The unpronounceable four-letter name of God
The Tetragrammaton is the four-letter name of God formed from the letters yod, hey, vav, and hey, hence YHVH in the usual English rendering. The older form JHVH is based on the rendering of yod as jod.
This name is usually translated in English as "the Lord," following the Greek translation as kyrios. All this goes back to the Jewish practice of never pronouncing the name as it is written but as Adonai, "the Lord." In printed texts the vowels of this word are placed under the letters of the Tetragrammaton. (Hence the name was read erroneously by Christians as "Jehova," a name completely unknown in the Jewish tradition.) The original pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton has been lost, owing to the strong Jewish disapproval of pronouncing the name. The pronunciation Yahveh or Yahweh is based on that used by some of the Church Fathers but there is no certainty at all in this matter. Most biblical scholars, nowadays, prefer to render it simply as YHWH or JHVH without the vowels. This name occurs 6,823 times in the present text of the Hebrew Bible.
What does the name mean? In Exodus 3:14-15 the name is associated with the idea of "being," and hence some have understood the original meaning to be "He-Who-Is," or "He who brings being into being." Generally, as [scholar Umberto] Cassuto and others have noted, the name Elohim ("God") is used in the Bible of God in His universalistic aspect, the God of the whole universe, while the Tetragrammaton is used of God in His special relationship with the people of Israel.
The Tetragrammaton in Post-Bibical Literature
The Tetragrarnrnaton is known in the rabbinic literature as Ha-Shem ("the Name") or Shem Ha-Meforash, meaning either the "special" name or the name uttered explicitly, that is, by the High Priest in the Temple. The Rabbis also refer to it as Shem Ha-Meyuhad ("the Unique Name") or as "the Four Letter Name." There is evidence that even after the change-over (between the fourth and second centuries BCE) from the old Hebrew writing to the so-called "square" script now used, the Tetragrammaton was sometimes written in the Scrolls in the old script. Although the Rabbis rejected this procedure, it is attested to as late as the fifth century CE in a fragment of Aquila’s Greek translation and is mentioned by Origen as well as being found in some of the Qumran texts.
The data regarding the prohibition of pronouncing the Tetragramtnaton as it is written are complicated but the following are the main details. Philo (Life of Moses, ii. II) observes that on the front of the High Priest’s miter were incised the four letters of the divine name which it is lawful only for the priests to utter in the Temple (in the priestly blessing) and for no one else, to utter anywhere.
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.
For Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 1.61) all the divine names are simply descriptions of God’s actions. This includes the name Adonai, which simply expressed the lordship of God and lordship is applicable, too, to human beings. The sole exception is the Tetragrammaton, which, unlike other names, gives a clear, unequivocal indication of God’s essence. This name has no derivation. The prohibition against pronouncing the Tetragrammaton exists because this name is indicative of the divine essence in a way that no created thing is associated with Him.
When the Rabbis say that before the world was created there was only God and His name they call attention to the special nature of this name and how it differs from all the other names for God. The other names are derived from God’s acts in the world and therefore could only have come into being after the world had been created. But the Tetragrammaton indicates God’s essence and was therefore in being before the world was created.
Maimonides takes strong issue with the doctrine, popular in his day, that the Tetragrammaton has magical power or that there are a number of divine names by which magical influences can be brought to bear on the world. The Tetragrammaton is nothing else than the four-letter name, distinguished from all others solely because it is indicative of God’s essence.
The Tetragrammaton in Kabbalah
In the Kabbalah all creation is [established] by means of the letters of the Tetragrammaton in various combinations. This name contains all the Sefirot and has innumerable combinations, each representing an aspect of divine manifestation. These, contrary to Maimonides, do have magical power and those who know how to draw on this power can work miracles hence the name Baal Shem ("Master of the Name") for this practitioner of "white" magic.
