God’s Name.

I imagine most of us know the basic facts about the Hebrew name of God, conventionally rendered YHWH, but Elon Gilad has a useful roundup at Haaretz:

According to the Mishnah (redacted in 200 C.E. but containing ancient traditions going back hundreds of years), the sacred name was only to be pronounced in the Temple in Jerusalem, and only in very specific occasions – by the High Priest on Yom Kippur and when the priests sanctified the crowds with the Priestly Blessing.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. by Rome, to punish the Jews for their latest rebellion, there was no longer any context in which the uttering of God’s name was permissible. Since then, to this day, when the name YHWH arises during prayer or recitation outside the Temple, Jews read it aloud as ‘adonai, meaning “my lord.” Thus the true pronunciation was eventually lost.

Still, linguists and biblical scholars have come up with a likely reconstruction based on ancient transcriptions, information gleaned from theophoric names, comparative material, and Hebrew grammar. The details of these analyses are too technical and frankly boring to even summarize here, but the upshot is that in all likelihood, in biblical times, the name was pronounced yah-weh, with soft a and soft (and slightly elongated) e.

(What on earth are “soft a” and “soft e”?) As for the meaning:

In the case of god, the trilateral root seems to be HWH.

If this is true, and it probably is, the root HWH is likely a variant of the very common Hebrew root HYH. It is very common in Hebrew for W and Y to interchange. HYH simply means “being.”

Also, the format of the name YHWH is similar to that of causative verbs, verbs that indicate the subject is causing a change in the verb’s object, such as English’s spill or hire. So, if we accept the root as HWH or HYH, and assume it has causative structure – taken together, the name seems to mean “bring into being.” Or, “creator.” […]

Meanwhile, as we said, we lost the original pronunciation of God’s name because it is too holy to say aloud. But nowadays, even the euphemism used in its stead, adonai, is considered too holy to be uttered outside of a liturgical setting. So new euphemisms have arisen, the most common being: hakadosh baruch hu (“the holy one blessed be he”) and hashem (“the name”). Whatever that name may be.

Thanks, Kobi!

Comments

  1. According to the Mishnah (redacted in 200 C.E. …

    I did a double-take at that “redacted”. I’m so used to its more frequent modern sense of hiding sensitive parts of a text. But this must be the sense of revise/edit/draw up.

    Are there not older texts to confirm the “ancient traditions”? Something from the Dead Sea Scrolls?

  2. John Cowan says:

    The hypothetical history of the BIble is full of redactors: the JE redactor, the JED or Deuteronomic redactor, the JEDP or priestly redactor ….

  3. A house around the corner has a small upstairs room with the tetragrammaton rendered in large Hebrew letters on the back wall of the room, visible from the sidewalk, and usually awash with light. I call it the Yahweh Alcove.
    Amazingly almost none of the neighbors have noticed. I spend more time walking in the hood I guess. Can’t imagine they’re just less nosy. It’s hard to miss if you look that way.
    I met the owner once but initially had thought he lived next door, and after making mild snark, I was too embarrassed to ask the why’s and who’s. My wife, who is Jewish, pondered what Jewish group he might belong to. I sometimes think she’s not very aware of her traditions. This seems unlikely and sacrilegious to me. I take it as evangelical in a hebraizing way, or possibly Jews for Jesus.
    Anyone else ever hear of such a public display of the Lord’s name at a private house?

  4. Savalonôs says:

    If the root of YHWH is HWH/HYH, where does the theophoric element Yah- come from? Simply an abbreviation?

    According to Thomas Schneider, Yah was at first the name of a place, with its associated god “the Shepherd of Yah”. https://blogs.princeton.edu/manuscripts/2018/02/09/a-stranger-in-the-land-of-egypt/

  5. Adonis be praised!

    I was exposed to the Bible-revision sense of “redacted” well before the modern censorship sense, so whenever I see [REDACTED] I have a moment of confusion. I keep seeing the [REDACTED] not as a sign of something having been removed, but as some kind of notation applying to the text that precedes or follows, something like Word’s “track changes” feature.

