What’s in a name?


12 Iyar 5769 / May 6, 2009

Everyone talks about God, but when we use that word, are we all talking about the same thing?

The Noahides aspire to unite all humanity in acceptance of the Seven Universal Laws, of which the first – not to commit blasphemy – includes acknowledging the presence of God, fearing God, praying to God, sanctifying the name of God…

Do Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists and members of other faiths agree with that? Will agnostics and atheists be able to agree? Do they all understand the same thing when the word God is used?

Pious Jews don’t use the word God at all in everyday discourse – instead they talk about HASHEM. They would agree that when they talk about HaShem, they are referring to the same One to whom they pray, whom they also refer to in everyday discourse as HAKADOSH BARUCH HU, “The Holy One, blessed-be-He”. In Yiddish they call him GOTT, the Germanic word to which the English word God is related.

The “Essential” Name

HaShem is a Hebrew noun that means “The Name”. Ha- is the Hebrew prefix that means “the”, while Shem is the Hebrew word that means “name”, any name or noun. When Jews speak of HaShem, they are talking about THE Name – which they also call the “essential” name of God (SHEM HA-ETZEM), which appears throughout the original Hebrew scriptures, the Torah.

The actual Hebrew name to which HaShem refers is a name consisting of the four Hebrew letters Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh. However, Jewish tradition holds that because of the supreme holiness of this Name, it is forbidden to utter or pronounce it. Thus it is sometimes called the “ineffable” (=unsayable) name of God. Because it has four letters, many scholars refer to it as the Tetragrammaton (in Greek, Tetra is 4 and gramma means a letter). Sometimes Jews rearrange the order of the four constituent letters of the Hebrew name and refer to this name as HAVAYAH. This rearrangement of the letters is allowed to be uttered. (The old biblical English transcription of the Tetragrammaton which used j for the Hebrew letter yod is Jehovah, but pious Jews will not say this word.)

The reason why the Jews call this the essential name of God is because although a variety of names and descriptions are used in the Hebrew scriptures to refer to different aspects of God, the name of Havayah – HASHEM — is considered the root of all those names and descriptions – the complete and perfect unity that underlies all plurality.

For example, in different places in the Hebrew scriptures God may be referred to as EIL (= “The Power”) or ELOHIM (“Powers”, a plural form used with a singular verb when referring to God, and also used with a plural verb of angels and judges); YAH (the first two letters of the Tetragrammaton), sometimes translated as “Eternal” for want of a better word); HASHEM TZEVA’OT (God of hosts or armies – the armies of His “angels” or “agents” and creations), and SHADDAI (also translated as “Eternal” for want of a better word). God is also called RAHOOM (“kind”), HANOON (“compassionate”), GIBOR (“mighty”) as well as by numerous other epithets, which manifest different “aspects” of God’s attributes.

When Abraham, Moses, David and other biblical figures and prophets address God, they use the Hebrew name ADONAY. In Hebrew an ADON is a “lord” or “master”, and the –AY suffix, which is only ever used to God, would indicate “Our Lord”. Addressing God as ADONAY, as Jews do numerous times a day in all their Hebrew prayers and blessings, indicates that we submit ourselves to God’s complete dominion over us as servants submitting to our Master.

What’s in a name?

What is so important about the name of HaShem, which first appears in the Hebrew scriptures at the climax of the account of the Creation and in the ensuing verses giving details about the creation of Adam (Genesis 2:4ff). Prior to these verses, the account of Creation uses only the Hebrew name ELOHIM.

The Torah sages teach that only when the work of creation was complete could HASHEM, The Name, be revealed. It was this Name through which God revealed Himself to Israel when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai: “I am HASHEM your God that brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slaves” (Exodus 20:2).

Names and formulae

For better understanding of the significance this name in particular in the Torah, it is necessary to grasp that there is a fundamental difference between the words and names of Biblical Hebrew and those of modern English. In English, all kinds of names are attached to all kinds of things, but regardless of the etymological and other connotations these names possesses, the actual letters of any given name do not necessarily relate to the inner essence of the thing it denotes. English names are essentially made up of mere phonemes, sounds that are conventionally used by the speakers of that language to signify whatever thing or being each noun or name denotes. In writing, these phonemes are represented by sequences of letters of the alphabet.

However, the building bricks of Hebrew words are more than mere letters signifying phonemes that are conventionally attached to the things they denote. Each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph Beit) has a mathematical value. Since the name of each letter is made up of that letter in combination with one or two other letters, each letter is a mathematical formula capable of joining with other mathematical formulae to make powerful combinations. (Note that the 22 letters of the Aleph Beit are all consonants, and in Hebrew texts the vowels are written as small dots or lines under or sometimes over the letters.)

Everyone knows that the conventional chemical formula for water is H²O because water is a combination of two hydrogen atoms to every oxygen atom. But do the words hydrogen and oxygen relate to the integral essence of their respective substances. Historically, they do relate to what was once thought to be the integral essence of those substances, but modern science views them differently. Yet in the more precise language of scientific theory, we see that formulae may possess enormous power. It is enough to consider the revolutionary implications of Albert Einstein’s E=mc² equation, in which he formulated his entire theory of relativity.

