The Names of God

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.





By Rav Zvi Shimon


The Names of God



            The opening verses of this week's portion, parashat Vaera, are amongst the most cryptic and intriguing in the Torah.


"God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am 'Hashem' (Tetragrammaton, see glossary).  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as 'Kel Shakkai', but by My name 'Hashem' was I not known to them "(Exodus 6:2,3)


            God reveals to Moses a hitherto concealed name unknown even to the patriarchs.  Several questions beckon in response to these verses.

1) The verse states that God did not reveal the tetragrammaton to the patriarchs.  There are, however, several instances in Genesis in which God uses the tetragrammaton when speaking to the patriarchs.  God tells Abraham: "I am 'HASHEM' who brought you out from Ur Kasdim" (Genesis 15:7) and reveals Himself to Jacob saying: "I am 'HASHEM' the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac" (ibid. 28:13).  In addition, Abraham apparently knew this name, since Scripture states: "and [Abraham] called upon the name of 'Hashem' (12:8, see also 13:4).  These examples contradict our verse which implies that this name was concealed until it was revealed to Moses.

2) What is the significance of God's different names and why does God reveal to Moses a name which, according to our verse, was concealed from the patriarchs?


            We will begin with the first question.  Rasag (Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Persia, 892-942), apparently troubled by this very question, interprets our verse differently.  He suggests that the verse is to be understood as follows: "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Kel Shakkai, but I did not make Myself known to them ONLY by My name' Hashem.'"  God indeed appeared to the patriarchs as 'Hashem.'  Our verse does not deny this.  The difference is only that God would also appear to them through other names such as Kel Shakkai.  However, when revealing Himself to Moses, he appears as 'Hashem' using the name 'Hashem' alone. 


Rabbi Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yosef Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12th century) reaches a similar conclusion to that of the Rasag, albeit through a different interpretation.  According to Rabbi Bekhor Shor, the verse should be read: "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Kel Shakkai AND by my name 'Hashem,' but I did not make Myself known to them."  Although God appeared to the patriarchs using different names including Kel Shakkai and 'Hashem,' His revelation was nevertheless still limited.  God will further reveal himself to Moses.  Both the Rasag and Rabbi Bekhor Shor attempt to solve the contradiction between Genesis and Exodus by re-interpreting the verse in Exodus in a somewhat forced manner, either by suggesting that the verse should be understood through an insertion of the word "only or by a change in the punctuation of the verse.."


            The majority of the commentators, however, offer a different solution.  They suggest that our verse does not relate to the revelation of the name, Hashem, per se.  The patriarchs were definitely familiar with this name.  What they were unacquainted with is the significance of the name and what it represents.  When God states: "but I did not make Myself known to them by My name 'Hashem,'" He is not referring to the actual name but rather to the divine attribute which the name represents.  What, then, does the tetragrammaton denote?


            Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) explains the name 'Hashem' as He who is "faithful to recompense reward to those who walk in my ways."  God, by revealing his name to Moses, informs him that the purpose of his mission is to fulfill the promises which God made to the patriarchs of giving them the land of Israel.  Rashi interprets the continuation of our verse as follows:


"I APPEARED TO ABRAHAM, ISAAC AND JACOB AS KEL SHAKKAI - I made many promises to the patriarchs and in all cases I said to them, I am Kel Shakkai BUT BY MY NAME HASHEM WAS I NOT KNOWN TO THEM - It is not written 'but my name Hashem I did not make known to them' rather it is written "but by my name Hashem WAS I NOT KNOWN TO THEM" - I was not recognized by them in My ATTRIBUTE of faithfulness, by reason of which My name is called 'Hashem' which denotes that I am certain to fulfill the words [of my promise], since I made promises [to the patriarchs] but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]."


