One of the special qualities of Hebrew, especially Biblical Hebrew, is its ambiguity. Exacerbating this ambiguity is the absence of vowels, which were not developed in written form until about 1,100 years ago. As a result, words have more than one possible interpretation. The Biblical narrative relies upon this multiplicity of meaning to express itself.
The Talmud teaches that there are seventy faces to every letter of the Torah. In other words, perspective matters. The same word simultaneously expresses multiple meanings and truths, depending on the lens through which a leader perceives it. It is a powerful metaphor for us about the nature of Truth, one to keep in mind before we become too confident in ourselves and our opinions.
A particular challenge presents itself with regard to the pronunciation and meaning of the name of God.
In the Book of Deteronomy, Moses recounts the previous forty years of travelling through the wilderness to the Israelites, who are camped on the Eastern Bank of the Jordan. Parashat Va’Etchanan opens with a particularly personal and emotional memory. Moses recalls how he begged God to allow him to finish what he started.
O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.Deuteronomy 3:24-25
In his recollection, Moses blames the Israelites for God’s negative response to his appeal. “The Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me.” (Deut. 3:26)
Moses initiates his request with a somewhat uncommon invocation of God. It appears just three times in the Torah, and always to introduce a personal appeal to God.
It is a formulation that might even be impossible to pronounce, as I will attempt to explain. I invite us to look in our texts at Deuteronomy chapter 3, verse 24, page 1005 in the Etz Chayim chumash. We are focused on just the first two words. How should we read these words?
According to tradition, a Torah reader would pronounce the words Adonai Elohim. But the letters and vowels do not read that way. Our translation, from the Jewish Publication Society, reads “O Lord God.”
Let’s see if we can break it down. The first word is relatively easy. Alef Dalet Nun Yud – Adonai – אֲדֹנָי. It means “My Lord.”
Adonai is a generic title that one might use when addressing someone one wishes to honor. It could be used to address a King, religious figure, or someone with a lofty title. A student might address a teacher with Adoni. It might also be used by a shopkeeper speaking with a customer, or a busdriver to a rider. Or, it could be used to address God.
The second word is more difficult. The letters are straightforward Yud Hei Vav Hei – יהוה. Otherwise known as the tetragramaton – the four letter name of God.
Bible scholars think that it was pronounced Yahweh in Ancient times. If that is true, Moses then would have begun his prayer Adonai, Yahweh – “My Lord, Yahweh.”
What does Yud Hei Vav Hei mean? Without vowels, it is impossible to say for certain. The three letter root is Hei Vav Hei which means “to be.” Grammatically, it could be in either the kal or hif’il conjugation, and could be either present or future tense. Possible meanings, therefore, could be something like “He who is,” or “He who will be,” “He who causes to exist,” or “He who will bring into existence.” I suspect that the ambiguity is intentional, and that all four meanings are implied.
God is in a constant state of existence and coming into existence, as well as causing all that exists to come into being. It is a theologically rich, philosophical, transcendent understanding of the nature of God and the universe.
Jewish tradition, however, holds that we, first of all, are not allowed to pronounce God’s name; and second, we do not even know how to pronounce it..
This extreme concern with saying or inscribing God’s name did not exist in Biblical times through the first part of the Second Temple Era. The Bible makes no mention of a substitute ever being used for Yud Hei Vav Hei. It was pronounced and written regularly in sacred and secular contexts, such as in letters, legal documents and contracts. Parts of the Tetragramaton are incorporated into many Biblical names that we still use today. Think of Eliyahu – Elijah. It was normal and acceptable to refer to God by name.
But what about the third commandment? Later in this morning’s parashah, Moses repeats the Ten Commandments. The third commandment states that one may not “swear falsely in the name of Yud Hei Vav Hei your God.” This does not mean that one may not say the name. The third commandment refers specifically to a courtroom, in which it is forbidden to lie when swearing a formal oath, invoking the Divine name.
