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The Name “E-l Sha-dai” and the Tetragrammaton

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

In memory of Albert W. and Evelyn G. Bloom, 
who creatively fulfilled the mitzva of "והגדת לבנך".
Shanen Bloom Werber, Dov Bloom, Elana Bloom, Michael Bloom


Translated by Kaeren Fish


  1. Revelation to the forefathers vs. revelation to Moshe

“And God spoke to Moshe and said to him: I am the Lord (Y-H-V-H), and I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, by the Name of E-l Sha-dai, but by My Name – the Lord (Y-H-V-H) – I was not known to them. And I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Kena’an, the land of their sojournings, in which they sojourned. And I have also heard the groaning of Bnei Yisrael, kept in bondage by Egypt, and I have remembered My covenant.

Therefore say to Bnei Yisrael, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments, and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God Who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord.” (6:2-8)

This unit signals a change in the Name that God uses – from “E-l Sha-dai” to the Tetragrammaton (Y-H-V-H). But what is the meaning of this change, and what does it have to do with redemption? God’s message to Moshe mentions all three of the forefathers, we will focus here on the revelations to Avraham.

The first part of God’s message to Moshe here concerns the covenant of circumcision. Let us compare the revelation here to the revelation to Avraham concerning circumcision in Bereishit 17:

Our parasha

Bereishit 17

I appeared to Avraham… by the Name of E-l Sha-dai

… And the Lord appeared to Avram and said to him, I am E-l Sha-dai

And I also established My covenant with them

… And I will make My covenant between Me and you

to give them the land of Kena’an, the land of their sojournings

… And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land in which you sojourn, all the land of Kena’an…

The second part of God’s message mentions the Covenant between the Parts (Bereishit 15). Let us compare these two units, noting that the similarity here is on the level of content, rather than style:

Our parasha

Bereishit 15

… to give to Avraham… and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord (Y-H-V-H).

And He said to him, I am the Lord (Y-H-V-H)

I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt

Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim… and afterwards they shall come out with great substance

And I will bring you into the land

But in the fourth generation they shall come back here

and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments

And also that nation whom they shall serve, will I judge…

In reviewing the verses relating to the other forefathers, too, we find that the name “E-l Sha-dai” is associated with circumcision, in the context of the sanctity of seed and exchange of names of the forefathers.[1] This Name of God relates to the Divine Providence guiding the family established by the forefathers – a unique family that avoids assimilation among the Canaanites, dedicating itself to “the way of the Lord, to perform justice and righteousness” (Bereishit 18:19).

In contrast, the appearance of the Tetragrammaton in revelations to the forefathers points to the far-off vision that is expressed in the Covenant between the Parts, which is destined to be fulfilled for Avraham’s descendants after four hundred years: the nation will leave the land in which they were strangers with great substance, and will inherit the land between the River of Egypt and the Euphrates, and establish their monarchy, subservient to the Kingdom of God, in that land. Only on two occasions does God appear to the forefathers with the Name Y-H-V-H: in the Covenant between the Parts (in the verse cited above), and in Yaakov’s dream of the ladder in Beit El:

“And behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord (Y-H-V-H) God of Avraham your father…”

What sets these two revelations apart is that they both occur in a dream, at night, rather than a wakeful state during the day. Therefore God tells Moshe in our parasha, “but by My Name – the Lord – I was not known to them.” A dream at night expresses a faraway vision, rather than a concrete promise concerning the short term.[2]

But now God tells Moshe, “Therefore, say to Bnei Yisrael, I am the Lord.” God speaks using the Tetragrammaton, which expresses His immanent Presence. From the time Bnei Yisrael became a nation, God’s Presence in the world became constant; by means of and through the agency of this nation He guides human history. Using the Tetragrammaton, God conveys to Moshe the five expressions of redemption, and using this Name He also informs Moshe that He will fulfill His covenant with the forefathers, which was made at the Covenant between the Parts with the same Name.[3]

  1. The expressions of redemption

The promises that God makes in this chapter are referred to by Chazal as “expressions of redemption.” These five expressions speak of:

  • saving Bnei Yisrael from the Egyptians: “ve-hotzeiti” (I will bring them out – from their affliction), and “ve-hitzalti” (I will deliver them – from slavery);
  • God’s revenge on the Egyptians: “ve-gaalti” (I will redeem – with an outstretched arm and judgments); 
  • Am Yisrael being God’s nation: “ve-lakachti” (I will take you to Me); according to some of the commentators, also “vi-yeda’tem” (you will know);
  • Bringing them to the land: “ve-heveiti (I will bring you).

