that this prohibition refers to those in the countryside who speak the name Yahweh in a blasphemous manner. I have noted before the pejorative attitude of the rabbis towards those who live in the countryside, and to this it is worth adding the fact that “in a blasphemous manner” is rendered בלשון עגה, which Jastrow notes as referring to the manner in which Samaritans use the name Yahweh in their oaths³.

Are there prohibitions against saying Yahweh elsewhere?

Actually, not really. The Mishna (Keritot 1:1) does condemn those who blaspheme, ascribing to them the punishment of “excision”, but the semantic range of the word מגדף would lead us to suppose that this refers to denigrating God, rather than simply saying his name. So do we find in the biblical literature itself, where God forbids people to curse him (Exodus 22:27), and where somebody is stoned by the congreagation of Israel for having done so (Leviticus 24:11-16). In these instances, the verbs used refer to cursing and piercing the name of God, so we must assume that the criminal of Leviticus 24 did more than simply say “Jehovah”.

Nonetheless, one does not find the name Yahweh anywhere in the Talmud (nor in printed editions of the Mishna), which is undoubtedly a reflection on the demise of several Talmuds from the Middle Ages. Prohibitions against burning any document that includes the name of God have resulted in printed euphemisms throughout texts that might be subject to so incendiary a fate. Instead, as those of you who read Hebrew would have noted above, the letter ה with an apostrophe is used, in abbreviation of השם, haShem, “the name”. When Abba Shaul refers to the name explicitly, he uses the word haShem in its stead, and treats it (as one might expect) as a regular noun with the definite article. I am referring, of course, to his inclusion of את (the DDOM), which marks this definite noun as being the object of his sentence. Observe, however, what Tobiah ben Eliezer says at the beginning of his 11th-12th century Leqach Tov:

לא אמר ראשית אם אמר ראשית היה אומר ראשית היה שמים וארץ ולא היה מזכיר שם אלהים… אלא לפי שהיה צריך להזכיר השם אמר בראשית ברא

It did not say, “originally”, because if it said “originally” it would have had to say “originally, there was the sky and the land”, and it wouldn’t mention the name of God… Rather, since it needed to mention the name, it said “in the beginning, he created”.

The author of Leqach Tov is here discussing the morphology of the first word of the Bible, which he suggests is necessarily so in order that, syntactically, the clause can include the name of God. We won’t discuss this aspect of his commentary here: I am far more interested, for the moment, in how he refers to this name! Note the absence of the DDOM (את): Tobiah merely states that the author of the Torah needed להזכיר השם. In other words, haShem is not functioning as a regular noun with the definite article (“the name”), but as a proper name in its own right! Tobiah is here referring to God explicitly as Hashem – a practise that remains common amongst Orthodox Jews today.

I am not suggesting that the practise originated with Tobiah ben Eliezer and his midrash, Leqach Tov, but there must have been a definitive moment when people stopped treating haShem as a euphemism and started treating Hashem as a name. When was that? And has it had any further ramifications? Well, it is beyond my ability to track down the point in time, although I am sure that if enough of you hassle the erudite Fred MacDowell, this is the sort of thing that he can probably answer.

I will finish off, however, by noting that some names that came to replace the name of God have likewise travelled down the slippery path of tabooisation. Adonai, which for a time serviced as a substitute (and still does, for many Sephardim) has been likewise dropped from common parlance, due to the fact that it has a one-to-one correspondence with its referent: the sort of thing you want from a euphemism, really. In literature, I like “the LORD”, but only because I have saturated myself with the NRSV, but I also appreciate the trend in some Christian circles to reintroduce “Yahweh” as a transliteration.

In my first yeshiva, which was Chabad, people alternated between the Yiddish der Aybishter (“the one above”) and the cheeky substitution of letters that produces Havaya. In my second yeshiva, which was dismally resplendent in its neo-Lithuanian glory, the habit was to say haKodesh Barukh Hu (“the Holy One, Blessed is He”): a name that I still enjoy, when I’m trying to be feisty. Where I work, however, which is at a Progressive synagogue, the vogue is to use Adonai in spoken speech. This is all rather confusing to those who are not yet comfortable with navigating the minefield of other people’s faiths, and I am frequently driven to amusement.

¹ The word used here is apiqorus, which has come to denote anybody who denies the faith, but is etymologically “an Epicurean”. Epicurus, for all of the impressive results of his intellectual labour, was remembered by the rabbis solely in regards to his apparent atheism. Although Epicurus insisted that he was not an atheist, his relegation of God to the sole role of creator made him, effectively, the first deist.

² Whether “the world to come” denotes the afterlife in general or only the messianic era, for which people require resurrection, is a matter of rabbinic debate and is not important here.

³ Aga is listed by Jastrow (אגא) as the Samaritan Hebrew word for “oath”.

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