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Notes from Limmud 2006

He Said Jehovah!

"Jehovah" derives from a misunderstanding of pointing the Tetragrammaton [YHVH, which is not pronounced as written] with the vowels of the word used to replace it when it is spoken. But why then does Adonai [Lord] turn into the vowels in "Jehovah"? Answer: because you have a חתף פתח (the vowel ֲ) on an א but not on a י, where it would turn into a שוא (ְ).

The other written form, י״י, [which I heard was a simple printer's abbreviation] derives from the first י of the Tetragrammaton and the last י of אדני. Cf the Sephardi tradition of writing the interleaved letters of the two words in the extended last letter of the Tetragrammaton, thus:

(This, of course means you'll have to dispose of this in a geniza if you print it out, but that goes for many of Limmud notes anyway, since I do not "break" all the required names of G-d.)

Consider Moses at the Burning Bush:

Exodus 3:13–15 שמות ג יג–שמות ג טו
And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations. ויאמר משה אל האלהים הנה אנכי בא אל בני ישראל ואמרתי להם אלהי אבותיכם שלחני אליכם ואמרו לי מה שמו מה אמר אלהם׃ ויאמר אלהים אל משה אהיה אשר אהיה ויאמר כה תאמר לבני ישראל אהיה שלחני אליכם׃ ויאמר עוד אלהים אל משה כה תאמר אל בני ישראל יהוה אלהי אבתיכם אלהי אברהם אלהי יצחק ואלהי יעקב שלחני אליכם זה שמי לעלם וזה זכרי לדר דר׃

אהיה derives from להיות, to be. It's in the imperfect aspect. The tense is indeterminate; it's translated "I am" or "I will be" or "I will become". This is G-d trying to get around the difficulties of having a name; because once you have a name you have an identity which can be frozen and objectified. G-d identifying by אהיה is trying to build in fluidity. There seems to be a Divine discomfort in having to give a name; in answer to the question "What is your name", G-d takes three sentences to reply!

Then G-d goes on to provide Himself with a name: the Tetragrammaton. This will be G-d's name forever, therefore it has to be infinitely capacious. It's more compact, but less referential. The more referential a name is, the easier it is to be objectified—the danger of idolatry, or worshiping something of your own making.

Is Moses really asking "What is your name?" or "What is your nature?"? On one level, Moses does expect a name; he's living in a milieu in which gods do have names like this.

Three chapters later Moses again has a conversation with G-d about names:

Exodus 6:2–3 שמות ו ב–שמות ו ג
And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name YHVH was I not known to them. וידבר אלהים אל משה ויאמר אליו אני יהוה׃ וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי ושמי יהוה לא נודעתי להם׃

To different people G-d reveals Himself in different ways, as symbolised by the different names. Maybe G-d doesn't change, but the human ability to perceive G-d changes.

But why does G-d say this? He does use this name with the Patriarchs!

Exodus Rabbah 3:10:

G-d said to Moses (3:14): R. Abba b. Mammel said: G-d said to Moses: 'You wish to know my name. Well, I am called according to My work; sometimes I am called "Almighty G-d", "Lord of Hosts", "God", "Lord". When I am judging created beings, I am called "G-d", and when I am waging war against the wicked, I am called "Lord of Hosts". When I suspect judgement for a man's sins, I am called Almighty G-d, and when I am merciful towards my world, I am called ה׳ [YHVH], for ה׳ refers to the Attribute of Mercy, as it is said*: "The Lord, the Lord, G-d, merciful and gracious" (ib. 34:6). Hence I am that I am in virtue of my deeds.' R. Isaac said: G-d said to Moses: 'Tell them that I am now what I always was and always will be'; for this reason is the word אהיה written three times.

* Note this is anachronistic—the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy have not been given yet!

This implies there is a unity between all the portrayals of G-d here.

So why the difference between the many names, and the Tetragrammaton? Why is this special?

