Shiur #27: The Names of God

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     A name or designation of a person or an object generally serves two purposes:


1)   It defines the essence and nature of that person or object.[1]

2)   It defines the relationship between that person or object and its surroundings, as well as the manner in which the external world encounters that person or object.


This is true regarding the name of a person and also regarding the names and attributes of God.[2]


In various places in the Kuzari, R.YehudaHalevi relates to the names and attributes of God. Through them, he learns about God and His relationship with the world in general and with Israel in particular.




The Rabbi: "Elohim"is a term signifying the Ruler or Governor of the world, if I allude to the possession of the whole of it, and of a portion [of the world] if I refer to the powers either of nature or the spheres or of a human judge. The word has a plural form because it was so used by gentile idolaters, who believed that every deity was invested with astral and other powers. Each of these was called Eloha; their united forces were therefore, called Elohim. They swore by them, and behaved as if bound to abide by their judgments. These deities were as numerous as are the forces which sway the human body and the universe. "Force" is a name for any of the causes of motion. Every motion arises from a force of its own, to the exclusion of other forces. The spheres of the sun and moon are not subject to one force, but to different ones. These people did not take into account the prime power from which all these forces emanated, because they did not acknowledge its existence. They asserted that the sum total of these forces was styled Eloha, just as the sum total of the forces which control the human body was called "soul." Or they admitted the existence of God, but maintained that to serve Him was of no use. They considered Him too far removed and exalted to have any knowledge of us, much less to care about us. Far from God are such notions. As a result of their theories, they worshipped, not one being, but many, which they styled "Elohim."This is a collective form which comprises all causes equally. All the forces emanate from God, though He Himself is above them. (IV, 1)


     What is unique about this designation is its universality and the fact that it does not denote the God of Israel in particular. Rihal explains its origins and the way it came into being among the nations of the world. This name was given to the sum total of idols that the nations of the world built in their belief that each idol is the resting place of one of the many different forces that move the world. The number of gods, according to the nations of the world, equals the number of forces, and the sum total of gods that represent all the forces in the world are referred to by the gentile nations as "Elohim." This, notes Rihal, led to the name being used to designate a ruler or judge, as one endowed with power and authority.


     Rihal emphasizes two characteristics of what this name represents for the nations of the world. These two characteristics lie at the root of the difference between this name as it is used by the other nations and the name as it used by Israel, which in turn reflects the difference between the idolatrous and philosophical concept of divinity and the idea of divinity in Israel.


     The first characteristic is that of plurality. I have already noted that for the nations of the world the number of gods equals the number of forces, each god representing a different force and in charge of operating that force.


     The second characteristic is the issue of identity. Rihal takes pains to emphasize that among the gentile nations there is absolute identity between the god and the force that he represents. The god is the force and the force is the god.


     This emphasis is exceedingly important, because when we attribute a certain force to a particular person (e.g., when we assert that a moving ball's motion was caused by the person who threw it), we do not mean to imply identity between the source of the force and the force itself. The person who threw the ball is an autonomous being who exerted a certain force, but he is certainly made up of much more than that force. This is not true about the gods that Rihal discusses. In the cultures under discussion, there is total identity between the god and the force itself.


     In idolatrous cultures, there is a lack of belief in a being that is above the various forces – "because they did not acknowledge its existence. They asserted that the sum total of these forces was styled Eloha…"


In philosophical cultures, on the other hand, such a being is indeed recognized, but "they considered Him too far removed and exalted to have any knowledge of us, much less to care about us." Thus, recognition of such a being is irrelevant, and the sole dialogue that man can conduct with that which is above him is with the forces themselves.


The name "Elohim" as used by Israel challenges the universal designation in terms of both idolatrous characteristics.


First, as opposed to idolatrous plurality, the name "Elohim" designates the one God, rather than a set of gods distinct in their essence. The one God rules over all the forces, there being no force in the world free of his control. Despite the plurality of forces that He governs, there is no impairment of His oneness.


Second, as opposed to the idolatrous identification between god and the force that he governs, the God of Israel, known as "Elohim," is in control of all the forces in the world but is not identical with them: "All the forces emanate from God, though He Himself is above them."


It seems to me that Rihal's distinctions already find expression in the Torah's opening verses. Already there we find the monotheistic message that distinguishes between the religion of Israel and the other religions, precisely with respect to the two points discussed by Rihal.


"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep" – so proclaims the Torah in its opening verses.


A question arises with respect to the first three words. Habit has blurred the linguistic difficulty that they pose! "Elohim" is the plural form of the word "El," and as such the rules of grammar demand a plural verb. Thus, instead of "Bereishit bara Elohim," we might have expected "Bereishit bar'u Elohim."


