Several years ago I was visiting a few friends for dinner in their Jerusalem apartment. Since they were mostly British and Americans who were still learning Hebrew, they had on their refrigerator little magnets with the Hebrew alphabet on them. The idea being that you would arrange the letters into words and write notes to each other in basic Hebrew. Just as we were sitting down to dinner, our host emerged from the kitchen looking highly distraught.
“Uhh…I have a bit of a problem,” he began, “some one wrote the Tetragrammaton on the fridge…what do I do?” Tetragrammaton is a long greek word that translates as “four letter word,” which specifically means the four letter word Y – H – V – H, the name of God. You can tell since the gentleman used a greek word that is several times longer than the actual Name under discussion, that we have a pretty complex relationship with this particular four letter word.
For us, God’s Name represents God’s power, all of creation, and our place within it. By not pronouncing it we have allowed it to become a symbol, a blank canvas onto which we can paint our vision of Judaism. It becomes a focus point for mystery, reverence, and piety.
How did it go from the proper name of a Deity to a symbolic vessel with the capacity to hold our entire religious identity?
The Bible Scholar Ziony Zevit suggest that the name Y – H – V – H is a form of the word H – Y – H or “to exist” in Hebrew. In other words, it would translate as “the One who causes everything to exist.” From pretty early on there was an association of this name as God’s proper Name, when filling out a government form, under first name God would put Y – H – V – H, and under surname who knows, Elohim or something, and under the title section rather than Mr or Ms or Dr might be El Elyon or Adonai Tzevaot, some of the titles we see for God in the Torah. Like the names of other figures in the Torah, which indicate elements of their character, God’s Name is connected to God’s essence as the Creator.
In the Torah reading this week, we hear the story of someone who belittled God’s name and was subsequently put to death. Within early Judaism there was an idea that the Name of God had a magical quality to it. Belittling or abusing God’s Name was explicitly forbidden within the 10 commandments since doing so is equivalent of belittling all Creation and upsetting the cosmic order. Consequently, since the man in the story belittled Gods name, he loses his place in the cosmic order and he himself doesn’t have a name anymore in the text, he is referred to as a “certain man” the son of so-and-so. By belittling most essential Name of God, he has taken himself out of the hierarchy of being, forfeited his right to a name and to exist generally, and is put to death.
So, how did we get from the Torah text to the point where my dinner host in Jerusalem a few years ago was afraid to move the magnets on his refrigerator. Surely he didn’t believe that God would cause him to be executed like the man in the Torah? What’s the full story? The full story is this…
Starting about 3,000 years ago, Israelites started making amulets with the Tetragrammaton written on them. Over time, Israelites attributed more and more quasi-magical powers to the Name of God. It was used for protection or healing. About 2,600 years ago, Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians and much of the population was forcibly removed into exile. In exile, Jews began to stop using the Tetragrammaton. Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of Reform Judaism, (Uschrift 262), writes that Jews living as a subject population feared that non-Jews would learn the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton and use it for blasphemous or sorcerous purposes. Kind of taking our own God’s power away from us.
Over time, the use of the Tetragrammaton became more and more restricted, and it changed from a Name – into a symbol. By 200 CE, speaking the Tetragrammaton out loud is entirely forbidden by Jewish Law. It can be written but is not pronounced, because its proper pronunciation has apparently been lost along with the Jerusalem Temple. Since the proper pronunciation is lost and we now say Adonai, or Lord rather than trying to pronounce God’s name. The popular Christian pronunciation comes from the vowels in Adonai stuck between the consonants Y – H – V – H, or in a Latin alphabet J H V H, thus you end up with J – A – H – O – V- A – H. I will spare you a full recounting of the relevant scene in Life of Brian.
Over time, God’s name morphed from a literal Name into a symbol. Since it was no longer pronounced, Jewish thinkers began to speculate on its nature. More and more rules sprung up relating to God’s name, making it seem more sacrosanct and remote. Mystics identified it with the very essence of Creation and life force. It became an abstraction that we venerate as a representation of the God, the universe, the Jewish People, and our shared history.
If you do something that has a negative impact on the world and detracts from the Jewish People’s mission, it is sometimes referred to as a hillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name. If you do something positive, and act of tzedakah or something publicly honoring Jewish values, it can be referred to as a kidush HaShem or sanctification of God’s Name. Those who have been martyred because they were Jews are called “those who died sanctifying the Divine Name.” Thus the Tetragrammaton also becomes a symbol for their sacrifice.
If God’s name is going to be written, in a Torah scroll for example, tradition dictates it shouldn’t be erased or scratched out lest you insult all that it represents. Therefore, anything containing the written name of God must be buried in the ground and allowed to decay naturally. Thus, above the ark behind me you see Ivdu et Adonai b’Simcha but Adonai (which is how we read the Tetragrammaton when we see it written) is represented by two Yuds. If it had been written out in full on the sign, you would theoretically never be able to take it down! Now you see the problem with the refrigerator magnets from my story.
What the folks at the dinner party I alluded to at the beginning of my sermon ended up doing was very interesting. Everyone there was either Reform, Liberal, or Masorti and quite aware of the historical context of Jewish practices. Never the less, the taboo around belittling Gods Name and dismantling the Tetragrammaton written on the fridge permeated into their modern consciousness. They opted to leave it on the refrigerator door and put sellotape over it, lest one of them accidentally nudge it out of order. They didn’t want to desecrate the symbol that is represented by the Tetragrammaton. They have since moved out of the apartment and I have no idea what ever became of what was dubbed: the sacred refrigerator.
As a religion, we spend quite a lot of time blessing God’s name, ie accepting what it represents for us. In addition to what we learned from the Torah portion for the week, we also gain an important instruction on this point from the haftarah, Job. At the beginning of the book, Job suffers a great deal of loss personal loss for no reason. Despite his loss, he does not curse or belittle God’s name. Instead he blesses it and acknowledges his position in the cosmos. He recites a line which we most often associate with funerals, “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
We still keep the custom of blessing God’s name in the face of loss. When someone dies, we respond like Job, first by quoting Job himself, “God gives and God takes away, blessed be the Name of God,” and also by reciting the kaddish, the prayer that praises God’s Name extensively at the moment when the grief of a death would make us most likely to curse it, and reject what it represents to us.
Throughout Jewish history, the Tetragrammaton, God’s proper name, has been: just a Name, then a magical spell, then a ritual touchstone, and finally morphed into a symbol. We don’t pronounce it because perhaps that would limit its infinite symbolic capacity? We don’t pronounce it because over time we have layered onto it everything it means to be part of the Jewish people. We don’t pronounce it because pronouncing it would make it – finite.
-Delivered 2 May 2015