Pesachim 50a פסחים נ א
And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the Lord be One, and His name one (Zechariah 14:9). Is He then not One now? Said R. Aḥa b. Ḥanina: Not like this world is the future world. In this world, for good tidings one says, "He is good, and He does good," while for evil tidings he says "Blessed be the true Judge", [whereas] in the future world it shall be only "He is good and He does good." And His name one: what does one mean? Is then now His name not one? Said R. Naḥman b. Isaac: Not like this world is the future world. [In] this world [His name] is written as the Tetragrammaton and read as Adonai, but in the future world it shall all be one: it shall be written as the Tetragrammaton and read as the Tetragrammaton. והיה ה׳ למלך על כל הארץ ביום ההוא יהיה ה׳ אחד ושמו אחד אטו האידנא לאו אחד הוא אמר רבי אחא בר חנינא לא כעולם הזה העולם הבא העולם הזה על בשורות טובות אומר ברוך הטוב והמטיב ועל בשורות רעות אומר ברוך דיין האמת׃ לעולם הבא כולו הטוב והמטיב׃ ושמו אחד מאי אחד אטו האידנא לאו שמו אחד הוא אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק לא כעולם הזה העולם הבא העולם הזה נכתב ביו״ד ה״י ונקרא באל״ף דל״ת אבל לעולם הבא כולו אחד נקרא ביו״ד ה״י ונכתב ביו״ד ה״י׃

The other interpretation of the verse in Zechariah is of course that the whole world will be monotheistic. [This is of course the interpretation in עלינו.]

How are human beings to relate to G-d? Midrash Tehillim:

When Adam was barely an hour old, G-d assembled the whole world of animals before him and the angels. G-d called upon the angels to name the different species, but they were not equal to the task. Adam, however, spoke without hesitation: "O Lord of the world! The proper name for this animal is ox, for this one horse, for this one lion, for this one camel." And so he called all in turn by name, suiting the name to the peculiarity of the animal. Then G-d asked him what he was going to call himself, and he said, "Adam", because he had been created out of adamah, dust of the earth. Finally G-d asked Adam what G-d's own name should be, and he said, "Adonai, Lord, because you are Lord over all creatures."

Language is a very human thing; it allows us to have a relationship with things. Man is taking part in Creation, by giving things names.

What is the power of a name? "Abracadra" derives from ספר יצרה (Sefer Yetzirah): אברא כאדבר evra ke-addaber "I will create as I will say."

Modern thinkers talk about the gap between signifier and signified, but this isn't very Jewish. Jewish thought considers Hebrew the essential language, and the world created by speech. דבר means both "word" and "thing".

Of course, it's not all so simple; there is a slipperiness in G-d's names (see above), but...

Berachot 7b ברכות ז ב
What is the meaning of "Ruth"? R. Yoḥanan said: Because she was privileged to be the ancestress of David, who saturated (רוה) the Holy One Blessed Be He, with songs and hymns. How do we know that the name [of a person] has an effect [upon that person's life]? R. Eleazar said: Scripture says, "Come, behold the works of the Lord, who hath made desolations in the earth." Read not shamot [desolations] but shemot [names]. רות מאי רות אמר רבי יוחנן שזכתה ויצא ממנה דוד שריוהו להקדוש ברוך הוא בשירות ותשבחות׃ מנא לן דשמא גרים אמר רבי אליעזר דאמר קרא לכו חזו מפעלות ה׳ אשר שם שמות בארץ אל תקרי שמות אלא שמות׃

[Another interpretation of "Ruth" is that it derives from Aramaic רעות reuth, "will"; this is how the name is rendered in the Aramaic translation of the Bible. I googled to check this and ended up turning up a post on my own blog! :o)]

The Talmud says that names have power. The archetypal refutation of that:

JULIET: 'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
      Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
      What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
      Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
      Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
      What's in a name? That which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet.
      So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
      Retain that dear perfection which he owes
      Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
      And for that name, which is no part of thee,
      Take all myself.
ROMEO: I take thee at thy word.
      Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd;
      Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

Or is it a refutation? On the one hand it's saying names are nothing, but he's also saying, "call me but love and I'll be new baptised". Names are not as arbitrary as the single line "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" would imply.

