Does God have a name?

December 31, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Does God have a name?

A. “God” and “Lord” are not the Almighty’s actual names but, in a sense, His job specification.

Yet He does have a name, as is clear when the Ten Commandments say, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”.

Technically known as the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Divine name spelt “Y-H-V-H” is never pronounced by Jews because of its sanctity (the Christian version, Jehovah, is quite ungrammatical). The four letters derive from the Hebrew verb “to be”, so the name denotes His unique existence – the fact that He is, and that He causes all existence.

When Moses asks God straight out, “What is Your name?”, the answer he gets is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”, “I am what I am”.

Technically this name is in the future tense, “I will be what I will be”, which Jewish commentary explains as denoting, “I am eternal and ever-present and do not change”.

When Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translated the Bible into German, they were impressed by the notion of calling God “He who is there”. Centuries before, the Rashbam had said, “He calls Himself ‘I-am-there’ and we call Him ‘He-is-there’”.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, criticised this approach as too cold and impersonal because though it says that God exists, it lacks any indication of relationship with the world. Hirsch’s preference was to say simply “God”.

In rabbinic tradition He is known by more than 90 other names, though none is personal but reflects human perception of Him: “HaMakom”, “He who is everywhere”; “HaRachaman”, “He who is merciful”; “HaKadosh Baruch Hu”, “The Holy One, Blessed be He”; “Shaddai”, “Almighty”, etc.

The rabbinic name that most closely indicates Biblical origins is probably “HaKadosh Baruch Hu”, since Isaiah (e.g. 1:4) calls Him “K’dosh Yisrael”, “The Holy One of Israel”.

Arthur Marmorstein (“The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God”) says that when the daughter religion began venerating human beings as “holy ones” (saints) to whom it eventually accorded cultic status, Judaism insisted that there was only one “Holy One”, who was God Himself.

Another name with Biblical antecedents is “Tzur Yisrael”, “Rock of Israel”. In Parashat Ha’azinu the Torah says “HaTzur Tamim Po’olo”, “The Rock, His work is perfect” (Deut. 32:4), which the Targum renders “Takkifa”, “The Strong One”.

Because the Divine names are sacred, written material in which they appear must not be discarded or destroyed but given respectful burial in a Jewish cemetery. Matter accumulated for this purpose is called a “g’nizah”, “stored” or “hidden away”.

Material of this kind which is still extant is a great source of literary, religious and historical information. The most famous g’nizah was in Cairo, where a vast quantity of manuscripts and fragments was found in an old synagogue just over a 100 years ago. Scholars at Cambridge University are still engaged on identifying and studying material from Cairo, and having to reconsider the historical narrative as they go.

When Jews write the Divine name in Hebrew, they use substitutes or abbreviations. Some will not even write “God” or “Lord” in English, preferring “G-d” and “L-rd”.


Q. May a woman institute proceedings for a Jewish divorce?

A. The technicality of the situation is that the man takes the initiative in both marriage and divorce: the Torah says in relation to marriage, “when a man marries a woman” and in relation to divorce, “he shall write for her a bill of divorce” (Deut. 24:1).

Hence at a marriage it is the groom who places the ring on the bride’s finger and at a divorce it is the husband who instructs the scribe to write and witnesses to sign the document and it is he or his agent who hands it over to the wife.

However, either party may make application to the Beth Din for the divorce proceedings to take place.

The grounds of the application are not limited to matrimonial offence; the criterion is marriage breakdown. Hence the halachah specifically empowers a wife to sue for a divorce from her husband if he has a loathsome disease or occupation, or if he refuses to support her, is cruel to her, is licentious or impotent or refuses her conjugal rights.

The Beth Din may decide to attempt a reconciliation between the parties and sometimes this is effective, but in most cases in the Diaspora situation there have already been proceedings for a civil divorce and it is highly unlikely that the marriage can be reinstated.

A husband who refuses to co-operate in a gett will be counselled and every effort will be made to secure his consent, but it must be said that it is not always the man who causes problems; in something like 40% of cases it is the woman who, at least initially, withholds her co-operation.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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