  6. The question I find most interesting is tracing how the pronunciation of the tetragram disappeared from various rituals over time. In David’s (pre-temple) time, it seems that the name was considered especially holy, but not unpronounceable. Later, it was probably used freely in rituals associated with the temple (such as the priestly blessing), but was taboo elsewhere. By the final destruction of the temple, it seems that it was only used when the priest (traditionally assumed—e.g. in the Mishnah—to be the the high priest, but the primary evidence is actually unclear) read from the torah on Yom Kippur, and possibly other important holidays.

  7. The Bible [REDACTED]

    https://youtu.be/4wunGF3oMA0

  8. David Marjanović says:

    trilateral

    Oopsie.

    If this is true, and it probably is, the root HWH is likely a variant of the very common Hebrew root HYH. It is very common in Hebrew for W and Y to interchange.

    …Sure, but there’s a sound law behind this, and I’d appreciate learning its details.

  9. As you may know, in some, but not all, Dead Sea Scrolls written in the square-ish Hebrew or Aramaic script this name is written in paleo-Hebrew script, or replaced by four dots, either of which scribal practice apparently served to distinguish it. More generally, non-speaking of certain names can be motivated by esteem or by its opposite. For example, some scholars avoid calling some sectarian Qumran scrolls Essene. If I may wander off-topic, some ancients also did not accept the name Essene (or its source). I suggest that was because it (or various Greek forms of it, Essaioi, Ossaioi, etc.) derived from Hebrew ‘osey hatorah, observers of torah (an etymology proposed long before Qumran discoveries, which include it as a self-designation, though not found in Hebrew Bible, TaNaK)–something they found presumptuous. And, further afield, Philo of Alexandria did describe Essenes but not Sadducees or Pharisees, at least not explicitly (the New Testament does the opposite). But in his Every Good Man is Free 88-91 he says Essenes esteem deeds (cf. Hebrew ma’asim) more than words and then mentions two sorts of troublesome rulers they endured. One sort was cruel, ferocious like wild beasts, and another sort used soft-worded hypocrisy, flattery. This happens, imo, to sound much like the biased Qumran sectarian view of Sadducee- and Pharisee-influenced Hasmonean rulers.

  10. Proto-Semitic root-initial *w > y in Ugaritic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Amorite, e.g. Hebrew yld, Arabic wld ‘to give birth’. There are a few odd doublets in Hebrew with non-initial *w > y, such as our hwh~hyh ‘existential’ and xwh~xyh ‘to live’, as in חַוָּה ħawwā ‘Eve’, literally ‘live.PRES.3.SG.F’, ‘she lives’, which is normally חַיָּה ħayyā (also ‘animal’). Hebrew and Aramaic ’aryē correponds to common Semitic *’arwiy. Sabaean and Andalusian Arabic also have a few examples of non-initial w~y.

    Some regular binyanim and nominal templates have *w > y in medial position, as in חוּט ħūṭ ‘thread’, חַיָּט ħayyāṭ ‘tailor’. I’ll have to look up the general rule for that pattern.

  11. John LeGloahec says:

    To quote Henry Jones, Sr., “In the Latin alphabet, Jehovah begins with an I.” And Henry Jones, Jr., “Idiot. In Latin Jehovah begins with an I!”

  12. If the pronunciation is supposed to be like ‘yah-weh’, what about Hebrew names like Eliyahu – My God is Yah(hu), or Yeshayahu – Yah(hu) is salvation? I always figured the ‘hu’ at the end is part of the pronunciation of the full name of God.

  13. I’m reminded of the Shalom Auslander segment of this “This American Life” episode.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    Yahoo! I like that.