            Rashi's interpretation relates to both of the questions raised in relation to our verse, i.e. the contradiction between the verses in Genesis and Exodus as well as the significance behind God's names.  Rashi points out that the verb at the end of the verse is in the passive form, "not known" as opposed to "not made known."  God indeed revealed himself to the patriarchs through the name 'Hashem.'  They, however, did not recognize the attribute of faithfulness, of truth, which the name implies.  There is therefore no contradiction between our verse and the book of Genesis since it is not the actual name but only its significance which our verse states was unknown to the patriarchs.  The name Kel Shakkai relates to God's promises to the patriarchs, the name 'Hashem' to the actualization of the promises.  God's words to Moses are a response to his complaint at the end of last week's portion, parashat Shemot: "Why did You bring harm upon this people?  Why did You send me?  Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people" (5:22,23).  God responds that He is about to reveal the facet of 'Hashem,' the fulfiller of promises.  The verse immediately following ours further specifies, "I also established My covenant with them [the patriarchs], to give them the land of Canaan..." (6:4).  God established the covenant and He will now fulfill it.


            The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) agrees with Rashi that our verse does not relate to the name 'Hashem' per se but rather to the attribute which the name denotes.  He, however, offers a different explanation of this attribute.  God's names do not relate to the making or fulfillment of promises.  They relate to the method by which God intervenes in the running of worldly events:


"The purport of the verse is that He appeared to the patriarchs by this name [Kel Shakkai], which indicates that He is the victor and prevailer over the hosts of             heaven, doing great miracles for them except that no change from the natural order of the world was noticeable.  In famine, He redeemed them from death, and in war from the power of the sword, and He gave them riches and honor and all the goodness, just like all the assurances mentioned in the Torah in the section dealing with the blessings and curses.

It is not [in nature] that man should be rewarded for performance of a commandment or punished for committing a transgression but by a miracle.  If man were left to his nature or his fortune, his deeds would neither add to him nor diminish from him.  Rather, reward and punishment in this world, as mentioned in the entire scope of the Torah, are all miracles, but they are HIDDEN.  They appear to the onlooker as being part of the natural order of things, but in truth they come upon man as punishment and reward for his deeds....

Thus God said to Moses: 'I have appeared to the patriarchs with the might of My arm with which I prevail over the constellations and help those whom I have chosen, but with My name 'Hashem' with which all existence came into being I was not made known to them, that is, to create new things for them by the open change of nature.  And Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am 'Hashem' and inform them once again of the Great Name [i.e., the Tetragrammaton], for by that Name I will deal wondrously with them, and they will know that I am the Eternal, that maketh all things.'"

(The Ibn Ezra as formulated in the commentary of the Ramban).


            Kel Shakkai represents a form of intervention which does not go counter to the laws of nature.  When God wished to rescue the patriarchs, he did not do so through miraculous cataclysmic means but rather by effecting the natural course of events.  God now informs Moses that salvation will come through a different mode of celestial intervention, through the name 'Hashem.'  God will create miracles which will defy all the rules of nature.  God as Kel Shakkai intervenes through natural means.  God through the attribute of 'Hashem' rises above nature.  As creator of the world he has the power to not only manipulate nature but also to negate it.  Several verses later, God elaborates on the imminent salvation: "Say therefore to the Israelite people: I am 'Hashem' ... I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through EXTRAORDINARY chastisements" (6:6).  God's revelation to Moses as 'Hashem' is thus a foreshadowing of the ten plagues and the supernatural manner of the salvation.


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274), building on the interpretation of the Ibn Ezra offers another explanation of our verses.  The Ibn Ezra points to the difference between the verb used to describe God's revelation to the patriarchs as Kel Shakkai and the verb used in relation to Moses.  With regard to the patriarchs Scripture states: " I APPEARED ("va-eira") to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Kel Shakkai."  However, in relation to the name 'Hashem' the Torah reads: "but by My name 'Hashem' was I not KNOWN to them."  Why does the Torah once use the verb appear in relation to revelation and then switch to the verb to know?  The Ramban gives the following explanation:


"By way of the Truth, the verse can be explained in consonance with its plain meaning and intent.  He is saying: 'I the Eternal appeared to the patriarchs through the speculum of Kel Shakkai,' just as is the sense of the verse, 'In a vision do I make myself known to him' (Numbers 12:6).  But Myself, I the Eternal did not make Myself known to them, as they did not contemplate [Me] through a lucid speculum so that they should know me,' just as is the sense of the verse, 'And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Eternal knew face to face' (Deuteronomy 34:10).  The patriarchs did know the Proper name of the Eternal, but it was not known to them through prophecy.  Therefore, when Abraham spoke with God, he mentioned the Proper Name together with the Name Adnut- Lord or Adnut alone.  The purport thereof is that the revelation of the Divine Presence and His communication with them came to them through an ameliorated attribute of justice, and with that attribute was His conduct towards them.  But with Moses, His conduct, and His recognition to him were by the attribute of mercy, which is indicated by His Great Name [i.e., the Tetragrammaton].


            The Ramban notes two related differences between God's revelation to the patriarchs and His revelation to Moses.  The first difference relates to the medium of the revelation, the second to its content.  The verb APPEARED is used in relation to the patriarchs because God's revelation to them was not direct, "face to face," but rather through visions.  Moses, however, received direct revelation from God and was thus able to have a closer grasp of the essence of God (compare to the Rambam's analysis in the Guide to the Perplexed part 1, chapter 61).  The patriarchs recognized God through the attribute of Kel Shakkai which, according to the Ramban, represents the attribute of justice.  Moses recognized God through his name 'Hashem' which denotes mercy.  God in revealing himself to Moses and freeing the people of Israel from bondage is bestowing goodness upon Israel beyond that which justice would require and thus revealing His mercy.


            To summarize, we have so far seen three explanations of the attributes which the names Kel Shakkai and 'Hashem' represent.  According to Rashi Kel Shakkai represents God's promises to the patriarchs while Hashem represents their actualization.  According to the Ibn Ezra Kel Shakkai represents divine intervention through natural means while Hashem represents supernatural miraculous intervention.  According to the Ramban, the name Kel Shakkai symbolizes indirect revelation through visions and the attribute of justice while the name 'Hashem' indicates direct revelation and the attribute of mercy.


            Whichever explanation is adopted, one question still remains to be answered; why does God reveal to Moses an attribute which was concealed from the patriarchs?  Did not the patriarchs merit the actualization of God's promises or His performance of greater miracles or direct revelation as experienced by Moses?  Were the patriarchs inferior to Moses?  Opinions differ in regard to this question.  [The answer to this question of course depends upon which explanation of God's names we adopt.]


            The Ibn Ezra comments that the miracles performed through Moses are proof that he reached a greater attachment to God than the patriarchs.  The patriarchs did not have a sufficient grasp of the attribute indicated by the name 'Hashem' to merit the performance of such overt cataclysmic miracles.  This is also the position of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) in his analysis of the uniqueness of Moses's prophecy (see the Guide to the Perplexed, part 2, chapter 35, and the Code of Law, 'Yesodei Ha-Torah' 7:6).  Moses' direct prophecy is unique and unmatched by any other prophet.  All the prophets received revelation through visions and metaphoric symbols.  They received revelation while sleeping and through an angel but not through God Himself.  Prophecy was for them an emotionally and physically stirring experience.  Moses, by contrast, received direct revelation from God and prophecy was for him a natural experience.  Moses had miracles performed before all of Israel.  The other prophets only had miracles performed before small numbers of people.  All this is proof of Moses's greatness and hid superiority over all other prophets.


