A Question of Jewish Law

August 25, 2010

Its All in a Name

Filed under: Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 12:58 pm

Question: When coming across God’s name in a passage of Midrash or Talmud, should God’s name be pronounced, or is it better to use an appellation – such as Hashem or Adoshem.

Answer: The Talmud [BT Brachot 21a] records a debate concerning the status of a person who is ritually impure: R. Nathan b. Abishalom says: He may expound the Talmud, provided only he does not mention the divine names that occur in it. Rashi explains that this refers to names that appear in the verses of scripture that are quoted in the Talmud – i.e. a person who is ritually impure should avoid pronouncing God’s name when studying. From here we can deduce that if only one who is ritually impure is prevented from pronouncing the Divine name, everyone else is permitted to pronounce the name.

Furthermore, the Talmud states [ ibid]: Words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness. … as it says, Is not My word like as fire. Just as fire is not susceptible of uncleanness, so words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness. This means that we are no longer concerned with questions of ritual purity when it comes to the study of Torah. Anyone is permitted to pronounce God’s name during their study.

In spite of the widespread custom to say Hashem instead of pronouncing Gods name, there is strong Halachic support for the opposite opinion. Rabbi Yaakov Emden [Germany, 18th Century] relates that as a young child studying with his father [also a famous Rabbi, the Chacham Tzvi] the students would sometimes use one of the appellations, rather than pronounce God’s name. He would admonish the students and insist that they pronounce the name correctly – based on the Talmud quoted above. Many later scholars adopted this view. Furthermore, the use of the word Adoshem, which is a corruption of Gods name, is considered disrespectful, and therefore if one uses an appellation, it is always preferable to use Hashem.

All of the above only applies to saying God’s name when quoting verses. If when studying one comes across a proper blessing [i.e. the formula that starts Baruch Ata …] there are different considerations. It is forbidden to recite a blessing without cause. Saying a blessing without a reason is considered taking God’s name in vain – and is strictly forbidden. Therefore, if one comes to a blessing while studying, he or she should say Hashem or Elokim – rather than recite a proper blessing without cause. Here the concern for not reciting an improper blessing takes precedence over pronouncing Gods name properly.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on R. Ovadia Yossef, Yachve Da’at,  3, 13.

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Germany (The Rhineland).

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  1. Surely, when we say Adonai we are already not pronouncing God’s name. Isn’t that the point? And even though Adonai is a name of God so are many others that we pronounce as written…eg Ribon HaOlam

    Comment by Stephen Cotsen — August 27, 2010 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

    • Adonai is a close to pronouncing Gods name as we come – and is traditionally treated as if it was Gods name. Other names – Ribon HaOlam for example – are really adjectives describing God, and aren’t really names at all. That is why they are freely used.

      Comment by chaimweiner — August 30, 2010 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

    • I understand, but wasn’t Adonai put in for the exact same reason as we are now putting in Hashem? Is it a case of ma’alin bik’dushah? Meaning that Hashem will eventually be considered too holy to use as well!

      Comment by Stephen Cotsen — September 2, 2010 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

      • You may be right. There is a logical problem – how do you talk about ‘that which cannot be talked about’? It is impossible. You either keep inventing new names which become sanctified and then unusable – or you take the position of the Chacham Tzvi and use Adonai in any context that it is appropriate to mention God’s name. The only reason not to use God’s name is when there is a problem of a needless blessing – but that is a completely different concern.

        Comment by Chaim — September 2, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  2. Dear Rabbi Weiner

    When you refer to pronouncing or saying God’s name, what exactly do you mean in this context? Do you mean actually pronouncing the Tetragrammaton or using the word Adonai in its place, as is the case in Torah reading or saying blessings in synagogue? If the former, then I am confused, as I thought the Tetragrammaton was never to be pronounced in any situation?

    Many thanks
    Richard Haseldine

    Comment by Richard Haseldine — August 30, 2010 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

    • When I say Gods name – I am referring to Adonai. The tradition knows of many names for God – referred to as the 72 letter name or the 49 letter name. None of these were regularly used in any way – and were only known to special people. The Tetragrammaton is written but not pronounced. But even Adonai is not freely pronounced, and this is what I am referring to in this article.

      Comment by chaimweiner — August 30, 2010 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

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