  15. On your question about soft a and soft e, I came across these terms some while ago and was similarly puzzled. It seems that the ‘soft’ vowels in English are cat, bet, kit, cot, cut, and the ‘hard’ vowels are mate, beet, bite, boat, lute (or maybe cute).

    In other words, what I was taught as short and long vowels respectively.

    I don’t know what crazy person came up with the soft/hard terminology. If it were up to me, I would say that ‘cat’ is hard and ‘mate’ is soft, although I can’t really explain why.

  16. So “in biblical times, the name was pronounced yah-weh, with soft a and soft (and slightly elongated) e” implies /yæwɛː/? Seems odd.

  17. The original Hebrew version of Gilad’s article says only that some researchers “believe that the closest pronunciation is yah-weh”, with the pronunciation given in Roman letters.

  18. Y: I must say, you seem peculiarly qualified to weigh in here. But where are H and W?

  19. Peculiarly qualified—I like that!

    What do you mean, where are H and W? In the tetragrammaton?

  20. “[T]he root HWH is likely a variant of the very common Hebrew root HYH. It is very common in Hebrew for W and Y to interchange. HYH simply means “being.””

    I’ve never found this line of argument persuasive. HYH is the root for the copula “to be,” but it’s not the root of the noun for “being” in the sense of existence (that would be KYM, as in the morning prayer, Melech chai v’ka-yam, living and enduring [or eternal] King), and it’s not the root of the word for being in the sense of an individual (that would be Yesh (there is, there exists), which is the root for the word y’shut, meaning being, entity – anything from an angel to a corporation).

    The source of the conclusion that God’s name means “being” is his statement to Moses at the burning bush, when Moses asks, “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? (Exodus 3, Revised Standard Version).

    God answers: “I Am That I Am [AHYH that AHYH]: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am [AHYH] hath sent me unto you.”

    And He follows up: “the LORD [YHVH], 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.”

    I have always felt, without evidence admittedly, that this is a folk etymology – of which there are many in the Bible – and that it’s not good evidence that the root of “to be” is the source of the Name of God.

  21. I’m skeptical about YHWH supposedly meaning “being” or such nobly abstract things. Deity names usually start out more straightforward and earthy.

  22. I’d never thought of YHWH/yahweh as a causative — I always assumed it was a plain old binyan kal. How can we tell without diacritics? The templates are respectively y(ə)CaC:eC and y(i)CCoC (or y(i)CCeC for h-final roots), and none of the vowels would be written out.

    w- > y- is kind of a weird change phonetically. I wonder if it started out as dissimilation after the proclitic w(ə)- “and”, and spread from there.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    So, here, in the 5th section, is the idea that it is a form of “be” after all, but some kind of 3sg imperfective…? It’s not presented in any grammatical detail; could it work?

  24. The two verses Bloix cites may be a doublet (that is, redacted in from different traditions, although ultimately of the same origin), although which source would be responsible for which part is not clear. So, even if those two versions of the name descend from the same ultimate origin, it is unknown which one is older and closer to the name used in Davidic and pre-Davidic times. My gut feeling agrees with Bloix’s—that the association with “I AM” is a folk etymology.

  25. What do you mean, where are H and W? In the tetragrammaton?

    No, here in the comment thread!

  26. O.

  27. Savalonôs says:

    If we take Yah as the primitive, -u could be a fossilized old Semitic nominative (or just part of the root, of course). Is there a candidate for an -eh suffix that could have gotten glommed on?

  28. David, I can’t make much of that link, but the 3sg. imperfective reading is the binyan kal sense that I’d always assumed.

  29. Trond Engen says:

    I’m skeptical about YHWH supposedly meaning “being” or such nobly abstract things. Deity names usually start out more straightforward and earthy.

    Unless also YHWH is a replacement. A respectful circumlocution of that which cannot be named.

  30. >Is there a candidate for an -eh suffix that could have gotten glommed on?

