The Tetragrammaton

The unpronounceable four-letter name of God

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For Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 1.61) all the divine names are simply descriptions of God's actions. This includes the name Adonai, which simply expressed the lordship of God and lordship is applicable, too, to human beings. The sole exception is the Tetragrammaton, which, unlike other names, gives a clear, unequivocal indication of God's essence. This name has no derivation. The prohibition against pronouncing the Tetragrammaton exists because this name is indicative of the divine essence in a way that no created thing is associated with Him.

When the Rabbis say that before the world was created there was only God and His name they call attention to the special nature of this name and how it differs from all the other names for God. The other names are derived from God's acts in the world and therefore could only have come into being after the world had been created. But the Tetragrammaton indicates God's essence and was therefore in being before the world was created.

Maimonides takes strong issue with the doctrine, popular in his day, that the Tetragrammaton has magical power or that there are a number of divine names by which magical influences can be brought to bear on the world. The Tetragrammaton is nothing else than the four-letter name, distinguished from all others solely because it is indicative of God's essence.

The Tetragrammaton in Kabbalah

In the Kabbalah all creation is [established] by means of the letters of the Tetragrammaton in various combinations. This name contains all the Sefirot and has innumerable combinations, each representing an aspect of divine manifestation. These, contrary to Maimonides, do have magical power and those who know how to draw on this power can work miracles hence the name Baal Shem ("Master of the Name") for this practitioner of "white" magic.

In the Lurianic Kabbalah there are four ways of spelling out the letters of the Tetragrammaton, which yield four different totals--72, 63, 45, and 52--each representing an aspect of God in His relation to the world in which He is manifested. Unlike for Maimonides, the Tetragrammaton does not represent God's essence but His manifestations in the Sefirot. God's essence is denoted by the term En Sof.

In another Kabbalistic understanding the Tetragrammaton represents the Sefirah Tiferet, the male principle on high, while Adonai represents Malkhut, the Shekhinah, the female principle. The combination of these two in the mind of the Kabbalist assists in the unification of these principles on high and promotes harmony in the Sefirotic realm. For this reason Kabbalistic prayer books depict the divine name in the form of an interweaving of the letters of the Tetragrammaton with those of Adonai.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.