In the Lurianic Kabbalah there are four ways of spelling out the letters of the Tetragrammaton, which yield four different totals–72, 63, 45, and 52–each representing an aspect of God in His relation to the world in which He is manifested. Unlike for Maimonides, the Tetragrammaton does not represent God’s essence but His manifestations in the Sefirot. God’s essence is denoted by the term En Sof.
In another Kabbalistic understanding the Tetragrammaton represents the Sefirah Tiferet, the male principle on high, while Adonai represents Malkhut, the Shekhinah, the female principle. The combination of these two in the mind of the Kabbalist assists in the unification of these principles on high and promotes harmony in the Sefirotic realm. For this reason Kabbalistic prayer books depict the divine name in the form of an interweaving of the letters of the Tetragrammaton with those of Adonai.
The Documentary Hypothesis (also called source criticism) in its classical form proposes that the Torah (or the Hexateuch, the Torah + Joshua) was made up of four sources, called J, E, P, and D. Alternative theories have been proposed (e.g. the supplementary hypothesis, the fragmentary hypothesis, etc.). While documentary scholars each have somewhat different nuanced versions of this hypothesis, most scholars agree on the significance of the observations that form the core of this hypothesis. I would like to take the opportunity of this week’s parasha, Vaeira, to explain one of the better known arguments – the issue of God’s name.
Torah contains many names for God, but two of them predominate: YHWH and E-lohim. The meaning of the first one is traditionally believed to signify “The Eternal One”, but in academic circles the origin and meaning of the name is considered to be unknown. The name is often left unpronounced by religious people and replaced most often with Lord (A-donai). The second is a generic word, a common noun, for God or gods, which was also used as the name for the God of Israel.
A Short History of the Four Sources
Although many who are familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis know it to encompass four sources and the entire Torah, nevertheless, it took time and a number of intermediate steps for scholars to reach this conclusion. In the 18th century, a French physician, Jean Astruc, anonymously suggested that the two names of God in Genesis came from two different sources.He believed that these two sources, which he just called A and B, had been combined by Moses to create the book of Genesis. In 1753, he separated out these sources in his Conjectures on the original accounts of which it appears Moses availed himself in composing the Book of Genesis. Over time, Astruc’s “source A” was renamed E, for Elohist, and his source B became J, for Jahwist.
Taking Astruc’s pioneering suggestion a step further, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn applied the source division to the rest of the Pentateuch.This was not just an expansion, but a conceptual revolution. Astruc believed in the Mosaic authorship of the Torah. The title of his (Astruc’s) book makes it clear that he believed that Moses himself was the redactor of Genesis. Eichhorn, however, writing less than twenty years later, dispenses with the entire concept of Mosaic authorship. In his view, the Torah was put together from these two sources years after Moses lived.
The next important step in separating out sources was taken by Wilhelm M. L. de Wette. De Wette showed, among other things, that Deuteronomy should be treated as a third, separate source, D (for Deuteronomist). In other words, whereas the rest of the Pentateuch is made up of sources spliced together, De Wette argued that Deuteronomy should be read as a self-contained work.
Most important for the purposes of this essay, was the contribution of Hermann Hupfeld. Hupfeld pointed out that the Elohist source, as identified by earlier scholarship, actually is comprised of two different sources, both of which use E-lohim in Genesis. Since one of these sources focuses a great deal on priestly issues, he called it P, retaining the siglum E for the non-Priestly source that uses E-lohim. These four sources formed the basis of the now famous Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which forms the basis of the various iterations of the Documentary Hypothesis known today.
The Names of God in Genesis and Exodus
The Peshat ProblemAlthough Astruc was able to solve a number of narrative problems by dividing Genesis into two sources based on the two names of God, the biggest problem that this division solves actually appears in Exodus. In Exodus 6:2-3, God speaks to Moses:
2 E-lohim spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Shad-dai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHWH.According to the plain meaning of this passage, God is revealing to Moses a secret name, which even the patriarchs did not know. God says to Moses that God has another name, E-l Shad-dai, which the patriarchs did know, but that the name YHWH had remained secret until this moment.