    Given a setting in which vowels weren’t indicated, it seems fun and provocative to proffer -ah as a frequent ending for feminine nouns, later fossilized or re-etymologized. My knowledge of Hebrew is limited and completely unschooled, so I concede there might be substantial and obvious evidence that this couldn’t possibly have been the derivation.

    Here’s a Haaretz article interesting for loads of reasons, but not least, the reminder that in the northern dialect – in the area then known as Israel, as distinct from Judah – the Yahwistic element in names was often expressed as Yaw (yod-vav = Y-U), eliding the H. Which doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the root, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.
    https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium.MAGAZINE-israelites-in-biblical-dan-worshipped-idols-and-yahweh-too-1.6612851

    How common is it for the third element of a trilateral root to be dropped completely, which is true of the Yahwistic names in both Israel and Judah? If that’s not common, then it would seem that the relationship to the root had already been forgotten by the 8th century BCE, or that neither HYH nor HWH was the root.

    A crazy side note – I’ve been intrigued at the thought that the name Shimon was actually derived from the Levantine god Eshmun but later folk etymologized differently by pious Judahites. Anyone know enough to tell me I’m crazy?

    (Hat-tip to the Paleojudaica blog for the link.)

  31. “God answers: “I Am That I Am [AHYH that AHYH]:”

    So the correct pronunciation is “Popeye”?

  32. Keep in mind, Jim, that the LORD said it first.

  33. Trond Engen says:

    Here’s a Haaretz article interesting for loads of reasons

    Yes, thank you. Not as much of a surprise as the article makes it, maybe, but still interesting. I gather that the monotheization of Judea-Israel was not so much a monotheization as a monocultization, a consolidation of Jerusalem as the single center of religious power. In later accounts this was told as a struggle against pagan cults, which it must have been within the Southern Kingdom, but breaking the power of the competing Yahwistic centers in the north would have been at least as important in terms of real politics. So maybe Samaria didn’t accept the supremacy of Jerusalem, which is why the Samaritans developed into a parallel society and apparently became untouchables from a Jewish viewpoint by Roman times.

  34. Savalonôs says:

    Given the similarity of the Samaritan pentateuch to the Jewish, it seems hard to imagine that the final split was pre-exile. The alternative is that the rump northern élites initially went along with the Persian program of unification under Jerusalem before later rejecting it.

  35. The article makes it sound as if HWH were an otherwise-unattested root whose relationship to HYH is just a guess because of y/w alternation; but in fact, it appears multiple times in the Bible, e.g. in Genesis 27:29, and as far as I’m aware, everyone agrees that it’s a variant of HYH.

    > How common is it for the third element of a trilateral root to be dropped completely, which is true of the Yahwistic names in both Israel and Judah? If that’s not common, then it would seem that the relationship to the root had already been forgotten by the 8th century BCE, or that neither HYH nor HWH was the root.

    Well, in the case of HYH and HWH, the third element is — nothing. The second H (ה) is completely silent in both of them, and it’s only written in the word-forms that need a sort of placeholder consonant at the end. It drops out in the forms that don’t, such as הייתי /ha’ji.ti/ “[I] was” and יהי /jə’hi/ “may [he/she/it] be”. (To be sure, there are also some roots that end in a non-silent H, and such roots keep their H in all word-forms; for example, גבוהים /gə.vo’him/ “tall (m.pl.)” belongs to the root GBH. But that’s not the case with HYH and HWH.)

  36. Trond Engen says:

    Savalonôs: Given the similarity of the Samaritan pentateuch to the Jewish, it seems hard to imagine that the final split was pre-exile. The alternative is that the rump northern élites initially went along with the Persian program of unification under Jerusalem before later rejecting it.

    Yes, the similarity bothered me too, but I couldn’t decide on what to do with it. E.g. I assume that the state cult of the kingdom of Izra-El was that of El, and that the Yahwistic cult was supported from south. After unification the north must have been monocultic Yahwistic long enough for the temple of Samaria to regain a role as standard bearer for northern independence and resentment towards Jerusalem and the south. Maybe they went along with the unification program but rejected the revised program of the persianized elite that were put in place by the end of the exile.

