“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay.” (Exodus 6:2)
At the beginning of this week’s portion, we learn something new – God has a name. It is spelled with the four Hebrew letters Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay. We are not allowed to pronounce the name. I am aware that people say Yahweh, and some say Jehovah. But Jewish tradition teaches that we should not pronounce it at all. When Jews pray and come across God’s name, they simply say Adonai, “My Lord.” When Jews are talking and come across God’s name, they simply say HaShem, “The Name.”
When the third of the Ten Commandments teaches not to take God’s name in vain, it is speaking about misusing God’s real name. The commandment is not about cursing. Nor is it a commandment to spell the English word G-d. (I consider this a piety that is not required by Jewish law.) But the commandment refers to misusing or misappropriating God’s name, which gives the user power. Jews, to avoid taking the name in vain, avoid pronouncing the name at all.
There is an exception. When the ancient Temple was standing, during the Yom Kippur rituals, in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would use God’s real name. In S. Ansky’s play The Dybbuk, there is a wonderful passage. The holiest place in the world is Jerusalem, and in particular, the Temple, and in particular, the Holy of Holies. The holiest language in the world is Hebrew, and the holiest word in particular is the name of God. The holiest day of the year is the Sabbath, and in particular, Yom Kippur which is called the Sabbath of Sabbaths. The holiest people in the world are the priests (Kohanim), and in particular, the High Priest. These four holy-nesses come together at one moment. If the High Priest has an improper thought at that holy moment , the world can be destroyed.
Today we reenact this moment in our Yom Kippur liturgy (the Avodah service during Musaf.) But we no longer pronounce God’s name. In fact, we no longer know how to pronounce it. The tradition, preserved by the priesthood, has been lost. Not only do we not pronounce God’s holy name, but if we do write it down, we do not destroy the writing. That is why we bury Torah scrolls and prayerbooks that are no longer useable. And that is why many synagogues have a Geniza, a storage place for holy scrolls. Solomon Schechter, the scholar who was the first chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is well-known for discovering the Cairo Geniza.
Although we cannot pronounce God’s name, we can speculate on its meaning. The four Hebrew letters seem to come from the Hebrew root hiya, a word meaning “to be.” God’s very name seems to imply that God is, God exists. One of the great questions that philosophers ask is whether existence is part of God’s very nature. The famous ontological proof of God, first developed by the Christian Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), taught that existence is part of the definition of God. Philosophers are still arguing about this proof of God.
Thinkers may argue whether we can prove the existence of God. But to the Torah and the Rabbis, God’s existence is a given. God exists, and God’s name assumes that existence. Through the book of Genesis, the patriarchs and matriarchs never learn God’s name. God finally reveals the name to the greatest prophet, Moses. Today we know how to spell the name using Hebrew letters. But we do not know how to pronounce it. There is a sense of mystery to God’s name, which adds to the holiness which Jews try to bring to the world.