The name E-l Shad-dai does appear in a number of the accounts of the Patriarchs in Genesis. God uses it when speaking with Abraham (17:1) and Jacob (35:11). Isaac (28:3) and Jacob (43:14, 48:3) use it when blessing or passing on messages to their sons. The name YHWH, however, also appears in the ancestral narratives. Moreover, in a number of these appearances, it is clear that the patriarchs know this name and use it.
When Eve names her son Cain (4:1), she does so to express that, “she created a man with YHWH.”  In the generation of Enosh, the Torah claims (4:26), the people began to call (or use) the name of YHWH. Abraham calls the name of YHWH multiple times (12:8, 13:4, 21:33), as does Isaac (26:25, 27:7, 27:27). God uses the name YHWH when speaking with Jacob (28:13) and Jacob uses it as well (28:16, 28:21, 32:10, 49:18). Sarah (16:5), Leah (29:32, 33, 35), Rachel (30:24), and Laban (30:27) know the name YHWH. In short, when looking at all these passages, it seems clear that the name YHWH was hardly a secret and that it was well-known to the ancestors. And yet, Exodus 6:2-3 seems to be saying that they did not know it.
Traditional SolutionsThe contradiction between the assertion in Exod. 6:3, that the name YHWH was unknown before this encounter, and the fact that the name is used by multiple characters in Genesis all the time, forced many traditional commentators to devise answers that would ease the tension between this verse and the accounts in Genesis.
Suggestion A – Moses Anachronistically Wrote YHWH
Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra references the Karaite scholar, Yeshua, who suggests that the verse means what it says: the name YHWH was unknown before Moses. He explains that it was Moses himself, who wrote the name into the stories in Genesis, but it is really an anachronism. Not surprisingly, this out of the box suggestion had little caché among rabbinic commentators.
Suggestion B – God Revealed Both Names to The Ancestors
Ibn Ezra also refers to the very different answer of Rav Sa’adia Gaon (10th cent.). Sa’adia states that the verse should be read with an implied “only (בלבד).” According to this interpretation, God is saying that God used both the name E-l Shad-dai and YHWH when interacting with the patriarchs, but will use only YHWH with Moses.
Rashbam (1085-1158) and R. Joseph Bechor Shor (12th cent.) also believe that God is telling Moses that God revealed both names to the patriarchs, but they go about reading the verse in a very different manner. The suggest re-punctuating the verse by putting the comma after YHWH. The verse would then read:
“E-lohim spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am YHWH. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Shad-dai and by my name YHWH, (but) I did not make Myself known to them.”According to this reading, God tells Moses that God appeared to the Patriarchs as E-l Shad-dai and YHWH. This solves the contradiction, but how is the reader to understand the final clause? Rashbam and Bechor Shor suggest that it means that even though God revealed God’s names, God never fulfilled the promises; “revealed” means “fulfilled” in this reading. What God tells Moses here is that this time it will be different, Moses will not only hear God’s names and God’s promises but will see their fulfillment as well.
Yet another commentator who believes the verse communicates that both names were used in revelation is R. Yehudah ha-Chasid (1140-1217). He claims that the verse does not mean that God never appeared to them with the name YHWH. Of course, God did; it is documented. Instead, it means that God appeared to them with the name E-l Shad-dai, and not YHWH, once they became Patriarchs, i.e. once they had children. Before that, God used the name YHWH.
Suggestion C – The Ancestors Knew the Name But Did Not Understand It
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) suggests that the term YHWH has both a nominal and adjectival meaning. In other words, YHWH is both a proper name, and thus designates God, and has a meaning, and can function descriptively, like some nouns do. The ancestors, he claims, were aware of the name (i.e. the proper noun) but they did not know its significance (i.e. its use as an adjectival description of God.) He claims that Moses’ understanding of the name demonstrates Moses’ greater grasp of matters divine; this is the reason that Moses could do miracles and the patriarchs could not. Hence, ibn Ezra writes, the meaning of the verse is that Moses will make the meaning of the name YHWH known to the world by performing miracles and making use of God’s power over the world.