    Ran: Well, in the case of HYH and HWH, the third element is — nothing. The second H (ה) is completely silent in both of them, and it’s only written in the word-forms that need a sort of placeholder consonant at the end.

    That makes me wonder if the similarity of YHW(H) and Y’hudah is more than chance. It’s not etymological, I gather, but could folk etymology have made it take on a new meaning in opposition to The people of El?

  37. I sometimes wondered if the Samaritans actually were the real Jews who were displaced and marginalized by the Zionist occupation government.

  38. Savalonôs says:

    That makes me wonder if the similarity of YHW(H) and Y’hudah is more than chance. It’s not etymological, I gather,

    How do we know it isn’t etymological? Y’hudah looks like it could easily be YHW plus a suffix.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    I certainly don’t know, but the etymology I’ve seen has it as the name of one of the 12 tribes, i.e. one of Jacob’s sons, meaning “praise” according to Wikipedia on the Tribe of Judah and “the celebrated” according to Etymonline. That doesn’t necessarily say much about the original referent, but I imagined this origin myth to be older than the consolidation of power in Jerusalem. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe the canonic list of tribes was set with the unification process and the redaction of the Deuteronomy.

  40. Savalonôs says:

    Well, the Pentateuch seems to be rife with folk etymologies, so I wouldn’t assume that it’s so because it is written. On the other hand maybe “praise” or “celebrated” is the real etymology, maybe it was originally the name of a people who called themselves the “the celebrated” i.e. the glorious ones (as with “Slav”), maybe that name was subsequently applied to their god, the shepherd of Yah, and incorporated into the name Y’hudah (either their descendants or later residents in the same country).

  41. My understanding is that the identities of the tribes were probably not definitely set until Davidic times. I can’t remember all the evidence put forward for this, but here are a couple pieces: The land allocated to the southern tribes may have been largely land conquered by King David, which would mean the land allocation could not be older. Also, there are back-references in I Samuel to stories in which Eli is the hero, but they are not part of the final redaction, likely because they would have identified Eli (and the Shiloh priesthood more generally) as non-Levitical.

    That doesn’t mean that some tribal identities were not well established earlier. Saul was definitely of the Tribe of Benjamin. However, it is only with the brief “unified” monarchy that the tribes are seen as part of a cohesive Hebrew whole. (Much of Judges concerns wars fought between the tribes, for example.)

  42. Interesting that Yahweh never said to never pronounce his name, but, not to take his name in vain. If he inspired the Bible writers to write his name almost 7,000 times, His name was meant to be known. During the times of the Israelites, the nations surrounding them knew the name of their God, for it was this God who acted in a powerful way, parting the Red Sea as an escape from the army of Egypt, and giving the Israelites victory in battle, as long as they were obedient to him.. We have many examples of people of other nations, in those days, as written in the Bible, who recognized the name of Yahweh and used it in conversation…see Joshua 2:9-11.
    It was due to superstition on man’s part, that then became a tradition, that the name of God was suppressed and substitute words were used instead, that principle found in Mark 7:13.
    Soon, however, that tradition will cave when, once again, as in ancient times, the nation’s will have no choice in the matter…they will have to know the name of Yahweh, anglicized as Jehovah, when he comes to rescue this dying earth and save obedient humans in the battle of Armageddon. Ezekiel 25:17; Revelation 11:18, Psalm 37:10, 11 and 29.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting that Yahweh never said to never pronounce his name, but, not to take his name in vain.

    The idea is that it’s simply not humanly possible to pronounce that name with due respect, so it’s better to just stop trying.

    During the times of the Israelites, the nations surrounding them knew the name of their God, for it was this God who acted in a powerful way

    …or, y’know, not. Here’s Mesha, king of Moab, interpreting his victory over an unnamed king of Israel, a son of Omri, as a victory of Kemosh (god of Moab as stated in the Bible) over Yahwe (god of Israel as stated in the Bible).