Names trap people in identities. We take baggage in our names. She doesn't want him to lose a name, but to take a new name. And Juliet repeats his name "Romeo" over and over again.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Philosophy of Judaism:

True, the mystery of meaning is silent. There is no speech, there are no words, the voice is not heard. Yet beyond our reasoning and beyond out believing, there is a preconceptual faculty that senses the glory, the presence of the Divine. We do not perceive it. We have no knowledge; we only have an awareness. We witness it. And to witness is more than to give an account, We have no concept, nor can we develop a theory. All we have is an awareness of something that can neither be conceptualized nor symbolized.


Certain assertions, particularly those that intended to describe the functional aspects of reality, the aspect of power, do not suffer from the incongruity and inadequacy of expression. What can be measured, weighed or calculated can be exactly formulated. But assertions that intend to convey the essence of reality or the aspect of mystery and grandeur are always understatements; inadequacy is their distinct feature. Thus we have no adequate words or symbols to describe God or the mystery of existence.


Maimonides urges the reader of his Guide of the Perplexed to acquire an adequate understanding for the "unity of God" and to become one of those "who have a notion of, and apprehend the truth, even though they do not utter it, as is recommended to the pious, Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still perpetually (Psalms 4:5)." Why should one be "still perpetually"? Why is silence prefereable? The reason, we believe, lies in Maimonides' experience of the inadequacy of all our categories. Following the statement that G-d's unity is not something superadded to His essence ("He is One without unity"), Maimonides says: "These subtle concepts, which almost pass the comprehension of our minds, are not readily expressed by words. Words are altogether one of the main causes of error, because whatever language we employ, we find the restrictions it imposes on our expression extremely disturbing. We cannot even picture this concept by using inaccurate language." And all language is inaccurate.

In order to speak we must make concessions and compromises. We must therfore remember that ultimate ideas can never be expressed.


Silence is prefereable to speech. Words are not indispensible to cognition. They are only necessary when we wish to communicate our ideas to others or to prove to them that we have attained cognition.

Names have power but names are not the thing itself. There is always the unknowing part of every single person.
In order to speak we must make concessions [top three lines] Silence is preferable to speech. Words are not indispensible

Check your motives when you say G-d's name.

The following comes from "Knots", by R.D. Laing. Reading it slowly and carefully is recommended. :o) "A finger points to the moon" is a reference to a Buddhist parable: I don't want you to be looking at my finger, I want you to be looking at the moon!

a finger points to the moon

Put the expression
      a finger points to the moon, in brackets
      (a finger points to the moon)
The statement:
      'A finger points to the moon is in brackets'
is an attempt to say that all that is in the bracket
      (                                      )
is, as to that which is not in the bracket,
what a finger is to the moon

Put all possible expressions in brackets
Put all possible forms in brackets
and put the brackets in brackets

Every expression, and every form,
is to what is expressionless and formless
what a finger is to the moon
all expressions and all forms
point to the expressionless and formless

the proposition
      'All forms point to the formless'
is itself a formal proposition

      as finger to moon
      so form to formless
      as finger is to moon
[all possible expression, forms, propositions,
including this one, made or yet to be made,
together with the brackets
      are to

(Nope, I still don't grok it.)

Opening of the Zohar (1b-2a):
Then [Elijah] said to me: "Master, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, had a deep secret which He at length revealed at the celestial Academy. It is this. When the most Mysterious* wished to reveal Himself, He first produced a single point which was transmuted into a thought, and in this He executed innumerable designs, and engraved innumerable gravings. He further graved within the sacred and mystic lamp a mystic and most holy design, which was a wondrous edifice issuing from the midst of thought. This is called מי [MI, "Who?"], and was the beginning of the edificed, existent and non-existenct, deep-buried, unknowable by name. It was called only מי. It desired to become manifest and to be called by name. It therefore clothed itself in a refulgent and precious garment and created אלה [ELeH, "these"], and אלה acquired a name. The letters of the two words intermingled, forming the complete name אלהים (ELoHIM, "G-d"). (When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, they alluded to this mystery in saying "אלה—these are—thy gods, o Israel" (Exodus 32:4).) And once מי became combined with אלה, the name remained for all time. And upon this secret the world is built. Elijah then flew away and vanished out of my sight. And it is from him that I became possessed of this profound mystery."

* Note the names being used here.

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