Dvar Torah: On The Name

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 January 2013

I have spent a little while this afternoon – probably much more than was remotely justified – trying to find out the answer to a question which no-one has ever asked me, and which you probably didn’t know you needed an answer to until now.

In tomorrow’s portion, God says to Moses – “Ani Adonai”, I am Adonai.
“I made myself known to the patriarchs,” God continues, “By the name El Shaddai,” but “u’shmi Adonai lo nodati lahem”
by the name Adonai I did not make myself known to them.

Except that God wouldn’t have said “U’shmi Adonai” – by my name Adonai –
God would have pronounced it.  Well, it’s hard to know.
Yahweh, Yahveh, Yuhwih, Yehoweh?

In the Leningrad Codex, from the eleventh century, the letters yud hay vav hay are written with six different vowel combinations – so that is no help.

But why?  Why don’t we know how the name was pronounced – why has it been replaced by a version of the word Lord – Adonai – with all the genderedness that that brings with it – and the detachment from God that it implies.

The truth is, we don’t know.  Somewhere along the line, use of the name of God was first prohibited and then forgotten.
The Talmud tells us that this was God’s own instruction – “I am written with the letters yud hey, but pronounced with the letters aleph dalet”.
Elsewhere we are informed that the name was used only on rare occasions in the Temple – though other sources suggest it was used daily – but that after the destruction of the Temple, the correct pronunciation was passed down only once every seven years by the sages to their students – that is, once in every cycle of years.

But why?
Perhaps it was too holy to be used?  And so the name “Adonai” was put in its place.  Indeed, God’s name is so holy that the name put in place of God’s name is now so holy that another name – HaShem, the name – is now put in its place, instead.
Perhaps too dangerous – the Palestinian Talmud tells of a man – a non-Jew – who cursed his son using the divine name, and the son promptly died – the name had power all of its own.

The truth is, we don’t know why.
But the Talmud does tell us when we will know again – in the world to come, we will pronounce the name in the same way as we write it, because, as we will sing in a moment:
“Bayom Hahu yihyeh adonai echad ushmo echad”
On that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one