The Name of G-d
The name of God should be treated with respect
God has many names in the Bible
A Name should not be written, so it will not be discarded disrespectfully
The most important name is the four-letter name
The pronunciation of the four-letter name is unknown
Please note: This page contains the Name of God. If you print
it out, please treat it with appropriate respect.
The Significance of Names
In Jewish thought, a name is not merely an arbitrary designation, a random
combination of sounds. The name conveys the nature and essence of the thing
named. It represents the history and reputation of the being named.
This is not as strange or unfamiliar a concept as it may seem at first glance.
In English, we often refer to a person's reputation as his "good name." When a
company is sold, one thing that may be sold is the company's "good will," that
is, the right to use the company's name. The Hebrew concept of a name is very
similar to these ideas.
An example of this usage occurs in Ex. 3:13-22:
Moses asks God what His "name" is. Moses is not
asking "what should I call you;" rather, he is asking "who are you; what are
you like; what have you done." That is clear from God's response. God replies
that He is eternal, that He is the God of our ancestors, that He has seen our
affliction and will redeem us from bondage.
Another example of this usage is the concepts of chillul Ha-Shem and kiddush
Ha-Shem. An act that causes God or Judaism to come into disrespect or a
commandment to be disobeyed is often referred to as "chillul Ha-Shem,"
profanation of The Name. Clearly, we are not talking about a harm done to a
word; we are talking about harm to a reputation. Likewise, any deed that
increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism is referred to as "kiddush
Ha-Shem," sanctification of The Name.
Because a name represents the reputation of the thing named, a name should be
treated with the same respect as the thing's reputation. For this reason, God's
Names, in all of their forms, are treated with enormous respect and reverence
The Names of God
I have often heard people refer to the Judeo-Christian God as "the nameless
God" to contrast our God with the ancient pagan gods. I always found this odd,
because Judaism clearly recognizes the existence of a Name for God; in fact, we
have many Names for God.
The most important of God's Names is the four-letter Name represented by the
Hebrew letters Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei (YHVH). It is
often referred to as the Ineffable Name, the Unutterable Name or the
Distinctive Name. Linguistically, it is related to the
Hebrew root Hei-Yod-Hei (to be), and reflects the
fact that God's existence is eternal. In scripture, this Name is used when
discussing God's relation with human beings, and when emphasizing his qualities
of lovingkindness and mercy. It is frequently shortened to Yah (Yod-Hei), Yahu
or Yeho (Yod-Hei-Vav), especially when used in combination with names or
phrases, as in Yehoshua (Joshua, meaning "the Lord is my Salvation"), Eliyahu
(Elijah, meaning "my God is the Lord"), and Halleluyah ("praise the Lord").
The first Name used for God in scripture is Elohim. In form, the word is a
masculine plural of a word that looks feminine in the singular (Eloha). The
same word (or, according to Rambam, a homonym of
it) is used to refer to princes, judges, other gods, and other powerful beings.
This Name is used in scripture when emphasizing God's might, His creative
power, and His attributes of justice and rulership. Variations on this Name
include El, Eloha, Elohai (my God) and Elohaynu (our God).
God is also known as El Shaddai. This Name is usually translated as "God
Almighty," however, the derivation of the word "Shaddai" is not known.
According to some views, it is derived from the root meaning "to heap
benefits." According a Midrash, it means, "The
One who said 'dai'" ("dai" meaning enough or sufficient) and comes from the
fact that when God created the universe, it expanded until He said "DAI!"
(perhaps the first recorded theory of an expanding universe?). The name Shaddai
is the one written on the mezuzah scroll. Some
note that Shaddai is an acronym of Shomer Daltot Yisrael, Guardian of the Doors
Another significant Name of God is YHVH Tzva'ot. This Name is normally
translated as "Lord of Hosts." The word "tzva'ot" means "hosts" in the sense of
a military grouping or an organized array. The Name refers to God's leadership
and sovereignty. Interestingly, this Name is rarely used in scripture. It never
appears in the Torah (i.e., the first five books).
It appears primarily in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai,
Zechariah and Malachi, as well as many times in the Psalms.
Writing the Name of God
Jews do not casually write any Name of God. This practice does not come from
the commandment not to take the Lord's Name in vain, as many suppose. In Jewish
thought, that commandment refers solely to oath-taking, and is a prohibition
against swearing by God's Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally
translated as "in vain" literally means "for falsehood").
