The Names of God
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2006-04-20
Despite the fact that in English Jews say "God", and despite the fact that God is referred to in a very limited number of ways in the Torah, there are in fact a large number of alternate Names or synonyms for God in Hebrew, and these were put to a variety of uses in the Kabbalah. Jewish Name use takes a number of cues from Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian sources, and has in turn had influence on Greek and Christian esoteric studies.
Theoretical Kabbalists meditated on and studied the Names of God in their spiritual quests. Practical Kabbalists used them to affect the physical and supernatural worlds, most notably by inscribing them on protective amulets and putting them to use in combating and controlling demons. In both cases, Names were to be "handled" with respect, precision, and care by those who had first purified themselves.Those who were not prepared and those who made mistakes in their utterances risked injury and death.
Proper Usage of Names
Some believed that for this reason Names of God should never be uttered, but only meditated on. Others objected to the use of "secret" Names and Names which do not appear explicitly in the Torahstillmore reasons why the practical Kabbalists and Ba'alei Shem Tov were sometimes looked on with derision.
One of the problematic issues associated with using Names as a means to an end is, who exactly is controlling whom, or what? How could God possibly be subject to a mortal's will? Joshua Trachtenberg writes that the answer is distinguishing between the power of the Names and the power of God. As an attribute of God composed of the holy letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the Names themselves hold power, so one is drawing on the power of the Name, and not on God Himself. As discussed elsewhere, however, this sort of reasoning was not accepted by every Jewish religious authority, and in many cases the practical Kabbalist's use of Names was considered nonsense or even heretical.
An alternate explanation is presented by Moshe Idel:
"The vitality dwelling in the heart of the operator is, according to Hasidic theory...a limited aspect of the divine present in the individual. Therefore, Rabbi Tzadok writes, when someone recites the combinations of letters...he uses his vitality and thereby activates the divine realm...When a man moves his hand, the divine is automatically responding to this movement...Rava...is successful [in creating a golem] not because of the peculiar knowledge or powers inherent in the letters but because he activates the divine power present in him...These magical implications are attenuated by the assumption that there is a certain personal contact between man and the divine. The contact takes place on the level of the heart...God contracts himself in the heart of the mystic..."
Moshe Idel, Golem: Jewish Magic and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid, p. 248-249.
The Jewish mystic or Ba'al ShemTov, therefore, could them be looked upon, by virtue of his purity and righteousness, as a channel and a vesselfor the Divine.
Where Do Other Names Come From?
Some Names of God come directly from the Torah, or are abbreviations or polite alternatives used in ordinary speech, the liturgy, and other texts. Some of these are listed below.
However, there are many Names which have been developed over the centuries by the Jewish mystics. Some of these were very secret. Some exist whose meanings and origins have been lost to us.
Many alternate names were derived through various formulas applied to Biblical verses and already existing Names of God. These methods included:
Notarikon, in which the initial or final letters of the words of a verse or verses are used to make an acronym; for example, the Name Tzamarkhad is derived from the final letters of the first five verses of Genesis.
Temura, a form of letter substitution. A number of popular systems existed, ad some were fairly simple to understand; "Atbash", for example, transposed the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet with the last, the second with the second-to-last, etc. It's the equivalent of swapping A for Z, B for Y, C for X, and so on.
Gematria, a system of determining the numerical value of a name, word, or phrase, and relating it to other words, etc. with the same value. Hebrew letter also serve as numbers, which is what makes this possible. For example, Metatron the angel was perceived to be particularly powerful because numerically, his name is equivalent to Sheddai ("Almighty"), a Name of God. The rarely-encountered Name Adirion has the same numerical value as the 22-letter Name of God (see below).
Which Names were in use depended partially on the time, the place, and the Kabbalistic sect. For example, certain Names seems to have been utilized primarily by Middle Eastern Jews, and when the Samaritan sect broke away from Judaism in 722 BCE, they proceeded to develop their own Names. Zucato's unpublished work Sefer Shoreshay Hashemot contains several thousand Names of God, along with their origins. While I can't provide that, I can provide a selection of Names and their origins and uses as examples.
The letter heh (H) is commonly found on Western European amulets, either alone or repeated five times to represent the Name of God.
Two two-letter Names of God are encountered, yod-yod (YY) and yod-heh (YH). Both are contractions of the Tetragrammaton (see below). YY is particularly common in the liturgy, and is pronounced with the substituted word Adonai (Lord).