Nowhere does the Torah forbid a person from expressing the name Yud Hei Vav Hei out loud, as written. So when did it happen?
The practice of substituting a different word for God’s name in speech and writing seems to have developed during the latter part of the Second Temple Era. Substitutions for God’s name are already found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the scrolls even use a different alphabet, writing out the four letter Divine name in proto-Hebrew, the ancient script.
The Talmud (BT Yoma 39b) records that Second Temple priests, when offering the Priestly Blessing to people, stopped using the correct pronunciation of God’s name when Shimon HaTzaddik died. If the Talmudic account is accurate, that would have been in the late fourth century BCE, the beginning of the Hellenistic era. From that point on, the priests switched to Adonai. Eventually, even the memory of how to pronounce God’s name correctly was lost.
The Rabbis are quite concerned with the casual writing and pronunciation of God’s name, as were early Christians. Christian copies of the Septuagent, the Greek translation of the Bible, translate Yud Hei Vav Hei as Kyrios, which means “Lord,” the same as the Hebrew, Adon.
Why is it so important to not pronounce God’s name? Not referring to someone by his or her name is a sign of respect. Although it is not as common as it used to be, it was not long ago when children would never refer to an adult by his or her first name. It was always, Mister or Mrs. followed by the last name.
It is still not generally acceptable for a child to refer to his or her parent by a first name. The Talmud (BT Kiddushin 31b) relates how the Sage Rava, whenever he would teach a lesson that he had learned from his father, would refrain from stating his father’s name out of respect. Instead of citing “Rav Ashi,” his father’s actual name, Rava would say, in Aramaic, Aba Mari – “Father, My Lord.”
To this day, we usually pronounce Yud Hei Vav Hei as Adonai during prayer or ritual Torah chanting. Most English translations are based on this word but substitute “My” with “The.” Instead of saying “My Lord,” evoking a personal, intimate relationship, we say “The Lord,” a declaration of God’s universality and uniqueness.
In casual conversation, though, “The Lord” is too sacred. Jews substitute the word Hashem for these four letters. Hashem means, simply, “the name.”
In our particular passage, we have the word Adonai spelled out, followed by Yud Hei Vav Hei. But, we do not say Adonai Adonai. “My Lord, My Lord.” Instead, we say Adonai Elohim, “My Lord, God.”
Are you confused?
Now we come to the vowels. The vowel symbols were not developed until a little over a thousand years ago, by the Masoretes. When it came time to putting vowels on a word whose pronunciation was both unknown and forbidden, they had a problem.
The solution they came up with was to use the vowels from the word that they actually wanted the reader to say. Since Yud Hei Vav Hei is typically pronounced Adonai, it gets those vowels.
You might notice that the vowel under the alef of Adonai looks different than the vowel under Yud. They are actually the same vowel. For reasons we will not go into right now, it has to be modified when it appears underneath an Alef. Trust me.
In most places in the Torah, this is how the Divine name is written with vowels.
But in our case, we do not pronounce it Adonai. We pronounce it Elohim. We are going to need different vowels.
Our tradition embraces the idea that words can express multiple ideas at the same time. When we read this passage, we are supposed to think of both the written Yud Hei Vav Hei and the spoken Elohim.
The commentator Rashi explains the phrase with two simple words of commentary: Rachum badin. Merciful in judgment.
Our tradition understands each name of God as representing different aspects of the Divine. Yud Hei Vav Hei is mercy and Elohim is judgment.
In turning to God, Moses opens Adonai Yahweh. “My Lord, The One who is constantly becoming and bringing everything into existence.” God has judged him, and decreed that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. But the God of judgment is also the God for mercy. Moses appeals for mercy in judgment. Change the verdict. Let me finish what I started.
The answer, sadly for Moses, is “No.” But he does not give up. His message to the children of Israel is that they, if they remain faithful to God, can complete what he started. He finds hope in disappointment.
Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Excursus 4, pp. 431-432.