Ramban (1194-c.1270), usually very critical of ibn Ezra, claims that in this case the philosopher hit it right on the money, the only problem being that since ibn Ezra was not a kabbalist, he didn’t truly understand the important truth he uncovered. Hence, Ramban writes, he will fill the readers in on real meaning of what ibn Ezra discovered. God appears to different prophets in distinctive emanations (specula, from Latin, literally “windows” or “mirrors”). God appeared to the patriarchs in a dim or unclear emanation and to Moses in a bright one. The ancestors may have known the name YHWH, but they could not see God well enough to understand what it signified. Moses, on the other hand, was able to speak with God face to face and gaze upon the bright or clear emanation. Hence, it was to him that the true meaning of the name YHWH was revealed. The approach of ibn Ezra and Ramban was adopted by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) in his Biur as the correct peshat understanding of the verse.
Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi (1279-1340) also interpreted the verse in this way, albeit taking a more philosophical and less kabbalistic spin. He says simply that the ancestors may have known God’s name, but they never really had complete proven understanding of the concept behind it. Moses, on the other hand, understood the concept perfectly. Ibn Kaspi’s only bone of contention with ibn Ezra focuses on what it is that Moses understood—a philosophical debate far beyond the scope of this survey.
Suggestion D – Different Kinds of YHWH Revelations
A slightly different solution was offered by Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Abraham (1186-1237), in a very long excursus on this issue. R. Abraham surveys a number of the main interpretations surveyed here, that of Sa’adia, Rashbam, calling their answers  apologetics (התנצלות). He then admits that it would be worthy for him to offer apologetics as well, if he didn’t have a good answer. Luckily, however, he does (at least in his opinion.)
Rabbi Abraham says that upon looking at the various revelations to the patriarchs carefully, a pattern emerges. Whenever God uses the name YHWH, God inevitably qualifies the term with a description, like “I am YHWH, who took you out of Ur Kasdim” (Gen. 12:7), or “I am YHWH, the God of Abraham your father” (Gen. 28:13). However, when God uses E-l Shad-dai, God doesn’t qualify the name but moves on to the message, like “I am E-l Shad-dai; walk before me,” (Gen. 17:1) or “I am E-l Shad-dai; be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 35:11). However, with Moses, God simply says, “I am YHWH,” and moves on to the message, as God did with the patriarchs when using E-l Shad-dai. The meaning of this change, R. Abraham writes, is an important philosophical secret, the explanation of which occupies the next two pages of commentary.
Suggestion E – The Patriarchs Never Experienced the Truth of the Revelation
The best-known answer to the contradiction comes from Rashi (1041-1105). Rashi begins by pointing out that the verse uses the niphal form of the verb and not the causative form. (Onkelos translates the verse as if it were in the causative form, but Rashi does not mention this.) The verse does not mean that God didn’t inform them of the name YHWH, Rashi argues. Instead, it means that God did not demonstrate the “truth” of the name YHWH, a name that, according to Rashi, refers to God’s capacity to fulfill God’s promises. Since God intends to fulfill the promises now, God informs Moses that the Israelites will now experience the aspect of God’s being to which the name YHWH refers.
The modern academic biblical scholar, Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), takes Rashi’s interpretation in a slightly different direction and sharpens it. Gods in the ancient world were known by their particular powers or attributes. Even if the Israelites had only one God, this God had different names. But these names functioned similar to the names of gods in general; each name specifies a particular attribute or function of the one God. Hence, Cassuto argues, from the context of the blessings to the patriarchs, who are always being told to be fruitful and multiply, the name E-l Shad-dai should be understood as referring to God’s capacity to assist with fertility and child producing. The name YHWH, on the other hand, should be associated with the Promised Land. Since the patriarchs were not destined to live through the conquest of the land, God communicates their blessings through the persona of E-l Shad-dai, the aspect of God that will make them fruitful. In other words, Cassuto believes that the ancestors knew of the name YHWH, but that God never demonstrated the function of that attribute to them. Moses and the generation of the exodus, however, are supposed to be part of the conquest—until the sins in the desert change the plan—so God appears to Moses in the aspect of YHWH, the God of the land.