            An opposite opinion to that of the Ibn Ezra and the Rambam is raised by our Sages as cited in Shemot Rabba (a compilation of homiletical interpretations of our Sages):


"Said the Holy One blessed be He to Moses: Alas for those who are gone, never to be replaced (in reference to the patriarchs)!  Many times I revealed Myself to Abraham Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, but I did not make known to them that My name is the Lord as I have told thee and THEY DID NOT QUESTION MY WAYS.  I said to Abraham: (Gen. 13) 'Arise and go forth in the land the length and breadth ... for to thee shall I give it' - He sought to bury Sarah and did not find where, until he purchased a place with money - YET HE DID NOT QUESTION MY WAYS.  I said to Isaac (ibid. 26): 'Dwell in this land ... for to thee and thy seed shall I give all these lands' - He sought to drink water and did not find, 'And the shepherds of Gerar strove with the shepherds of Isaac' - YET HE DID NOT QUESTION MY WAYS.  I said unto Jacob (ibid. 29): 'The land which thou liest on, to thee will I give it and unto thy seed' - He sought a place to pitch his tent and did not find, until he acquired it for a hundred kesita - YET HE DID NOT QUESTION MY WAYS, and did not ask Me what was My name as thou didn't ask.  Yet you at the beginning of My mission did say to Me, 'What is His name?'  And at the end you did say, (Exodus 5:23): 'Since I came to speak in Thy name, he hath done evil to this people." (Shemot Rabba 6:4)


            The patriarchs' faith was actually greater than that of Moses.  The patriarchs were fully confident that God would fulfill his promises to them even when reality presented a contradictory picture.  God promised to give the patriarchs the land of Israel but they always had to struggle with the native inhabitants over their rights to the land.  They nonetheless never questioned God's faithfulness.  By contrast, Moses, at the first sign of difficulty on his mission immediately protests: "Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people" (Exodus 5:23).  According to this interpretation, it is Moses' lack of faith which demands God's immediate fulfillment of His promises.  Moses needs the evidence of overt miracles to buttress his faith.  The patriarchs, by contrast, possess a pure and absolute faith.  They are not deterred by a delay in the fulfillment of the divine promise; their faith is unswerving.  Even if reality is harsh and even while they suffer the patriarchs' faith stands firm.


            Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) adopts a different approach to the question.  The difference in Moses' revelation is not a sign of superiority or inferiority.  It is rather a product of a divine plan for the creation of the Jewish people.  It is not due to Moses, the individual, but to his mission of redeeming the people of Israel:


"This new revelation of God has been prepared from the very beginning of Jewish history.

You are surprised that up till now things have become worse and worse

I could equally well have led you on a upward path.  Instead of letting Abraham get a son in his hundredth year, I could have caused a family to be raised by him by the time he had reached seventy, and allowed his descendants to flourish in happy favorable circumstances to a powerful nation on its own native soil.  But then that nation would not have been the nation that reveals God as 'Hashem.'  Then this nation would be no different from all other nations, would have developed like them from ordinary natural causes, like them, stand on material visible firm ground, would find the source of power and greatness in material power and greatness, and only aspire to the spiritual and moral, as far as their materialism left space for it, and as far as it fitted in with their materialism.  But, in contrast to the other nations, this nation is to get its land, and have its foundation, solely in God."


            God wished to save the people of Israel through unnatural means to stress their unique essence and mission.  The people of Israel will not develop naturally like the rest of the nations.  They will inherit their land through divine intervention.  Their right to the land is intricately connected to their commitment to fulfill their destiny as the people of 'Hashem.'  The history of Israel does not follow the natural route of the other nations of the earth; it is a history governed by the covenant with God.  Not only is our connection to the land related to the covenant, our whole experience and existence stems from our relationship with God.  Moses is embarking on a mission to save the people of Israel, take them to the promised land and establish them as an independent nation.  This mission will not be accomplished through 'Kel Shakkai,' through natural means.  It will be accomplished through 'Hashem,' divine intervention which negates the laws of nature.  Through this divine intervention the people of Israel become the people of 'Hashem.'




            The Tetragrammaton, the four-letter-name of God, is not pronounced but is rather read as the name of 'Adnut' - Lord, another of the names of God (see Rambam, Code of Law, 'Yesodei Ha-torah' chapter 6).  When not reading full verses from the Torah, in order to avoid having to pronounce the holy name, it is referred to as 'Hashem' which literally means 'the name.'