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In Judaism, the name of God is more than a distinguishing title. It represents the Jewish conception of the divine nature, and of the relation of God to the Jewish people. To show the sacredness of the names of God, and as a means of showing respect and reverence for them, the scribes of sacred texts took pause before copying them, and used terms of reverence so as to keep the true name of God concealed. The various names of God in Judaism represent God as he is known, as well as the divine aspects which are attributed to him.

The numerous names of God have been a source of debate amongst biblical scholars — some declare that the different aspects of God have different names, depending on the role God is playing, the context in which God is referred to and the specific aspects which are emphasized. This is akin to how a person may be called by: 'his first name', 'Dad', 'Captain', 'Honey', 'Sir', etc. depending on the role being played, and who is talking.

The most important and most often written name of God in Judaism is the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God. "Tetragrammaton" derives from the Greek prefix tetra ("four") and gramma ("letter"). This name is first mentioned in the book of Genesis and is usually translated as 'the Lord'. Because Judaism forbids pronouncing the name outside the Temple in Jerusalem, the correct pronunciation of this name has been lost — the original Hebrew texts only included consonants. Some scholars conjecture that it was pronounced "Yahweh", but some suggest that it never had a pronunciation. The Hebrew letters are named Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh (יהוה); note that Hebrew is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English. In English it is written as YHWH, YHVH, or JHVH depending on the transliteration convention that is used.

In appearance, YHWH is the third person singular present of the verb "to be", meaning, therefore, "He is". This explanation agrees with the meaning of the name given in Exodus 3:14, where God is represented as speaking, and hence as using the first person — "I am". It stems from the Hebrew conception of monotheism that God exists by himself for himself, the uncreated Creator who doesn't depend on any concept, force or anyone else; therefore "I am that I am".

The idea of 'life' has been traditionally connected with the name YHWH from medieval times. God is presented as a living God, as contrasted with the lifeless gods of the heathen: God is presented as the source and author of life (compare 1 Kings 18:10; Isaiah 41:26-29; Isaiah 44:6-20; Jeremiah 10:10,14; Genesis 2:7; and so forth).

The name YHWH is often reconstructed as Yahweh, based on a wide range of circumstantial historical and linguistic evidence. By contrast, the translation "Jehovah" was created by adding the vowel points of "Adonai" ("My Lords"). Early Christian translators of the Torah did not know that these vowel points only served to remind the reader not to pronounce the divine name, but instead say "Adonai", so they pronounced the consonants and vowel points together (a grammatical impossibility in Hebrew). They took the letters "IHVH" (from the Latin Vulgate) and the vowels "a-o-a" (from Adonai) were inserted into the text rendering IAHOVAH or "Iehovah" in 16th century English, which later became "Jehovah". This name originates from the teachings of Martin Luther.

All modern denominations of Judaism teach that the four letter name of God, YHWH, is forbidden to be uttered except by the High Priest, in the Temple. Since the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists, this name is never said in religious rituals by Jews. Orthodox and Conservative Jews never pronounce it for any reason. Some religious non-Orthodox Jews are willing to pronounce it, but for educational purposes only, and never in casual conversation or in prayer. Instead of pronouncing YHWH during prayer, Jews say Adonai.

Substituting Adonai for YHWH dates back at least to the 3rd century BCE. Passages such as: "And, behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said unto the reapers, YHWH [יהוה] be with you. And they answered him, YHWH [יהוה] bless thee" (Ruth 2:4), strongly indicate that there was a time when the name was in common usage. Also the fact that many Hebrew names consist of verb forms contracted with the Tetragrammaton indicates that the people knew the verbalization of the name in order to understand the connection. The prohibition against verbalizing the name never applied to the forms of the name within these contractions (yeho-, yo-, -yahoo, -yah) and their pronunciation remains known (These known pronunciations do not in fact match the conjectured pronunciation yahweh for the stand alone form).

Many Jews will not even use "Adonai" except when praying, and substitute other terms, e.g. HaShem ("The Name"), out of fear of the potential misuse of the divine name. In written English, "G-d" is a common substitute.

English translations of the Bible generally render YHWH as "LORD" (all capitals) and Adonai as "Lord" (upper & lower case). In a few cases, where "Lord YHWH" (Adonai YHWH) appears, the combination is written as "Lord GOD" (Adonai Elohim). In contrast, the name "Jehovah" is never used in Scripture apart from the Christian text of the King James Bible (and also in the Jerusalem Bible).

Seven Names of God

In medieval times, God was sometimes called The Seven. Among the ancient Hebrews, the seven names for God over which the scribes had to exercise particular care were:

  • El – "Melchizedek was the priest of the Most High God [El]" (Genesis 14:18).

  • Elohim – "And God [Elohim]saw the light, that it was good" (Genesis 1:4).

  • Adonai – "And Abram said, "Lord [Adonai] GOD, what wilt Thou give me?" (Genesis 15:2).

  • YHVH i.e. Jehovah – "in the day that the LORD [יהוה] God made the earth and the heavens" (Genesis 2:5).

  • Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh – "And God said unto Moses, "I AM THAT I AM [אהיה אשר אהיה]" (Exodus 3:14).

  • Shaddai – "the LORD appeared to Abram and said unto him, "I am the Almighty [Shaddai] God" (Genesis 17:1).

  • Zebaot – "but I (David) come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts [Zebaot]" (1 Samuel 17:45).

Lesser used names of God

  • El Emet – "God of Truth" (Psalm 31:5).

  • Ro'eh Yisra'el – "Shepherd of Israel" (Psalm 80:1).

  • Kaddosh Israel – "Holy One of Israel" (Psalm 89:18).

  • Magen Avraham – "Shield of Abraham" (Genesis 15:1).

  • YHWH-Yireh – "The Lord will provide" (Genesis 22:14).

  • YHWH-Rapha – "The Lord that heals" (Exodus 15:26).

  • YHWH-Nissi – "The Lord our Banner" (Exodus 17:15).

  • YHWH-Shalom – "The Lord our Peace" (Judges 6:24).

  • YHWH-Ra'ah – "The Lord my Shepherd" (Psalm 23:1).

  • YHWH-Tsidkenu – "The Lord our Righteousness" (Jeremiah 23:6).

  • YHWH-Shammah – "The Lord is present" (Ezekiel 48:35).

  • Tzur Israel – "Rock of Israel" (2 Samuel 23:3).