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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
July 17, 2006
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Take a loud deep breath and release it. According to some, that's the sound of God's proper name.

We have long ago lost the pronunciation of yod-heh vav-heh, the four-letter name that represents God. It was recited only at special moments and only by the designated priest, and with the destruction of the Temple, the actual pronunciation was lost. We have developed instead euphemisms, the most usual one being "adonai."

Literally, "adon" means master or lord, and when given the suffix "-ai" it takes on the possessive "my" – in the plural or majestic sense, moreover. We know the word itself from the hymn "Adon Olam" ("Master of the Universe" or "Eternal Lord"). But "Adonai" is not God's name. Yet, by its usage, it has taken on an aura of holiness that makes some people reluctant to use it except in prayer. They have developed yet another euphemism – "Hashem" ("The Name") – and even sometimes spell it "h-shem," just as they spell God "G-d." As devotional practices they are meaningful, but they are not necessary; God's name is not God, not Hashem and not Adonai. But they carry that connotation of holiness because of the association with God's proper name.

When I was growing up, my friends were named Fred, Charles, Ronald, Lawrence, Robert. Our fathers were Herbert, Mitchell, Sheldon, Alan, William. My wife and I always wondered how long its would take the pendulum to swing back, and then not so long ago we saw the announcement in the Jewish Week of a birth: Shmu'el Yitzchak is named in loving memory of his grandfather Shawn. The names carry with them resonance of what they intend, no matter what the evolution they undergo.

God has two primary names in the TorahElohim, which we will discuss next, and what we pronounce as Adonai. The Sages say that wherever you find Adonai in the Torah, God appears in the attribute of compassion, "rachamim." That word comes from the same root as "rechem," meaning "womb." And here, women have an advantage over men in understanding where to locate God in their bodies. That place were a baby forms, the womb, where you had life breathed into you, is the place that holds the spark of this name of God. Calling on God by this name calls on the God of intimate compassion, an almost gut-feeling God, the source of life, of breath.

Take another loud deep breath and then release it.


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