The Tetragrammaton

The unpronounceable four-letter name of God

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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.

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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.