We are not dealing here with a scribal error. In its opening words the Torah proclaims the unity of the God of Israel, and that this unity is not impaired by the fact that He governs all the forces in the universe. Put differently, the plurality that is evident in this world does not necessitate a plurality of gods, but rather all the forces emanate from the one God.


The closing words of verse 2 also sharpen the difference between Israel and the nations of the world and reflect the difference regarding the second point raised by Rihal.


There is a famous Akkadian myth that is amazingly similar to the creation story in the Torah, but the differences between them are the differences between a primitive idolatrous outlook and the exalted and eternal understanding of Judaism.


The myth relates that in the beginning there was primordial matter called "Afsu," the god of the sweet waters of the deep, and countering it "Tamet," the goddess of the salty waters of the deep; it was their union that gave rise to all the gods of nature. Later, Tamet wanted to kill all the gods, and the god Murdokh went out to fight against her, and in the wake of his victory, he was recognized as the supreme god of Babel and all of Mesopotamia. He then sliced Tamet's body into two, forming from it heaven and earth.


Much may be learned from this myth. For example, we see the disharmony that the authors of this myth copied from our world to the world of the gods. These authors were unable to rise up above mundane reality in which the diverse forces clash and struggle with each other (fire burns, water extinguishes fire, etc.). They therefore concluded that the gods who govern these forces must be struggling against one another, this struggle being reflected in the reality of this world.[3]


For our purposes, there is great similarity between the primordial waters (some of which are called Tamet) and the expressions: "and darkness upon the face of the deep" and "and the spirit of God moved over the surface of the waters." There is also great similarity between the description of the division of the body of the goddess Tamet (which is itself the waters of the deep – as is evident from the continuation of the myth) into two and the formation of the heaven and the earth (which also has water) from those two pieces, as well as the description in the Torah's creation story of the division of the waters from the waters and the formation thereby of the heaven and the earth.


As was noted above, however, the differences are far greater than the similarities.


As in the Akkadian myth, in the Torah's account, the waters are described as the primordial matter from which the heaven and the seas were created, and it is the waters that give rise to the fish and birds (as the myth puts it, the gods of the waters create the other gods). What cannot be ignored, however, is that in the Torah's account above all of these things there is God, and that all these things are merely clay in the hands of the potter – "and the spirit of God moved over the surface of the waters." The words "moved over" are precise!


God is not to be identified with the waters, and the separation of the waters is not a separation of the body of God; similarly, the creatures that come into being are not born from the gods.


The one God as described in the Torah's account of creation is above the world and acts upon it. The distinction between God and the forces found in this world is already highlighted in the opening words of the Torah, and it is reflected, as Rihal argues, in God's most universal name – "Elohim."




A more exact and more lofty name is to be found in the form known as the Tetragrammaton (Yud-Keh-Vav-Keh). This is a proper noun, which can only be indicated by attributes, but has no location, and was formerly unknown. If He was commonly styled "Elohim," the Tetragrammaton was used as special name. This is as if one asked: Which God is to be worshipped, the sun, the moon, the heaven, the signs of the zodiac, any star, fire, a spirit, or celestial angels, etc.; each of these, taken singly, has an activity and force, and causes growth and decay? The answer to this question is: "The Lord," just as if one would say: A.B., or a proper name, as Ruben or Simeon, supposing that these names indicate their personalities. (IV, 1)


     Rihal makes a daring assertion that the relationship between the Tetragrammaton and the rest of the names is the relationship between an attribute and a personal name. From this perspective, a personal name is not merely a conventional symbol, but rather it represents and teaches about the very essence of that which bears the name. So, too, Rihal writes in another passage:


The Rabbi: All names of God, save the Tetragrammaton, are predicates and attributive descriptions, derived from the way His creatures are affected by His decrees and measures.[4] (II, 2)


     We noted in the introduction above that the function of a name can be understood in one of two ways. Here, with the Tetragrammaton, Rihal tries to climb up from the second definition, which asserts that a name is a description attached to a certain being, based on its actions, functions, and the way it relates to its surroundings, to the first definition, which sees a name as establishing the essence of that which bears the name, regardless of its surroundings.


     The attributive descriptions of a person stem from the role that he plays and the actions that he performs in the world. An evil man is called by that term on account of his words or actions that are of an evil nature. A school principal is called by that name owing to the function that he fills and the role that he bears. A person's personal name, on the other hand, does not relate to the role that he plays or the way that he conducts himself. Regardless of all these factors, the person is the name and the name is the person.


