By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Something has bothered me for years with the prayer service and many verses. It never occurred to me to ask someone, and my wife encouraged me to ask you. If we believe there is only one God, why do we refer to him with so many different names? It almost feels like we are talking to a number of different gods when sometimes we pray to Adonai, sometimes to Elohim, etc.? Please explain, and I thank you in advance.
— Harvey L.
Great question. I’m glad you finally asked.
The important concept to understand is that the names of God are actually not describing God Himself. The essence of God is above names, descriptions or even our understanding.
To assign a name to something is to fit that thing or being into a finite description. The first task given to Adam after his creation was to assign names to all the creations (Genesis 2:20). To do so was to delve into the essence of each animal and to see its purpose in the master plan of creation. A person’s name is said to be divinely inspired and to define one’s makeup and their mission in the world.
This goes to the core of the meaning of the word “name” in Hebrew, or shem. The word shem is spelled shin mem, the same way the word sham (over there) is spelled. The same spelling in Hebrew reveals a deep connection between the two seemingly unconnected concepts. What is that connection?
Every creation has its roots in sham — “over there,” meaning in heaven. From heaven stems its essence, the word that was uttered at the time of its creation. That word is its name, its shem.
The process of naming is something that does not work when it comes to a being who is infinite and belongs to another realm completely. If so, what are the meanings of the names of God?
The sages explain that the names of God are not in any way attempting to describe God Himself, rather they are description of the way God interacts with the world. We refer to God not as Himself but as His actions, although His essence is above our grasp His actions are within our ability to analyze and fathom.
At times, God shows compassion, at other times loving kindness. There are situations when He finds it necessary to mete out strict judgment. During certain periods of history, God reveals His presence in a way that is clearly noticeable. At other junctures, He sees fit to hide His existence. There are times when all the above could be happening simultaneously. These interfaces are what we attempt to learn, understand and fathom, revealing God’s connection to us and the world.
The different names of God describe these interactions and more. We sing about this in the well known “An’im Zemirot” song recited at the end of the Shabbat prayer service, within which we say, “I shall relate Your glory, though I see You not; I shall allegorize You, I shall describe You, though I know You not … Your greatness and Your strength, they described the might of Your works. They allegorized You, but not according to Your reality, and they portrayed You according to Your deeds … ”
We do not have the space in this column to actually explain some of the names of God, but perhaps we shall do so in next week’s column. I hope this answers your basic question and will give you more meaning when you pray.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.