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]
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.