    (A less ancient translation that is easier to understand, except that it’s in French, is on the Louvre website at the bottom of this page.)

    anglicized as Jehovah

    That’s not simply anglicized. That’s reading it with the vowels of ‘LH.

    this dying earth

    We’re definitely working on repeating the end-Permian mass extinction event, but we’re still a few hundred ppm of CO₂ away from that, no matter how pessimistic we are.

  44. That’s reading it with the vowels of ‘LH.

    Actually, that’s reading it with the vowels of adonai, more precisely ’ădonai אֲדֹנַי. The first vowel is khataf-patakh, one of the ‘flavored’ schwas. Likwise, there’s the rarer יְהֹוִה yehowī, after אֱלֹהִים ’ĕlohīm, with khataf-segol.

  45. Trond Engen says:

    Brett: My understanding is that the identities of the tribes were probably not definitely set until Davidic times.

    And that may well mean the time of (re-)unification centuries after David. David’s life story was enhanced with well-known heroic tales, elements of different local origin myths, and an anachronistic ethno-religious environment with relevance for the hegemony of Jerusalem. The Arthurian myths come to mind. But I agree that some or all of the tribal entities may have had a long pedigree.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    one of the ‘flavored’ schwas

    Oh. I had no idea!

  47. John Cowan says:

    Generally speaking, other than the specifically tendentious parts of the Samaritan Torah (Mt. Gerizim for Mt. Zion, etc.), it shows signs of editing, cleaning up various minor inconsistencies, dysfluencies, etc. I suspect that the Samaritans accepted the editing changes because they went along with the Gerizim changes, whereas the Jews rejected them just because the Samaritans accepted them. “Better to be wrong with the Sun than right with the Pope”, the attitude that kept Protestant and Orthodox Europe off the Gregorian calendar for centuries, the last country to accept it being Greece in 1923.

    (That said, tax day in the U.K. is 6 April because it was 25 March, the old New Year, before the Gregorian reform in 1753. It should really be 7 April, but the necessary correction was made in 1800 but forgotten in 1900.)

  48. The idea is that it’s simply not humanly possible to pronounce that name with due respect, so it’s better to just stop trying.

    So kind of like Spock’s first name?

  49. David Marjanović says:

    Maybe, though isn’t that one said to be merely phonetically impossible for humans (…unlike the entire rest of the Vulcan language, apparently)?

  50. Likwise, there’s the rarer יְהֹוִה yehowī

    He’s always “Jehovih” in that strange book the Oahspe.

  51. Oahspe, a New Bible in the Words of Jehovih and His Angel Embassadors. Remarkably, it doesn’t seem ever to have come up at LH.

  52. I was trying to figure out what “Oahspe” meant, and the best I could find was verse 26 of the first book/chapter, also called “Oahspe”: “Because this light is thus comprehensive embracing corporeal and spiritual things, it is called the beginning of the Kosmon Era. And because it relates to earth, sky and spirit, it is called Oahspe.” OK then.

  53. Aha, an article in the New Mexico Historical Review (Volumes 33-34 [1958], p. 10) says “The word Oahspe, meaning Earth, Sky and Spirit, is of Paneric derivation and traces back to the continent of Pan lying submerged between the islands of Japan and North America.” So that’s clear enough.

  54. Per Amazon: The Lost Continent of Pan: The Oceanic Civilization at the Origin of World Culture by Susan B. Martinez, published 2016.

    “This title is not currently available for purchase.”

  55. This is how The Man keeps us from the knowledge we crave.

  56. John Cowan says:

    Sometimes it just means the publisher hasn’t bothered to ship any copies lately because he is an incompetent amateur. Logical Language Group, I’m looking at you. Though things are much better now, and anyone who wants a spiffy hardcover of The Complete Lojban Language can get one.

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