Sotah 40

Which name of God?

What is the proper name of God to call upon when we want to offer gratitude? This is the subject of a debate on today’s daf.

The discussion picks up after relating which verses the people should say when the priests offered the priestly blessing at the end of various services. The Gemara now asks:

While the prayer leader is reciting the blessing of: “We give thanks,” what do the people say?

Every Jewish prayer service is marked by the special standing prayer, known as the Amidah. After a series of requests, the prayer closes with expressions of gratitude. (Our current Amidah actually closes with one more request — for peace — but this may have been a later development.) This blessing of gratitude, Modim, is known by its opening: “We give thanks.”

When the Amidah is recited by the leader, the worshipers are meant to listen and answer amen to the blessings. But Modim demands more of the worshipers; they are meant to say their own prayer. What should they say? Here we see a debate:

Said Rav: “We are thankful to you, Adonai our God, that we are thankful to you.”

Shmuel said: “We are thankful to you, God of all flesh, that we are thankful to you.”

Rabbi Simai said: “We are thankful to you, our Molder, Molder of creation, that we are thankful to you.”

Rav, Shmuel and Rabbi Simai are debating the name of God to be used in this short prayer. In fact, that seems to be the only disagreement between them, as the rest of the prayer remains constant for each of them, focusing on the meta issue of thanking God that we can thank God.

Rav uses God’s intimate and personal name, which Jews say aloud as Adonai but which is actually four consonants without vowels (YHVH), the true pronunciation of which has been lost. It is a name that connected to God’s unique relationship Jewish people (see Sifre Devarim 31). Shmuel uses the broader term God of all flesh (not just the Jewish people). Rabbi Simai takes this one step further and calls God the creator of all (not limiting to the flesh). These are three very different aspects of God, and three distinct areas of focus for our gratitude.

So whose name of God wins out in the end? Rav Pappa, coming a few generations later, is not willing to make a choice, but instead counsels to combine all the options:

Rav Papa said: “Therefore, let’s say them all.”

Indeed, that is how we refer to God in this prayer today:

We are thankful to You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, God of all flesh, our Molder, Molder of creation.

God is called all three of these expanding terms, and this blessing becomes an opportunity to call God by the most intimate and the most broad of names. This is a daring statement that while sometimes we are tempted to think of God only as particular to the Jewish people — or only as universal — this prayer holds the tension of both of these roles in one sentence.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 8, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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