YHVH: The Tetragrammaton
The most powerful and important Name of God, which appears in the Torah, is YHVH, also referred to as the Tetragrammaton and the Ineffable Name. Its pronunciation has been lost; it was formerly uttered only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). Many scholars have speculated on its pronunciation, producing names like "Jehova" and "Yaweh".
Jews do not even attempt to pronounce this name; rather,a lesser Name is substituted, most commonly Adonai in prayer, though some Jews may use "casual" and respectful substitutes such as Adoshem or Ha-Shem ("The Name") outside of prayer.
This Name, and permutations of it, was often used in meditations, amulets, and various types of prayer. See The 8- and 12-Letter Names and Name Permutation In Meditation for more details.
The 8-Letter Name
Apparently fairly rare, the eight-letter Name was favored by the Jews of Kurdistan and Iraq. Quite simply, it is the Tetragrammaton interspersed with the word Adonai (read right to left):
This Name is numerically equivalent to "Amen", by certain accounts.
The 12 Letter Names
I have found conflicting information concerning the 12-letterName of God: three different sources have provided me with three completely different pieces of information. Joshua Tractenberg states in his book, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1939), that although referred to in the Talmud, the 12-letter Name is lost to us. He also relates that it is believed to be derived from the Priestly Blessing. By contrast, Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, in Amulets and Talismans (1961, p. 377), writes that the 12-Letter Name is derived from the first three Sefirot (the divine emanations or attributes of God which compose the mystical "Tree of Life"): Keter (Crown), Hokhmah (Wisdom), and Binah (Understanding). This results in (read right to left):
Shrire, in Hebrew Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation (1966), describes a twelve-part Name given in the Sefer Raziel, which is made of the twelve permutations of the Tetragrammaton. Working this out, we get (read right to left):
Exactly what order these are to be written in is not clear. If I am able to find this information, I will add it.
The 14-Letter Name
Another little-used Name is the 14-letter Name, which is derived from the phrase Adonai Elohainu Adonai" from the Shema. By means of temura (letter transposition), the 14-letter Name comes out to (read right to left):
VZVK ZSKVMB VZVK
The 14-letter Name was, for a time, written on the backs of mezuzot.
The 22-Letter Name
The 22-Letter Name of God was both widespread and popular. It appears in the Sefer Raziel and is attributed to Eleazar of Worms, though it may in fact be much older, since Eleazar drew from Gnostic sources. It is associated with the Priestly Benediction, and there are various theories explaining how it is associated with and derived from the Blessing, or transposed from it, etc.. It is (read right to left:
Words meaning "their cry (or "suffering")", "miracles", "wholesome man", "sustenance", and "woolen tunic" can be derived from this Name, and are found in the prayer following the Priestly Benediction. The Name and accompanying prayer were added to the liturgy in the 17th century. Perhaps this Name's greatest significance comes from the fact that it is 22 letters, a correspondence to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, upon which the world is built. No exact pronunciation for this Name is known to exist (and most kabbalists would say you shouldn't even try), though some have been suggested.
The 42-Letter Name
The 42-Letter Name, like the others, has no known pronunciation, and as with the others, various people have tried to put forth suggestions. It has been speculated that this Name is derived from either the 2nd-century prayer Ana Bekoah or the first 42 letters of the Torah, but Schrire writes that it has been known since the first century. It is mentioned in the Talmud, though Rashi rejects it as one which "was not given to us [in the Torah]". It is (read right to left; note that Tz andKhshown here as zT and hK, right to leftare one letter each):
Parts of this Name were used for various reasons. Segment 2 could be interpreted as Kara Satan ("Break [or, Rend] Satan"), and was used to protect or assist one who has been attacked by demons; it was often put on an amulet worn around the neck. Segment 5 is numerically equivalent to the angel Gzrel, and could be used to invoke him. Speaking this Name in its entirety counteracts an evil decree issued against one in Heaven. (This seems a little strangeusing the name of the One who has isssued a decree against you as a means of protection from Him.)
The Holy and Awesome 72-Part Name
This Name is made out of 72 triads of letters, and is one of the most powerful Names a Kabbalist might use. It is derived from Exodus 14:19-21, each line of which has 72 letters. To create the first triad, put together (from the Hebrew) the first letter of 14:19, the last letter of 14:20, and the first letter of 14:21. To create the second, the second letter of 14:19, second to last of 14:20, and the second of 14:21. Continue until all the letters are used up.