The Torah sages of the Kabbalah tradition teach that the Hebrew names and words relate to the integral essence of the things they denote, because these names are the underlying formulae of God’s creation. It was because Adam had knowledge of the secrets of creation that he knew the correct Hebrew name for each of the different creations: this is the underlying mystery of the verse: “…and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 1:19).

Perfect Unity

Just as laymen and beginning science students find it hard to grasp Einstein’s theory of relativity, so we should not expect to grasp the secrets of the Essential Name of HaShem in the short time we can remain standing on one foot. Nevertheless, it is unnecessary to have a deep understanding of Hebrew in order to gain a glimmer of why this holy Name of God enshrined in the Torah contains the deepest mysteries of creation. All that is required is a modicum of patience and effort in order to grasp some very fundamental concepts.

The Tetragrammaton expresses even visually how three-dimensional physical space, the universe (OLAM), emanates from a higher source that is so beyond our comprehension that it can only be expressed as a mere dot.


Thus the first letter of the Tetragrammaton (reading from right to left) is the Hebrew letter YOD (י), smallest of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and considered to be their root. The YOD is written as a mere dot or blob of ink on the page. True, the Torah scribe writes the YOD with a tiny hairline above it, suggesting that this dot comes from somewhere hidden, and a tiny line emanating from underneath it, indicating that the power and energy of this dot is going somewhere. But the essence of the letter is a dot – a blob of ink that contains potential, yet the potential is not yet manifested in detail. Mathematically, the letter YOD is 10, indicating that it contains in absolute unity the 10 axiomatic powers of God (the 10 Sefirot). Similarly the cyper 1 actually contains the ten decimals – .1, .2, .3, .4, .5, .6, .7, .8, .9 and 1.0 – which are all integral parts of the unity of 1.


The second letter of the Tetragrammaton is the Hebrew letter HEH, which is made up of three lines, two of which form a right angle while the third stands parallel to one of the lines forming the angle without touching the other. Three lines – three dimensions – with a suggestion of connection and disconnection. Here we have the beginnings of three-dimensional space, which emanates from God yet often seems disconnected from Him. Thus the HEH stands next to the YUD, emanating out of it.

This letter HEH is actually made up of two other Hebrew letters – the letter VAV, which is written with a single line or stroke, and the letter DALET which is made up of two lines joining to make a right angle. The HEH consists of a DALET with a small VAV parallel to one of the lines of the DALET while not touching the other. The DALET is considered a “womb” while the VAV is an embryo inside it. Both the VAV and the DALET emanate from the YOD, considered the “father”, and the VAV and the DALET reveal the inherent power of the YUD. Thus the name of the letter YUD is made up of the letters YUD, VAV and DALET.


The third letter of the Tetragrammaton is a VAV. What was an “embryo” contained in the “womb” of the second letter of the Name is now revealed as a complete letter in its own right. The VAV is like a YUD except that the thread coming out from underneath the blob of ink is extended much further downwards, to the bottom of the line on which the letters are written. Similarly God’s creation and self-revelation stretch “from top to bottom”, from the spiritual to the material.


The fourth letter of the Tetragrammaton is HEH. This is a reflection of the second letter, which is also a HEH. Of the three base letters of the Tetragrammaton, only the HEH is repeated. Whereas the first two letters of the name, the YOD and the HEH are “father” and “mother”, respectively God’s Wisdom and Understanding, the source of creation, the fourth letter of the name, the second HEH, alludes to the “kingdom” or “dominion” (OLAM, “Universe”) that He created for His own inscrutable purposes. This “kingdom” represented by the HEH emanates from the third letter of the Tetragrammaton, the VAV, which connects above and below. God’s plan is that the actual creation in this world “below” should come to reflect and reveal the source of that creation in the spiritual world “above”, just as the fourth letter of the Tetragrammaton, the second HEH, reflects and manifests the second letter of the Tegragrammaton, the first HEH.

Being and the source of being

Almost all Hebrew words with only a very tiny number of exceptions have a root consisting of three Hebrew letters. HaShem, the Essential Name of God, also has its three-letter root contained in the last three of its four constituent letters – HOVEH, a verb denoting “being”. In Hebrew grammar the YUD that in the Tetragrammaton stands before this root expresses the active subject of the verb, in this case the unknown, inconceivable One who brings “being” into existence. In Kabbalah this is called EYN SOF, “no end” – infinite and inconceivable. He is totally above and beyond Creation, yet His very essence permeates all of Creation on every plane, material, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual… Perfect unity encompassing and contained within all plurality.

About the author

Avraham ben Yaakov

Avraham ben Yaakov is a Torah teacher based in Safed Israel & author of translations and commentaries on Bible, Hassidut, Kabbalah, Spiritual Growth, Health & Healing.

By Avraham ben Yaakov

Avraham Ben Yaakov

Avraham ben Yaakov Greenbaum is a Torah teacher in Tz’fat (Safed) in Israel’s Galilee, and author of translations and commentaries on Bible, Hassidut, Kabbalah, Spiritual Growth, Health, Healing and the Environment.

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