Judaism does not prohibit writing the Name of God per se; it prohibits only
erasing or defacing a Name of God. However, observant Jews avoid writing any
Name of God casually because of the risk that the written Name might later be
defaced, obliterated or destroyed accidentally or by one who does not know
The commandment not to erase or deface the name of God comes from Deut. 12:3.
In that passage, the people are commanded that when they take over the promised
land, they should destroy all things related to the idolatrous religions of
that region, and should utterly destroy the names of the local deities.
Immediately afterwards, we are commanded not to do the same to our God. From
this, the rabbis inferred that we are commanded
not to destroy any holy thing, and not to erase or deface a Name of God.
It is worth noting that this prohibition against erasing or defacing Names of
God applies only to Names that are written in some kind of permanent form.
Orthodox rabbis have held that writing on a
computer is not a permanent form, thus it is not a violation to type God's Name
into a computer and then backspace over it or cut and paste it, or copy and
delete files with God's Name in them. However, once you print the document out,
it becomes a permanent form. That is why observant Jews avoid writing a Name of
God online: because there is a risk that someone else will print it out and
deface it. See a 1998 discussion of the issue at
The Sanctity of
God's Name, Part 1: Erasing Sacred Texts from a Computer Screen if you're
interested, but be aware that the lengthy article is thick with technical
religious jargon, not always explained.
Normally, we avoid writing the Name by substituting letters or syllables, for
example, writing "G-d" instead of "God." In addition, the number 15, which
would ordinarily be written in Hebrew as Yod-Hei (10-5), is normally written as
Teit-Vav (9-6), because Yod-Hei is a Name. See Hebrew
Alphabet for more information about using letters as numerals.
Pronouncing the Name of God
Nothing in the Torah prohibits a person from
pronouncing the Name of God. Indeed, it is evident from scripture that God's
Name was pronounced routinely. Many common Hebrew names contain "Yah" or
"Yahu," part of God's four-letter Name. The Name was pronounced as part of
daily services in the Temple.
The Mishnah confirms that there was no
prohibition against pronouncing The Name in ancient times. In fact, the Mishnah
recommends using God's Name as a routine greeting to a fellow Jew. Berakhot
9:5. However, by the time of the Talmud, it was
the custom to use substitute Names for God. Some
rabbis asserted that a person who pronounces YHVH
according to its letters (instead of using a substitute) has no place in the
World to Come, and should be put to death. Instead
of pronouncing the four-letter Name, we usually substitute the Name "Adonai,"
or simply say "Ha-Shem" (lit. The Name).
Although the prohibition on pronunciation applies only to the four-letter Name,
Jews customarily do not pronounce any of God's many Names except in
prayer or study. The usual practice is to
substitute letters or syllables, so that Adonai becomes Adoshem or Ha-Shem;
Elohaynu and Elohim become Elokaynu and Elokim; Eil becomes Keil, etc.
With the Temple destroyed and the prohibition on
pronouncing The Name outside of the Temple, pronunciation of the Name fell into
disuse. Scholars passed down knowledge of the correct pronunciation of YHVH for
many generations, but eventually the correct pronunciation was lost, and we no
longer know it with any certainty. We do not know what vowels were used, or
even whether the Vav in the Name was a vowel or a consonant. See
Hebrew Alphabet for more information about the
difficulties in pronouncing Hebrew. Some religious scholars suggest that the
Name was pronounced "Yahweh," but others do not find this pronunciation
particularly persuasive. Historian Flavius Josephus, who was born a
kohein at a time when the pronunciation of the
Name was still known, said that the name was four vowels (War of the Jews, Book
V, Chapter 5), probably referring to the fact that each of the four consonants
in the name can serve in Hebrew as a vowel or vowel marker. See
Some people render the four-letter Name as "Jehovah," but this pronunciation is
particularly unlikely. The word "Jehovah" comes from the fact that ancient
Jewish texts used to put the vowels of the Name "Adonai" (the usual substitute
for YHVH) under the consonants of YHVH to remind people not to pronounce YHVH
as written. A sixteenth century German Christian scribe, while transliterating
the Bible into Latin for the Pope, wrote the Name out as it appeared in his
texts, with the consonants of YHVH and the vowels of Adonai, and came up with
the word JeHoVaH ("J" is pronounced "Y" in German), and the name stuck.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1996-2011), Tracey R Rich
If you appreciate the many years of work I have put into this site,
show your appreciation by linking to this page, not copying it to your site.
I can't correct my mistakes or add new material if it's on your site. Click Here for more details.