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From: Gary Rushworth

Dear Rabbi,

My brother-in-law is studying Hebrew at his local college and he and a colleague have concluded that the tetragrammaton (the name comprised of four Hebrew letters) is misinterpreted. They say “Yahweh” is the correct spelling of the Name of G-d, and “Jehovah” is a "trash" word, not worthy of discussion. I was appalled and didn't want to be standing next to him for a while. What, if any thoughts do you have on this?

Dear Gary,

Neither ya way or his way is the Jewish way. Now before you refuse to stand next to me, let me explain.

According to Jewish teachings and law, one may not pronounce this name phonetically according to the way it’s written in Hebrew. The reason for this is because the Name is so holy that merely invoking it can have tremendous effects such that being uttered within the wrong circumstances or in the wrong way can be very harmful, aside from being included in the prohibition of taking G-d’s Name in vain.

This is based on the idea that we have access to Holy Names for positive, constructive purposes. G-d created complementary spiritual and physical worlds. Just as man was given the ability to manipulate the physical world, so too he was given the ability to manipulate the spiritual world. Man exerts this influence through the use of holy names of G-d or of angels. However, just as man’s influence on the world is dictated and limited by the laws of nature, so too his influence on the spiritual is circumscribed by certain laws and limitations. Therefore, only specific names mentioned in specific circumstances will cause the desired effect, and misuse thereof can be harmful (The Way of G-d 3:2:5-9).

The general way it works is as follows: When a person utters one of G-d’s names, it arouses an illumination particular to that name. The illumination is transmitted through the spiritual world until its influence is perceived in the physical realm. An example of this is the verse “In every place that My Name is mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Ex. 20:21). Since there are great forces involved behind the scenes, this can only be used by someone who has attained a great closeness and attachment to G-d.

Thus, the legal code establishes: “One is permitted to use holy names because G-d imparted in them strength to accomplish things when used by the righteous. And one who uses them demonstrates the greatness and power of G-d, as long as they are used with holiness and purity for the purpose of sanctifying G-d’s name or for the purpose of a great mitzvah. But this is not common in our generations, as a result of our transgressions …since we are unable to act with adequate purity and holiness” (Y.D. 179, Shach 18, from Ateret Zahav).

This is true regarding the various names of G-d in general, and particularly so regarding the tetragrammaton. The Talmudic Sages taught (Kiddushin 71a) that this name, comprised of the Hebrew letters “yud”, “hey”, “vav” and “hey”, is called the “unique name”, in that it hides within its mystical meaning an allusion to the deepest aspect of G-d we can comprehend. This is what is meant by the verse “This is my name forever” (Ex. 3:15). It was this unique name that was pronounced only by one person only once a year in only one place: by the High Priest on Yom Kippur in the Holy Temple. Our sources relate that anyone who heard it uttered, miraculously forgot exactly how it was pronounced.

The fact that it was Divinely ordained to be clouded in secrecy is hinted at in the Torah by the verse “This is My Name and this is my remembrance forever” where the Hebrew word for “forever” also connotes “hiddeness”, and it was thus explained by the Sages that the Name as written, when spoken, is to be hidden. Meaning that while one writes the Name with the four Hebrew letters mentioned earlier, one pronounces it with the Hebrew letters “alef”, “dalet”, “nun”, “yud” – “Adonoy”. In fact, original Jewish teachings take this so seriously that the Talmud declares, “One who pronounces the Name according to the letters with which it is written has no portion in the World to Come” (Sanhedrin 90a).

That being said, of both of your ways, since your brother-in-law’s way is closer to the actual pronunciation, ironically it is also the more “incorrect” way to refer to that name of G-d. In this light, your phonetically less-correct way is actually better!

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