Suggestion F – God as the Source of Good and Evil
The eclectic 19th century Italian commentator, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal), takes an approach somewhere between Rashi and ibn Ezra. He claims that the patriarchs never really understood the name YHWH, because that name signifies that God is the source of everything in this world, all good and all bad. Since the patriarchs never experienced anything bad (Shadal’s words not mine) they could not really digest the significance of that name. However, now that Moses has said to God (5:22): “Why have you done evil to these people?” God now has the opportunity to really explain God’s nature. God does good and bad, everything comes from God.
The Source-Critical SolutionAll of the above explanations use resourceful, even ingenious interpretations to solve a very problematic verse within the framework of the Torah being of single authorship. Yet the plain meaning of the verse remains that God never told the patriarchs the name YHWH, and that it was a secret until the moment of this revelation. What is the person who searches for the straightforward explanation to do with the internal biblical evidence that points to the fact that the ancestors all know this name of God starting with Eve herself and continuing all the way through Jacob!
Source criticism although may sound ominous to some, in fact solves this contradiction in an elegant and complete fashion. Exodus 6:2-12 comes from the P source, is first time the name of YHWH is mentioned and God informs him that he is, in fact, the first human ever to learn this name. However, according to the J source, represented by all of the references above, God was known as YHWH by the ancestors, and it is not depicted as a once secret name. The important question of why P would believe that the special name was only introduced now is beyond the scope of this essay, but, briefly, it may represent the idea that the period of Moses is somehow special, and fundamentally differentiated from what precedes.
In other words, according to the Documentary Hypothesis (in simplified form), the first four books of the Torah are a combination of three sources, J, E, and P. One of the main distinguishing features of these sources is the name the human characters use for God. In the J source, YHWH was always used, going back even to primordial times. Certainly, the ancestors were well aware of it. In E and P, only Moses is first introduced to this name by God. Although E does not state specifically that the name was unknown before, the primary name of God in the E narratives is E-lohim. The P source states unequivocally that before Moses no human knew this secret name of God.
Tying Up Loose Ends: Revelation of YHWH Round Two?
Hupfeld’s division between P and E solves yet another interpretive problem related to God’s name. In Exodus 3:6, God introduces Godself to Moses as the god (elohei) of his fathers. Moses then asks God, in v. 13, how he might respond to an Israelite question of what the name of this god is. God responds in v. 15 by telling Moses the name YHWH. Now if Moses learned this name in chapter 3, why would God present it again to Moses as the revelation of a secret name in chapter 6? The answer source criticism provides is that chapter 3 comes from the E source while chapter 6 is from the P source.
The different names used for God was one of the first tools the early academic Bible scholars came up with to distinguish between these three main sources in Genesis-Numbers. The source distinction was developed to solve certain textual problems, and it remains a powerful tool fulfilling that purpose today as well. It remains a hypothesis—no ancient document from the Dead Sea Scrolls or elsewhere contains, e.g., the separate J or P texts of the Torah. But it is a very powerful hypothesis, that offers a single explanation for many contradictions of precisely the type that midrashim resolve in disparate fashions.
The division of the Torah into sources is not, however, based only, or even primarily upon the different names used of God. The evidence concerning divine names overlaps with other pieces of evidence, making it a very powerful, and for many, a most-compelling hypothesis.
- On this topic see also:
➥How Does God Answer the Question: “What is Your Name?” by Dr Rabbi Zev Farber
➥YHWH: The God that Is vs. the God that Becomes by Prof. James A. Diamond