This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

...Where Seldom is Heard a Mystical Word*

Perhaps the ultimate mystery of Jewish tradition is that of the name of God.

Soon after the close of the Biblical era, the four-letter name came to be regarded as too sacred for casual pronunciation. The Septuagint, the third-century B.C.E. Alexandrian translation of the Torah into Greek, already attests to the familiar Jewish convention of substituting the word "A-donai" (Lord) for the original Hebrew consonants, a Jewish practice that was later emulated in the King James English translation.

By the close of the Second Commonwealth, the original divine name was not pronounced at all by Jews except as part of certain ceremonies in the Temple. Even the priests who did speak the name during worship were often careful to muffle it so that outsiders could not hear the details of its pronunciation. It came to be referred to by the Greek term "Tetragrammaton," meaning "four letters."

We do not know the precise circumstances that led to the cessation of uttering the divine name. Talmudic sources complain that the name was being spoken irresponsibly, whether for rash vows, for magical incantations and amulets, or for other inappropriate purposes.

Over time, the lack of a living tradition about how to enunciate the name, as well as the absence of written vowels in classical Hebrew, caused the original pronunciation to be forgotten.

This was generally of little concern to Jews who had no practical use for such esoteric wisdom. It was however a matter that has continually kindled the curiosity of gentiles, and several different pronunciations of the four-letter name have achieved currency in English and other European languages.

Some of these reconstructions are based on legitimate philological considerations, but others reveal their authors' shallowness and ignorance. The most absurd suggestion is undoubtedly the common non-word "Jehovah," a misreading of the convention in many Jewish prayer books of superimposing the vowel marks for A-donai onto the consonants of the Tetragrammaton.

Some Christians like to use the name Jehovah (or some other reconstruction of the original name) when referring to the God of the "Old Testament." These are usually the same people who are scrupulous to refer to the Muslim God as "Allah." In either case, the implication is that the deities bearing strange names, who are worshipped by those other religions, is something less than the real God (whom they always designate by his generic English name). For these people, the Hebrew divinity is invariably portrayed as a primitive and vindictive tribal deity unworthy of an enlightened universal religion.

The etymology of the Tetragrammaton has also been subjected to diverse interpretations. Most authorities connect it to the Semitic root for "to be," a reading which is strongly indicated in the Biblical passage where God tells Moses "I am that I am." This reading was particularly popular among the medieval philosophers, who perceived God as Absolute Being in a profound metaphysical sense.

An alternative interpretation that been proposed by some scholars traces the name to the Hebrew pronoun hu, meaning "he." According to this theory, the "ya" component is a generic exclamation (as it is in Arabic) akin to the English "O!"; whereas the second syllable of the name was originally pronounced "hu" or "hoo."

In support of their interpretation, the champions of this etymology point to the practices of the medieval Islamic mystics, especially the Dervishes who are famous for the whirling dances that they use in order to induce an ecstatic state. As they spin, they gradually raise their voices until they are shouting an unceasing litany of "Ya hoo! Ya hoo"": O He! O He!

As the Persian Sufi Jalal qad-Din al-Rumi wrote in a poem: "I know no other except Ya-Hoo and Ya-man-hoo (O He-who-is)!"

Martin Buber has suggested that a similar usage lies at the primordial core of the four-letter Hebrew name of God: an elemental cry of religious ardour, accompanied perhaps by the throwing out of a gesturing arm. This experience was afterwards formalized into a name.

Perhaps there is a link between this theory and the Mishnah's report that during the spirited festivities that took place in the Temple during Sukkot, the participants used to chant "Ani-wa-hoo!"

Needless to say, the image of ancient Hebrew nomads shouting "Ya-hoo!" in the throes of a mystical encounter holds tantalizing associations for someone who lives in out here in the land of the Calgary Stampede and its characteristic whoop. Viewed from a proper historical perspective, the rodeo qualifies as a primal religious celebration.

Let me therefore advise any Jewish cowboys who wish to avoid pronouncing the mystical divine name: The next time you are riding on your bronco and feel moved to issue your spirited holler, you should consider crying out an alternative sound, like "Yippee!" or "Ya-koo!"

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressJuly 5 1999, p. 10.

  • Bibliography:

    • Albright, William Foxwell. From the stone age to Christianity : monotheism and the historical process. 2d / ed, Doubleday anchor books ; A100. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

    • Buber, Martin. Moses, the revelation and the covenant, Harper torchbooks. The Cloister library. New York: Harper, 1958.

    • Montgomery, J. A. "The Hebrew Divine Name and the Personal Pronoun HU." Journal of Biblical Literature 63, no. 2 (1944): 161-3.

    • Urbach, Efraim Elimelech. The sages, their concepts and beliefs. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1987.