The Tetragrammaton

The unpronounceable four-letter name of God

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The Tetragrammaton is the four-letter name of God formed from the letters yod, hey, vav, and hey, hence YHVH in the usual English rendering. The older form JHVH is based on the rendering of yod as jod.

This name is usually translated in English as "the Lord," following the Greek translation as kyrios. All this goes back to the Jewish practice of never pronouncing the name as it is written but as Adonai, "the Lord." In printed texts the vowels of this word are placed under the letters of the Tetragrammaton. (Hence the name was read erroneously by Christians as "Jehova," a name completely unknown in the Jewish tradition.) The original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton has been lost, owing to the strong Jewish disapproval of pronouncing the name. The pronunciation Yahveh or Yahweh is based on that used by some of the Church Fathers but there is no certainty at all in this matter. Most biblical scholars, nowadays, prefer to render it simply as YHWH or JHVH without the vowels. This name occurs 6,823 times in the present text of the Hebrew Bible. 

What does the name mean? In Exodus 3:14-15 the name is associated with the idea of "being," and hence some have understood the original meaning to be "He-Who-Is," or "He who brings being into being." Generally, as [scholar Umberto] Cassuto and others have noted, the name Elohim ("God") is used in the Bible of God in His universalistic aspect, the God of the whole universe, while the Tetragrammaton is used of God in His special relationship with the people of Israel.

The Tetragrammaton in Post-Bibical Literature

The Tetragrarnrnaton is known in the rabbinic literature as Ha-Shem ("the Name") or Shem Ha-Meforash, meaning either the "special" name or the name uttered explicitly, that is, by the High Priest in the Temple. The Rabbis also refer to it as Shem Ha-Meyuhad ("the Unique Name") or as "the Four Letter Name." There is evidence that even after the change-over (between the fourth and second centuries BCE) from the old Hebrew writing to the so-called "square" script now used, the Tetragrammaton was sometimes written in the Scrolls in the old script. Although the Rabbis rejected this procedure, it is attested to as late as the fifth century CE in a fragment of Aquila's Greek translation and is mentioned by Origen as well as being found in some of the Qumran texts.

The data regarding the prohibition of pronouncing the Tetragramtnaton as it is written are complicated but the following are the main details. Philo (Life of Moses, ii. II) observes that on the front of the High Priest's miter were incised the four letters of the divine name which it is lawful only for the priests to utter in the Temple (in the priestly blessing) and for no one else, to utter anywhere.

The [midrash] Sifre (Numbers 43) similarly states that in the Temple the priestly blessing was given with the pronunciation of the special name (Shem Ha- Meforash) but outside the Temple with the substitute name (Adonai). The Mishnah (Sotah 7: 6; Tamid 7:2) also states that that in the Temple the name was uttered as written but outside the Temple by its substitute. In another Mishnah (Yoma 6: 2) it is stated that on Yom Kippur when the High Priest uttered the Shem Ha-Meforash the people fell on their faces and proclaimed: "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever."

The most relevant text for the prohibition against uttering the Tetragrammaton as it is written is the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) in which Abba Saul declares that one who pronounces the divine name with its letters (i.e. as it is spelled) has no share in the World to Come. On the other hand, another Mishnah (Berakhot 9:5) states that in order for the faithful to recognize one another as a guard against the intrusion of heretics it was ordained, as a special dispensation, that the divine name be used for greeting. The conclusion to be drawn from all these sources, though they are in part contradictory, seems to be that at an early period the Tetragrammaton was not uttered as spelled.

The reason why Jews were reluctant to utter the Tetragrammaton is not too clear, but appears to based on the idea that this name is so descriptive of God that it was considered to be gross irreverence to use it. It is also possible that the use of this name in some circles for magical purposes was a further reason why its pronunciation was forbidden. In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 50a) there is a homily on the verse: "In that day shall the Lord be One, and His name One" (Zechariah 14:9). This is understood to mean that in this world the Tetragrammaton is read as Adonai but in the Messianic age the name will once again be pronounced as it is written.

Generally in the rabbinic literature, the Tetragrammaton is interpreted as referring to God in His attribute of mercy and Elohim to God in His attribute of judgment. Thus a Midrah explains why the Tetragrammaton is used together with Elohim in the second chapter of Genesis while Elohim on its own is used in the first chapter, on the grounds that God created the world with His attribute of strict justice but added the attribute of mercy so that the world could endure.

The Tetragrammaton in Medieval Philosophy

Judah Halevi in his Kuzari (iv. 1-17) has a lengthy excursus on the distinction between Elohim and the Tetragrammaton. Elohim represents divinity but does not necessarily refer to God. Sometimes in Scripture this name refers to the gods of polytheistic religion.

The Tetragrammaton, on the other hand, is God's personal name. Man can know Elohim by means of his unaided reason--he can know that there is a God--but this God, the result of ratiocination [i.e. reason], is cold and remote, the distant God of the philosophers who issues no commands and cannot be worshipped. The people of Israel alone have the intuitive knowledge of God represented by the Tetragrammaton because He has revealed Himself to them through the prophets.

For Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 1.61) all the divine names are simply descriptions of God's actions. This includes the name Adonai, which simply expressed the lordship of God and lordship is applicable, too, to human beings. The sole exception is the Tetragrammaton, which, unlike other names, gives a clear, unequivocal indication of God's essence. This name has no derivation. The prohibition against pronouncing the Tetragrammaton exists because this name is indicative of the divine essence in a way that no created thing is associated with Him.

When the Rabbis say that before the world was created there was only God and His name they call attention to the special nature of this name and how it differs from all the other names for God. The other names are derived from God's acts in the world and therefore could only have come into being after the world had been created. But the Tetragrammaton indicates God's essence and was therefore in being before the world was created.

Maimonides takes strong issue with the doctrine, popular in his day, that the Tetragrammaton has magical power or that there are a number of divine names by which magical influences can be brought to bear on the world. The Tetragrammaton is nothing else than the four-letter name, distinguished from all others solely because it is indicative of God's essence.

The Tetragrammaton in Kabbalah

In the Kabbalah all creation is [established] by means of the letters of the Tetragrammaton in various combinations. This name contains all the Sefirot and has innumerable combinations, each representing an aspect of divine manifestation. These, contrary to Maimonides, do have magical power and those who know how to draw on this power can work miracles hence the name Baal Shem ("Master of the Name") for this practitioner of "white" magic.

In the Lurianic Kabbalah there are four ways of spelling out the letters of the Tetragrammaton, which yield four different totals--72, 63, 45, and 52--each representing an aspect of God in His relation to the world in which He is manifested. Unlike for Maimonides, the Tetragrammaton does not represent God's essence but His manifestations in the Sefirot. God's essence is denoted by the term En Sof.

In another Kabbalistic understanding the Tetragrammaton represents the Sefirah Tiferet, the male principle on high, while Adonai represents Malkhut, the Shekhinah, the female principle. The combination of these two in the mind of the Kabbalist assists in the unification of these principles on high and promotes harmony in the Sefirotic realm. For this reason Kabbalistic prayer books depict the divine name in the form of an interweaving of the letters of the Tetragrammaton with those of Adonai.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.