A God by any other name…

We Jews seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort avoiding ever saying God’s name. That has always struck me as strange.

The rationale is that God’s name is so holy, even uttering the word should be reserved for similarly sacred occasions. Praying. Making a blessing. Hoping those police lights in your rear view mirror aren’t for you.

Therefore, people often take the most common Hebrew word for God—Adonai—and substitute a word like Adoshem or simply Hashem (literally, “the name”).

It’s a nice idea—I’m a big fan of acknowledging the proper levels of holiness. The problem is that the word Adonai is itself a way of avoiding saying God’s name. It functions exactly the same as when we modern Jews say Hashem.

We deal with this whole subject every Yom Kippur, during the Service of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). Because God’s name was so unbelievably, incredibly, and awesomely holy, the High Priest would wait all year, put on his best priestly outfit, go into the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem and….say it out loud. The rest of the crowd, assembled outside, would be so afraid of even just hearing it that they’d cover their ears like little kids and chant over the High Priest’s voice. Maybe as a result of that, or because nothing was written down back then, we don’t actually know the word the High Priest said. God’s real name is lost to us forever.

That’s one reason why every Prayer Book has different ways of referring to God in print. Sometimes they use the so-called tetragrammaton—a four-letter word that kind of looks like “Jehovah” but is actually a made-up mixture of the various tenses of the verb “to be.” Other print editions might use Hebrew letters like a double-Yud. In any case, the reader knows to pronounce those placeholders as “Adonai,” which itself is a perfectly good Hebrew word meaning “Our Lord.”

I have never felt the need to avoid saying Adonai when that word is used in context—teaching, singing, practicing, or any of the other numerous occasions that a person might bring God into a conversation. Having sung in various choirs over the years, I have observed the many tortured ways that singers have gone out of their way to not say Adonai when singing liturgical texts that are in fact all about Adonai. Some choirs will sing “Adomai”—figuring the audience won’t really hear the difference and at the same time they’ve avoided the word. A bit ridiculous in my opinion. What could convey a higher level of holiness and be imbued with sanctity more than a choir singing Jewish texts?

And now we come to my own silent fingernails-on-the-blackboard issue—writing the English word God as G-d. (Some equally unfortunate related examples are Gd or even L-rd.) Sometimes I picture God listening to humanity, doing His best Robert De Nero impersonation, squinting and saying, “Are you talking to me?”

The word God is a plain old, nothing special English word. Just like any other. Old English, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins—like most of the words we use. There’s nothing intrinsically holy about that word.

However, if you get yelled at when you’re trying to enter Olam Haba, you can just blame it on M-tt.

Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

2 comments on “A God by any other name…

  1. Joyce Poirier

    Hi Matt, I love your writing and ca only imagine the power of your singing! This piece really hit home for me, as I have never struggled saying God, but have noticed the discomfort with which others have around it.
    You must be an amazing cantor, filling your people with the love of God… no matter what name is used! I am just so proud to know you!
    Incidentally, I began my religious life as a Sister of Charity at Convent Station, NJ in 1956, and remained a nun for 26 years; amazing similarity in our roots!
    Love and God bless you, Matt.


    • Cantor Matt Axelrod

      High praise indeed from my former English teacher! Thank you so much for your kind words, Joyce.


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