     All this notwithstanding, the distinction between an attribute and a personal name is of great significance even with respect to those on the outside who call the thing or the being by its name.


     To refer to a person by one of his attributes does not require an intimate and unmediated encounter with him. Anyone passing by a school and wanting to call out to the principal so that he will look out at him from his office window can call out, "Mr. Principal," even if the two had never before met. Logic dictates that the school has a principal, and this universal logic allows every passerby to recognize not the specific person filling this position in a particular school, but the function that he fills there.


     If, however, that passerby would want to call to the principal by his name, he would be unable to do so unless he had met him or at least someone who had met him and knows him. And even then, even if he knows his name, he would hesitate to use it if there were no basis for familiarity and unmediated encounter with him.


     Calling someone by his personal name reflects an unmediated encounter and an intimate familiarity with him. A person's title embodies the public connections that he has with his environment, whereas his personal name reflects his essence that wishes to encounter another person in an unmediated manner, without barriers.[5]


     This distinction exposes the profound difference between the nations of the world and the people of Israel, in that Israel alone bears the Tetragrammaton:


The Khazar king: How can I individualize a being if I am not able to point to it and can only prove its existence by its actions?

The Rabbi: It can be designated by prophetic or visionary means. Demonstration can lead astray. Demonstration was the mother of heresy and destructive ideas…. There are differences in the ways of demonstration, of which some are more extended than others. Those who go to the utmost length are the philosophers, and the ways of their arguments led them to teach of a Supreme Being which neither benefits nor injures, and knows nothing of our prayers, offerings, obedience, or disobedience, and that the world is as eternal as He himself. None of them applies a distinct proper name to God, except he who hears His address, command, or prohibition, approval for obedience, and reproof for disobedience. He bestows on Him some name as a designation for Him who spoke to him, and he is convinced that He is the Creator of the world from nothing. The first man would never have known Him if He had not addressed, rewarded and punished him, and had not created Eve from one of his ribs. This gave him the conviction that this was the Creator of the world, whom he designated by words and attributes, and styled "Lord." Without this, he would have been satisfied with the name Elohim, neither perceiving what He was, nor whether He was a unity or many, whether He was cognizant of individuals or not. Cain and Abel were made acquainted with the nature of His being by the communications of their father as well as by prophetic intuition. Then Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and the prophets called Him intuitively "Lord," as also did the people, having been taught by tradition that His influence and guidance were with men. His influence also being with the pious, they comprehended Him by means of intermediaries called: glory, Shekhina, dominion, fire, cloud, likeness, form, "the appearance of the bow," (Yechezkel 1:28), etc. For they proved to them that He had spoken to them, and they styled it: Glory of God. Occasionally they addressed the holy ark by the name of God, as it is written: "Rise up, O Lord," (Bamidbar 10:35, 36), when they made a start, and "Return, O Lord" when they halted, or "God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet" (Tehillim 47:6). With all this, only the ark of the Lord is meant. Sometimes the name "Lord" was applied to the connecting link between God and Israel, as it is written: "Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate you?" (Tehillim 139:21). By "haters of the Lord" are meant those who hate the name, or covenant, or the law of God. For there exists no connection between God and any other nation, as He pours out His light only on the select people. They are accepted by Him, and He by them. He is called "the God of Israel," while they are "the people of the Lord," and "the people of the God of Abraham."  (IV, 3)


     We have already discussed the differences between the god of Aristotle and the God of Abraham, all of them focused on the fundamental principle of revelation.


     In the aforementioned passage, the Khazar king asks the Rabbi who can use the Tetragrammaton, and the Rabbi surveys the history of God's revelation to man from the time of creation down to the formation of the people of Israel.


     Abraham, as Rihal himself notes, came to recognize God through philosophical speculation and reason, reaching the conclusion: "Can this palace not have an owner?" But Abraham's recognition of God did not stop here: "The owner of the palace looked out at him and said to him: 'I am the owner of the palace.' So, too, when the patriarch Abraham said: 'Can this world not have an owner,' the Holy One, blessed be He, looked out at him and said: 'I am the owner of the world'" (Bereishit Rabba39:1).


Perhaps this was Abraham's point of view when divine power and unity dawned upon him prior to the revelation accorded to him. As soon as this took place, he gave up all his speculations and only strove to gain favor of God, having ascertained what this was and how and where it could be obtained. The Sages explain the words: 'And he brought him forth abroad' (Bereishit 15) thus: Give up your horoscopy! This means: Forsake astrology as well as any other doubtful study of nature. (IV, 27)


     At this moment, Abraham moved from recognizing God through the name of Elohim to recognizing Him through the Tetragrammaton. Abraham was no longer the passerby who understood through reason that the palace must have an owner. He met the owner of the palace and spoke with Him, and from then on he even knew His name.


