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Ask A Jew: What is God’s Name?

The dome in Trefaldighetskyrkan (Trinity Church), Karlskrona

Ask A Jew: What is God’s Name?


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By Neal Schindler

What is God’s name?

In accordance with Reform Judaism’s penchant for cheekiness, Rabbi Paul Kipnes has written that “God is a four-letter word” according to Torah. What he means is that God’s proper name consists of four Hebrew letters: Yod, Hey, Vav, and Hey (יהוה). Jews typically pronounce this combination of four letters, often called the tetragrammaton, as “Adonai,” which would normally be written as follows in Hebrew: אדוני. As Rabbi Kipnes notes, Adonai is a euphemism, since it means “Lord.” The fact is, we no longer know the correct pronunciation of the tetragrammaton. The rabbi explains that “the correct pronunciation was lost when the priesthood collapsed with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.”

God goes by quite a few names in the Hebrew Bible. Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, also from the Reform tradition, notes that El, Elohim, and El Shaddai are among these names. You may know that some Jews write “G-d” instead of “God.” Yet another Reform rabbi, Victor Appell, explains that the medieval French rabbi Rashi believed Jews “should not erase or destroy God’s name and should avoid writing it.” The idea that writing or destroying God’s name is a no-no likely derives from Deuteronomy 12:3-4, which not only urges destruction of pagan altars but also commands: “… wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way” (NIV).

Religious Jews, whether mystically inclined or not, tend to see God as too holy and beyond comprehension to be summed up in a name. And for many Jews, even the euphemistic terms we use to describe God aren’t to be tossed around lightly. As Rabbi Appell indicates: “Some Jews will avoid discarding paper or books in which God’s name appears in Hebrew. Rather than being thrown out or destroyed, they may be stored in a genizah (a storage place) and buried in a Jewish cemetery.”

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services and also works as a copy editor at the Spokesman-Review. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, baby son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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