On the Biblical Name of God in Jewish Tradition 

Based on Material by Dr. Yael Avrahami, Oranim Academic College and Mr. Jamie Bryson, Brandeis University 

One of the most confusing aspects of reading and translating the Bible surrounds the various names of God. In ancient Israel, יהוה was the name of the main or high God of most Israelites and Judeans, and it is treated as a personal name in biblical Hebrew. Scholars call it the tetragrammaton, from the Greek “four letters.” The tetragrammaton cannot, just like the name משה (Moses), be preceded by the definite article or take a pronominal suffix—it is a true personal name. It was pronounced out loud in the biblical period, but by the rabbinic period (probably earlier), it became taboo to pronounce it, and it was read as אדני, Adonai, literally “My Master”; this is called a surrogate for the tetragrammaton. Already some late biblical texts, and especially texts discovered among the Dead Sea scrolls, show that in the Second Temple period, some Jews avoided pronouncing the tetragrammaton, and used surrogates such as אלהים. We do not know exactly how it was pronounced in the biblical period, though Yahweh is a good guess; nor are we positive what it meant. It is vocalized now in the Bible as a perpetual qere, mostly as אדני, and sometimes as אלהים. (See, e.g., the discussion in Gesenius §17c or Joüon-Muraoka §16f1. For a discussion of the name and its meaning see K. van der Toorn, “Yahweh,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible: DDD, ed. Karel van der Toorn et al. [Second Extensively Revised Edition; Leiden: Brill, 1999], 910-91. For one halachic discussion on reciting various forms of the divine names in different circumstances, see e.g. http://www.kipa.co.il/ask/show/111975.) Many Jews even find אדני, Adonai, too holy to pronounce, especially in casual conversation, and thus use the surrogate השם, Hashem, “the name” (see Lev. 24:11). 

Certain conventions determine the English translations of divine names. Some works render the Tetragrammaton as Yahweh or YHWH (or less frequently, Yhwh or YHVH), though many render it LORD, with the “ORD” in small capitals. In contrast, אלהים and אל are rendered “God” or “god” or “gods,” (or rarely, the Canaanite deity El) depending on context. It is important to adhere to a consistent practice when translating biblical texts. 

Evidence shows that God’s personal name, YHWH, was pronounced in the First Temple period. 

The Moabite Mesha inscription (mid-ninth century, pictured right), writes of כלי יהוה, vessels of YHWH, that the Moabite king brings before his high god, Chemosh. The Moabite author would only know the name YHWH by hearing it, so it must have been pronounced at that period. Learn more here: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mesha-stele.

Similarly, יהוה is written in many late First Temple period letters on ostraca—broken pieces of pottery from Lachish and Arad. Although we cannot be positive that 
the name was pronounced as written, this is likely; in any case, the casual writing of the name on pottery shards, which would later be discarded, shows that the name was not then treated with the same type of respect later accorded to it. In later Jewish tradition, any document with one of God’s names, including the tetragrammaton, was not supposed to be discarded, and thus the origin of the geniza, a repository of used, holy manuscripts or scraps. 

By the first and second centuries BCE, special scribal conventions for יהוה developed in some scribal circles. In the Dead Sea Scrolls we find the name sometimes represented by four dots, known as the Tetrapuncta, and sometimes written in 
the paleo-Hebrew script (which is modeled after the ancient Hebrew script, pictured above, YHWH is inside the red box), while the surrounding text is written in Aramaic block script.
The practice of writing יהוה in paleo-Hebrew sometimes spread to other names such as El, Adonai, and Elohim, though this practice was fairly rare. Some have speculated that these scribal practices were used to write the name in order to avoid erasing or pronouncing the name. In any case, the special treatments of God's name found in the Dead Sea Scrolls were not widely adopted, and were not made normative for Rabbinic Judaism. This picture is from the Psalms scroll from cave 11, see more of this scroll here: http://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/featured-scrolls.   

Some contemporary scholars, when reading the biblical text, read the tetragrammaton as YHWH. Others follow the Masoretic conventions, and read it as Adonai, or, when vocalized as such, Elohim.  According to most halachic (Jewish legal) authorities, the English "God" or "LORD" are not sacred names, and there is no reason, e.g., to write "G-d."

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