     Revelation and Divine providence, as they are described by Rihal in the aforementioned passage, are the foundation for using the Tetragrammaton, and Israel, who of all the nations were privileged to receive these two Divine gifts, are also privileged to relate to God through the Tetragrammaton.


     The other nations who did not attain to revelation – "For there exists no connection between God and any other nation, as He pours out His light only on the select people" - and are not subject to Divine providence – "We see them left to nature and chance by which their prosperity or misfortune are determined, but not by an influence which proves to be of divine origin alone" – can only comprehend God (when they succeed in doing so) by way of speculation and reason – "logic dictates." Therefore, they are not authorized to use, nor do they even recognize, the Tetragrammaton.


     God's "personal name" is too exalted for man to fully understand, and therefore its significance and essence with respect to Israel, who use that name, lies in the very fact that it is a personal name that demands presence and closeness. This is the way that Rihal explains the dialogue between Moshe and God at the burning bush, regarding His name: "Why should they ask concerning things they are unable to grasp?… Say to them Eh’yeh, which means: 'I am that I am,' the existing one, existing for you whenever you seek me" (III, 5).[6]


     The gap between the unmediated encounter with God and the encounter based on logic and speculation, which is reflected in the relationship between the name Elohim and the Tetragrammaton, is also what establishes the intensity that accompanies religious experience. Relating to God by way of His personal name reflects intimacy and close relations, which create mutual devotion and fidelity between the two sides.


The Khazar king: Now I understand the difference between Elohim and the Tetragrammaton, and I see how far the God of Abraham is different from that of Aristotle. Man yearns for the Tetragrammaton as a matter of love, taste, and conviction, while attachment to Elohim is the result of speculation. A feeling of the former kind invites its votaries to give their life for His sake, and to prefer death to His absence. Speculation, however, makes veneration only a necessity as long as it entails no harm, but bears no pain for its sake. I would, therefore, excuse Aristotle for thinking lightly about the observation of the law, since he doubts whether God has any cognizance of it. (IV, 16)


     According to Rihal, when a Jew turns to God using the formula instituted by Chazal, "Blessed are You, O Lord," he proclaims that he is a member of that people who receive God's light, His revelation, His word, and His providence, on the one hand, and his yearning and craving to continue this unmediated encounter between him and his Creator, on the other. Great indeed is the difference between "the gods of the peoples who are idols" and the "God of Abraham" – the Lord, God of Israel.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] This is what Rihal says in his discussion of Sefer Yetzira: "'And whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof' (Bereishit2:19). This means that it deserved such name, which fitted and characterized it."

[2] It should be noted that when Rihal describes Sefer Yetzira, he mentions that the Divine names have unique power, as opposed to ordinary names. He attributes this difference to the unity of thought, speech, and action with respect to God and the unity of these three with God's very essence (IV, 25).

[3] It should be noted that already among the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers there were those who viewed these myths with cynicism and even wrote parodies of them, in which they expressed the idea that the authors of these myths attributed the basest of human emotions to the most exalted gods.

[4] The Rambam's position is strikingly similar: "All the names of God, may He be exalted, that are to be found in any of the books derive from actions. There is nothing secret in this matter. The only exception in one name, namely: Yod, Keh, Vav, Keh. This is the name of God, may He be exalted, that has been originated without any derivation, and for this reason it is called the 'articulated name.' This means that this name gives a clear unequivocal indication of His essence, may He be exalted. On the other hand, all the other great names give their indication in an equivocal way, being derived from terms signifying actions the like of which, as we have made clear, exist as our own actions." (Moreh Nevuchim I, 61).

[5] It might be noted that in kabbalistic writings (e.g., R. Yosef Gikitila's Sha'arei Ora) the Tetragrammaton is identified with the second-person form, as it is reflected in the benediction formula: "Blessed are You, O Lord (the Tetragrammaton)." A similarity to the kabbalistic understanding of the Tetragrammaton can also be found in Rihal's statement that the letters of the Tetragrammaton constitute the soul of all the letters, just like the Tetragrammaton itself, which relates to the essence of God, constitutes the soul of all the Divine names, all the other names serving as its garments (see Sha'arei Ora, sha'ar 5).

[6] R. Yoel Bin Nun argues that the Tetragrammaton reflects God's active role in this world (Megadim 5, pp. 7-23).