Legend has is that this Name was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush, and is what he used to part the Red Sea. Some speculate that this, not the Tetragrammaton, is the Name the High Priest would utter during the High Holidays.
This is a sort of "blanket" Name used to vanquish demons, put out fires, heal, kill, gain the favor of a king, etc. However, if it is said in a state of impurity or uncleanliness the person who speaks it will be struck dead! Probably due to its complexity and inherent danger, this Name was divided up into parts (that is, shorter series of triads), and these parts could in turn be used or specific purposes. The exact uses and how exactly the Name was to be divided up varied somewhat among Kabbalists. I have found a small number of examples, but consider the matter a bit too complex to spell everything out here.
Other Names of God
Other Names of God include: El, Eloe, Sabbaoth, Zelioz, Ramathel, Eyel, Azboga, and Elohim.
Adonai, previously mentioned, means "Lord" or "God" and is sometimes paired with Sabbaoth to mean, "Lord of Hosts". This Name is extremely common, being the typical spoken substitute where YHVH appears. We also commonly find Elohaynu, "Our God", often in the presence of Adonai in blessings: Baruch atah Adonai Elohaynu melech ha-olam... ("Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe...) Sheddai, another Name, means "Almighty", and is potent against magic and the Evil Eye; and "Eyeh Asher Eyeh," said to Moses at the Burning Bush, means "I Am that I Am".
Some Names are more metaphorical or symbolical. Shemira and Shemurah mean "Protection" and "Shield". Seyag ve-Geder is "A protecting hedge and fence."
Others are actually abbreviations for expressions referring to God. One of these is Agla. Since it was popular in Germany, the Germans presumed it meant Almachtiger Gott Losch Aus!, but in reality it stands for the Hebrew Atah Gibor Layolam Adonai, "You Are Mighty Forever, Lord."
There are many other Names than those already listed which come from Biblical verses. Schrire mentions two rare Names in this catagory. The first is a 7-letter Name, created from the final word letters of Psalm 91:11. The second is a 45-letter Name derived from Proverbs 30:40.
And there are still more, more than I know of, more that are lost, and probably still more which have remained carefully guarded to this day.
Name Permutation in Meditation
Names were often permuted in various ways (particularly in the ecstatic Kabbalah), in order to achieve a meditative or ecstatic state, to grow closer to God, or to produce new Names to suit a specific need in practical application. In some meditation exercises, Names were written, while in others they were vocalized, often choreographed to specific breathing patterns and head movements. This was known as tzeruf. These activities were quite complex, often required memorization, and were certainly not for the novice.
YHVH, the Tetragrammaton, was often used in part or permuted in meditations and other Kabbalistic activities. The 12 forms of YHVH, mentioned and pictured above, can be derived from the transposition of its letters. For review, they are (read right to left):
The consonants were considered the "body" of the Name. Vowels (which are written as various dots and dashes over, in, and under words in Hebrew) were the "garments", and one could continue to permutate by swapping them around as well. For example (these read left to right...I figured it would be easier to comprehend):
To delve into exact methods of meditation is beyond the scope of this essay, though I am considering writing a section on meditation and mystical experiences in the future. For further reference, see Jacobs' Jewish Mystical Testimonies (especially the translation of Abraham Abulafia's documents, which relate detailed instructions), and Epstein's Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic, chapter four in particular.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
Savedow, Steven. Sefer Rezial Hemelach (The Book of the Angel Rezial). Samuel Weiser, Inc., 2000. Full Listing »
Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation). Weiser Books, 1997. Full Listing »
Gaster, Moses. Sword of Moses, The, presented in Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Mediaval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha and Samaritan Archaeology, vols. 1 and 3.. Maggs Brothers, London, 1925-1928. Full Listing »
Epstien, Perle. Kabbalah: The Way of the Jewish Mystic. Shambhala, 2001. Full Listing »
Fine, Lawrence. Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety and the Beginning of Wisdom. Paulist Press, 1984. Full Listing »
Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, Ltd., 1974. Full Listing »
Budge, Sir E. A. Wallis. Amulets and Superstitions. Dover, 1978. Full Listing »
Naveh, Joseph and Shaked, Shaul. Amulets and Magic Bowls: Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity. Magnes Press, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1985. Full Listing »
Schrire, T. Hebrew Amulets: Their Decipherment and Interpretation. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1966. Full Listing »
Trachtenburg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition. Atheneum, 1987. Full Listing »
For more titles on this and other topics, you may also wish to browse my annotated biblography for listings of all of my source texts, including descriptions and brief reviews.