(Greek; ‘four-letter thing’)
The series of Hebrew letters reading right to left
which comprise the 4-letter sacred name of G-d.
It appears many thousands of times in the Bible;
an ‘ineffable name’, for it should not be spoken.
Yod is in the first position. Tenth letter of the alphabet. Numeral: 10
Hé is in the second position. Fifth letter. Numeral: 5
Vav is in the third position. Sixth letter. Numeral: 6
Hé is in the last position. (Same letter as second position.)
In Jewish circles, there’s a longstanding prohibition against pronouncing this combination of letters aloud, primarily due to concerns about preserving its sanctity. When it’s read during prayers, it is usually substituted with the word Adonai, meaning Lord. When read informally, it is frequently replaced by Ha’Shem, simply meaning, The Name. If practicing a prayer, some use the hybrid term Ado’Shem.
It is recorded (Tosef., Yoma, ii. 2; Yoma 39b) that during the Second Temple era the High Priest, Simeon Ha’Tzadik, would pronounce The Name, but only on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and that he would do so ten times. The writings state that Simeon’s pronouncement of the name was so powerful that it was heard all the way to Jericho. But, was that entirely Simeon’s doing or was he blessed with divine assistance?
Our Rabbis taught: In the year in which Simeon the Righteous died, he foretold them that he would die. They said: Whence do you know that? He replied: On every Day of Atonement an old man, dressed in white, wrapped in white, would join me, entering [the Holy of Holies] and leaving [it] with me, but today I was joined by an old man, dressed in black, wrapped in black, who entered, but did not leave, with me. After the festival [of Sukkoth] he was sick for seven days and [then] died. His brethren [that year] the priests forbore to mention the Ineffable Name in pronouncing the [priestly] blessing.
— Men. 109b. Tosaf Sotah 38a
The prohibition against speaking The Name was not adhered to by the Greeks (and others) who interpreted Hebrew, Aramaic and Paleo-Hebrew source texts in a more academic fashion. This eventually spawned of a number of verbal variants, including Yahweh, Yehwih, Yehovah and Jehovah — even Yahoo!
(In the diagram below, the version at top is Paleo-Hebrew; the next is old Aramaic; and the last is Hebrew.)
There’s wide disagreement about what The Name means, which can partly be blamed on the understandable tendency of linguists to evaluate ‘word problems’ etymologically. The real problem, however, may spring from the possibility that this is not actually a word at all, but a type of symbolic acronym.
So, let’s look at those letters again.
The tenth letter of the aleph-bet is Yod. It can be symbolic of “higher consciousness”, which can be a reference to G-d, or to the loftier aspects of human consciousness, depending on the context in which it’s found. Yod represents the number ten. In Hebrew numeracy, this is the next greater expansion of the number one, insofar as basic numbers are concerned. (Two- and 3-dimensional progressions of unity evolve distinctly toward seven and thirteen, respectively.) Ten is incorporated into Jewish rituals and rites; it is the minimum number of men required for daily prayers and for special observances. It elevates the individual (01) to a greater unity (10) — in both a spiritual and communal sense. In fact, the Hebrew numeric system has been mostly overlooked as a base-ten [decimal] model, despite the fact that it’s clearly an early example of one. This lack of recognition is owed to the generally insular nature of Jewish communities; the early widespread predominance of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system; and the sometimes confusing matter of having numbers that double for letters — and vice versa.
Hé is the fifth letter of the aleph-bet. It is reflective of the first thing that most people will learn to count: the fingers on their hands. Each hand has five fingers; and two hands gives you ten, so it’s interesting to note that this letter is used twice in the same small group of characters. Our hands are miraculous, for it is with them that we do things, create things, even destroy things. They are the primary executors of man’s free will. The name of the letter comes from the Hebrew word ‘take’, which we mostly do with our hands. (There is also a third [hidden] hand within the tetragram; the hand of G-d, represented by the Yod, which derives its name from the same root as the word ‘hand’, yad.)
Vav, letter number six, is the number of man. Six are the days of man, but the seventh (Shevat/Shabbat/Sabbath) belongs to G-d. Six is the atomic number of Carbon, the element upon which all known life-forms are based. Hé borrows from the Yod its flame-like crown and appends a descending staff below, anchoring the consciousness (of man) to the ground — to his mortal body, and to the earth. The name of the letter, quite appropriately, means ‘hook’. Vav is an apt metaphor of physical man because it’s reminiscent of our central nervous system, which descends from the seat of our consciousness.
From this perspective:
Yod-Hé-Vav-Hé can translate to: ‘G-d Creates, Man Creates’
(It can therefore also mean: ‘G-d Destroys, Man Destroys’.)
It’s sad, but true, that ‘G-d Creates, Man Destroys’ — and it’s granted that G-d can Destroy whatever Man Creates. Happily, though, life isn’t all about destruction.
G-d is also a helper:
G-d [Yod] ‘lends a Hand’ [Hé], Man [Vav] ‘lends a Hand’ [Hé].
It’s not a particular act that makes us similar to G-d.
Like G-d, we may freely choose what to do, and do it.
Unlike G-d, we won’t always make the right decision.
To do evil, or to do good? — the choices are rarely so clear.
Have a piece of cake, or do the dishes? …uh, what kind of cake?
Whatever our individual decisions, actions, and outcomes, The Name implores us (not once, but twice) to think before we act. It even defines a scientific method for improved decision-making over time:
Conceive [Yod] – Perform [Hé] – Evaluate [Vav] – Perform [Hé]
The same process can be seen in G-d’s creative work (Genesis 1:2-4):
G-d said, [Yod – pre-conception]
‘Let there be light’, and there was light; [Hé – action]
and G-d saw that the light was good, [Vav – evaluation]
and he separated light from darkness. [Hé – action]
We each have inherited a tiny seed from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the germ from which our free will and our conscience both sprout. We must tend them both lovingly in order to grow straight and strong.
“The man has now become like one of us” — Genesis / Bereshith 3:22
The Name should not be spoken because it’s sacred.
The Name cannot be spoken, because it’s not a word.
The foregoing analysis examines only a few approaches to G-d’s quadriliteral name; it is not intended to be an exhaustive study. I pray that it does not offend, and I hope that it clarifies for some our connection to G-d through a ‘Name Unspoken’, with a view to understanding how we could be created in the image of ‘One Unseen’.
Last updated: November 17, 2009 3:25 EST
5 responses to “The Tetragrammaton”
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A good book on the topic was recommended to me by Tzvi Freeman; Shnei Luchot Habrit (known commonly as “The Shela”) by Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz. Thank you Rabbi Freeman.