7. היה [HA-YA] – TO BE AND BECOME

The next word on our list is היה. This is the past tense of the verb להיות – to be. The present tense of this verb is הווה [ho-ve] and the future is יהיה [ye-he-ye]. The equivalents in English are ‘was’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’. Since past, present and future play such a big role in our lives, the verb להיות appears in almost every sentence we speak.

The Jewish tradition has many names for God. The most common one in the Bible, spelled ‘yod’ ‘hey’ ‘vav’ ‘hey’, is derived from this verb. [henceforth YHVH]. It is a combination of ‘ha-ya’ ‘ho-ve’ and ‘ye-he-ye’ together, and symbolises the timeless nature of God who was, is and always will be in existence.

There is some development in the use of the name of God in the Bible. When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he asks “What is your name?” The answer: אהיה אשר אהיה – I will be what I will be.  [Ex 3:14].  In chapter 6, God instructs Moses to go to the children of Israel and tell them: “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] El Shadai, but [with] My name YHVH, I did not become known to them” [Ex. 6:3]

The Jewish tradition has many names for God.  He is The Almighty, The Omnipresent, The Powerful One and the Source of all Life. These names are all based on attributes of God and the ways He manifests Himself in our universe. But the 4 letter name is different; it is more a personal name than an adjective. That is why we use it to address God in our prayers.

In biblical times, people used God’s name in personal greetings. God’s name appears on fragments of clay tablets that were found in the excavation of Lakish in Israel. [see picture]

YHWH - Lachish

The Mishna teaches us: The [early] sages established that one should greet his fellow with ‘The Name’. [Brachot 9:5] Later, in the days of Shimon HaTzadik, the use of God’s name was first limited to the priests in the temple, and eventually only to the High Priest and only on Yom Kippur. In the dramatic service of Yom Kippur we are told that ‘When they heard the glorious, awesome Name expressly pronounced by the High Priest in holiness and purity, all the people would bow and kneel and prostrate to the ground’. [Mishnah, Yoma 3:9] Eventually, even that stopped; the pronunciation of the name was lost, and we no longer know how it is pronounced.

Today, The Name is pronounced either as ‘A-do-nai’ or ‘E-lo-him’, depending on the context. When it is written in the Bible or Siddur, the custom is to either use the vowels of one or the other so we know how it is to be read. Some Christian scholars misunderstood this, and came to the conclusion that the name is pronounced  ‘Jehovah’ – that is, the consonants YHVH with the vowels of A-do-nai.

But God is essentially an unknown; full of mystery. It is fitting that the verb ‘to be’ indicating the ongoing unfolding of destiny, becomes the name of the power behind all that is.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner

My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.

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3 comments

  1. The interpretation of the Tetragrammaton as combination of היה ,הווה and יהיה is traditional; however something I learned from the Plaut chumash commentary, which neither the Hertz nor Etz Chayim mention, is that if the pronunciation scholars say was the most likely for the Tetragrammaton, viz. “Yahweh”, is correct, then the Tetragrammaton ceases to be something looking vaguely like the verb “to be”, from which we have to extrapolate a meaning, but becomes, very simply and regularly, the third person imperfect of the הִפְעִיל of the verb stem הוה, and thus can be assigned an unambiguous meaning, “He causes to be”. (I’m translating it this way because, as you know, aspects in Biblical Hebrew did not map precisely onto tenses in other languages, and I prefer this to “He will cause to be”.)

    I’m surprised this interpretation is not more widely known.

    (One slight wrinkle in this theory: Some verbs ending ה seem instead to put a furtive פתח (and מפיק) in it in the הִפְעִיל, for example “תַגְבִּיהַּ” at the end of the last בְּרָכָה of בִּרְכוֹת הַשַּׁחַר. (Some siddurim have this verb in the קל instead—תִגְבַּה—in which this is not the case; I don’t know why not.) However, this isn’t the end of the story: other verbs don’t do this, e.g. מַרְאֶה, not מַרְאִיהַּ (and this isn’t because the example is in the present participle; we say מַגְבִּיהַּ, to use the verb from the first example, in the בְּרָכָה after the Shema in the morning).

    My knowledge of grammar isn’t deep enough to know why this difference exists, and whether it sheds any light on Plaut’s theory. How about yours? ;^)

    1. Thank you. This really helps to deepen our understanding. I like the traditional explanation because it better fits with the verses on Exodus – אהיה אשר אהיה. But the etymologies of the Torah do not always agree with our understanding of the development of language – and Pault’s explanation is certainly plausible.

      I suspect that the roots of היה (to be) and הוה (to become) are related to each other. And the title I gave to this post is even more appropriate than I expected.

      1. FWIW, Klein says the split of meaning of היה meaning to be and הוה to become only arose in mediaeval Hebrew. He gives היה as a “parallel form” of הוה, and suggests the latter might have arisen from a root הוה meaning to fall (occurring in Syriac, Arabic and probably Job 37:6), “the phases of sense development [being]: to fall, fall in, come to pass, come to be, be.” He gives a similar shift of meaning in Arabic _waqa`a_ but also Latin _cadere_/_accidere_, which I thought was interesting.

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