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Va’eira 5764-2004

“The Names of G-d and Their Meanings”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, G-d speaks to Moses and says to him (Exodus 6:2): “Ah’nee Hashem,” I am G-d–using the Tetragrammaton, Y-H-V-H, the four letter name of G-d that is not pronounced. G-d then continues to tell Moses that He appeared to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob with the name (Exodus 6:3) “Ay-l Shah’dai,” “ooh’shmee Hashem lo no’dah’tee la’hem,” but with My name Y-H-V-H, I did not make Myself known to them.

According the Midrash in B’midbar Rabbah, chapter 14, the Al-mighty has 70 names. The rabbis speculate that the 70 names parallel the 70 nations that existed in the ancient world. Some of the names of G-d are well known: Ayl–the G-d of power; Eh-lohim–the G-d of multiple powers; Ah-do-nay–my Master; Ah-don–the Master, Emet-truth; Baruch–blessed; Boray–creator; Gadol–great; Chassid–righteous; Chah’noon–compassionate; Tov–good; Yah’shar–righteous; No’rah--revered; Neh’tzach–eternal; El’yon–ultimate; Tz’vah’ot–Lord of hosts; Kadosh— holy; Rah’choom–compassionate; Rishon–first; Shomer–guardian; Shofet–judge; Shah’dai–the G-d who sets limits; Tah’mim–whole and pure; Tzur–the rock.

Those who studied the bible as youngsters may recall the well known comment of Rashi on the very first verse in Genesis: “B’ray’shith bah’rah Eh’lo’kim et hah’shah’mayim v’et hah’ah’retz,” In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth. Rashi points out that verse 1 says that “Eh’lo’kim,” not “Y-H-V-H” (Hashem), created heavens and the earth. Rashi explains that, at first, G-d intended to create the world utilizing the attribute of midat ha’din, strict judgment, represented by the name “Eh’lo’kim.” But He saw that the world would not survive if He did so. So, He gave precedence to the attribute of mercy, represented by the name “Y-H-V-H,” and joined it to the attribute of strict judgment. That is why, explains Rashi, the bible says in Genesis 2:4, “B’yom ah’soht Hashem Eh’loh’kim eh’retz v’shah’mayim,” On the day that Y-H-V-H (Hashem) Eh-lohkim made heavens and the earth, using both names of G-d. We learn from here that “Eh-lohkim” is the G-d of power and of strict judgment, whereas “Y-H-V-H” represents the G-d of mercy.

But how could the Al-mighty say to Moses in Exodus 6:3 that He appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as “Ayl Shah’dai,” and did not make Himself known to them with the name Hashem, Y-H-V-H? After all, the verses in the Brit Bein Hab’tarim, the Covenant between the Pieces, clearly state (Genesis 15:7): “Va’yomer ay’lahv, ah’nee Hashem, (Y-H-V-H).” G-d says, I am G-d who took you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it. Abraham even responds (Genesis 15:8) “Va’yomar, Hashem (Y-H-V-H) Eh-loh’kim, ba’mah ay’dah kee ee’rah’sheh’nah?” And he (Abraham) said, Hashem (Y-H-V-H), Eh’loh’kim, how shall I know that I am to inherit it? So we see that Abraham certainly did know the four letter name of G-d. What then does G-d mean when He says to Moses that “I did not make myself known to the patriarchs with my name Hashem (Y-H-V-H)?”

It could be, as some commentators say, that Abraham worshiped the Ultimate G-d and was not concerned whether others believed that there were additional “powers” in the world. This explains the language that Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shalem, used when he greeted Abraham after Abraham defeated the four great kings in battle. Malki Tzedek blesses Abraham and says (Genesis 14:19): “Bah’ruch Avram l’Kayl el’yon, ko’nay shah’mayim vah’ah’retz,” Blessed is Abram to G-d Most High, Maker of heaven and earth (implying that Hashem is the highest of the powers!)

Moses, however, is the first to see G-d in a new different light. Moses’ perception of the deity is that of a G-d who cannot exist with any powers that are outside of Him. Some scholars maintain that the patriarchs had glimpses of G-d’s essence, but only now, through Moses, does G-d’s complete essence come into full view.

This, of course, is a difficult interpretation that questions Abraham’s fidelity to a purely monotheistic G-d. Therefore, most normative commentators, like Maimonides (the Rambam), suggest that the patriarchs’ basic relationship to G-d was with the name Ayl Sha’dai, the G-d who sets limits. The Rambam explains that when G-d, using the name Ay-l Sha’dai, performs miracles, these miracles did not openly disrupt the normal course of nature. However, Moses now beholds miracles that actually changed the course of nature, and could not be compared to anything that the patriarchs had ever seen.

In essence, what G-d tells Moses is that only he (Moses) will merit to introduce the full nature of G-d to the world, and that even the patriarchs, as great as they were, did not merit this.

Moses has already learnt profound lessons about G-d when he asks G-d (Exodus 3:13), What will I tell the children of Israel when they ask me what is the name of the G-d who sent you? G-d responds (Genesis 3:14), Tell them that “Eh’heh’yeh” sent me to you. It is at this moment that Moses achieves the profound understanding that G-d is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent–the G-d who was, is and will be. The G-d of Moses is a transcendent G-d who is beyond temporal time, yet He is imminent with His kindness. Here, a new theological era dawns in the universe. The people’s perception of the godhead is now that of a deity of ultimate power. Although G-d had been known before and recognized before, now a new maturity, a new sophistication of belief, and a new level of security has been achieved.

This is the great contribution of our leader Moses, the only person on earth whom G-d saw worthy of introducing these concepts to the world and in whom G-d had the confidence in his ability to educate the world with these new and radical and inspiring notions. While the name of G-d, Y-H-V-H, is ineffable, the nature of G-d is surely comprehensible.

An interesting linguistic side note underscores the special sacredness of G-d’s name. Traditional Jews never pronounce the ineffable name of G-d. Therefore, whenever the four letter name of G-d (Y-H-V-H) appeared in the Torah text, the Masoretes, the sages who recorded the traditional reading and pronunciations of the Torah, always vocalized those four Hebrew letters with the vowels of the word “Ah’do’noy” (My Master). In this way the sages made certain that whenever the text was read, no attempt would be made to pronounce the four letter name of G-d, but rather it would be easily recognizable that the correct pronunciation would be Ah’do’noy, my Master.

Unfortunately, in the 16th century, a Christian writer who was not aware of the substitution, transcribed the Hebrew word, (the four letters and the vowels), as he saw it, and wrote the name “Jehovah.” This error has been transmitted through many editions of the Christian bible, and has even entered the common literary mainstream to this day.

If only the people who use that name understood the profound message behind it, and the great powers that the Name represents.

May you be blessed.