The well-known teaching of R. Yochanan, in the name of R. Benaya, connects these expressions to the cups of wine that we drink at the Seder, when we recount the story of the Exodus:

“From where [do we get the idea of] four cups? R. Yochanan taught in the name of R. Benaya: They correspond to the four expressions of redemption: ‘Therefore say to Bnei Yisrael, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out… and take you to Me…’: ‘ve-hotzeiti, ve-hitzalti, ve-gaalti, ve-lakachti.” (Yerushalmi Pesachim 10a)

This teaching suggests that we have no fifth cup corresponding to the fifth expression, “ve-heveiti” (I will bring you into the land). The reason would seem to be that on Pesach we are not yet commemorating our entry into the land; rather, we commemorate the process that began with the Exodus and culminated in the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Similarly, in the narrative of the Haggada, when we analyze the verses comprising the declaration that would be made in Temple times over the first fruits, we start with “A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt” (Devarim 26:5), and conclude with “with signs and wonders” (Devarim 26:8) – i.e., the story of the Exodus. We do not continue to the next verse, which is the crux of the declaration over the first fruits: “And He brought us to this place, and gave us this land – a land flowing with milk and honey” (Devarim 26:9), paralleling the fifth expression of redemption in the promise to Moshe.

However, the Gemara raises the possibility (as indeed adopted by many today) of drinking a fifth cup, too.[4] Although the Gemara does not connect the fifth cup to the expression “I will bring you,” Raavad makes this connection. The Gemara itself (according to Rav Amram Gaon and the Rif) proposes reciting Hallel over the fourth cup, and the “Great Hallel” over the fifth:

“Our Sages taught: The fourth cup – one recites Hallel over it; the fifth cup – one recites the Great Hallel, according to R. Tarfon.” (Pesachim 118a)

Chazal referred to the regular Hallel that we customarily recite, which praises God for Israel’s salvation, as the “Hallel of Egypt” (Berakhot 56a): “When Israel came out of Egypt – the House of Yaakov from the people of an alien tongue…” (Tehillim 114:1). Over and above this is the “Great Hallel” (Tehillim 136) which also speaks of our coming to the land: “And He gave their land as an inheritance… and inheritance to Israel, His servant” (Tehillim 136:21-22). Therefore, the fifth cup – corresponding to the expression “and I will bring you” – accompanies the Great Hallel, as the Rambam rules:

“And he should pour a fifth cup and recite over it the Great Hallel, which is from ‘Give thanks to the Lord for He is good’ to ‘At the rivers of Babylon.’ But this cup is not obligatory as are the four cups.” (Rambam, Laws of Chametz and Matza, 7:10)

Let us conclude with the words of the Yerushalmi concerning the significance of these four cups:

“And corresponding to these the Holy One, blessed be He, will water Israel in the future with four cups of consolation.”


[1]  Yitzchak blesses Yaakov using this name (Bereishit 28) when he commands him not to take a Canaanite wife, but to seek instead a woman from the forefathers’ family. God reveals Himself to Yaakov using this name (Bereishit 35) immediately after the episode of Shekhem and the risk of assimilation entailed in the agreement with them; on this occasion God also changes Yaakov’s name to Yisrael. The same theme repeats itself in other places where this Name appears.

[2]  I first heard this characterization in my youth from my teacher and rabbi, Rav Yoel Bin-Nun.

[3]  In my understanding, the dream of the ladder is destined to be realized later on.

[4]  According to some of the Rishonim, this cup is voluntary; according to other opinions it is mandatory – following the view of R. Tarfon.