What do G-d’s names mean?

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Thanks for your explaining the existence of various names of G-d, which makes it easier to focus knowing they’re all referring to various character traits of the same G-d. I would appreciate if you could elaborate on what those traits are that we are referring to when we mention those names. 

Thanks again,

Harvey L.

Dear Harvey,

We can try to touch on the very basic meaning of some of the more commonly mentioned Names. 

[Allow me to preface this by saying that many readers may wonder why I always hyphenate the name G-d in the columns. This is to avoid the Name, even in English, to be desecrated inadvertently, such as if the paper is thrown into the trash or brought into a restroom, both places that would constitute a desecration of the Name of G-d. I will likewise be hyphenating any names we discuss for this reason, although it is spelled out completely in the Siddur and other holy books which don’t get desecrated.]

1. Ado-nai: This is the most commonly used Name of G-d. This name means “Master of all,” or as some will translate it, “Master of the universe.”

2. Y-H-V-H: (This is spelled in Hebrew as Yud – Hey – Vov – Hey.) This name means, “He was, He is and He will always be, the Master of the universe Who brought everything into existence and keeps it going.”

This is a name which we don’t actually pronounce, but when it is written with the letters Yud-Hey-Vov-Hey, we nevertheless pronounce it like the previous name, Ado-nai. 

Only in the days of the Temple, during the Temple worship, was this name actually pronounced by the Cohanim/Priests. This is due to the Name’s profound holiness. In our times, it is never pronounced, and the Talmud says this will be the case until Messianic times. 

(When we use the alternative pronunciation, there are differing opinions among the Kabbalistic masters whether one should have in mind the Name one is pronouncing, or the one we are referring to. Sephardic custom is to have in mind both, reflected in their Siddur where the two names are actually written with both intermingled together. I would suggest doing what you feel most comfortable with.)

This is the name most associated with G-d performing acts of loving kindness and compassion in the world. 

3. Elo-him: The meaning of this is “Master of all the powers of the universe,” hence it is written in the plural.

This name teaches us that our belief system is very different from that of many religions who believe that multiple powers, such as the power of evil, run contrary or are at war with their god(s). Our belief is that G-d created all powers that exist for reasons of tikkun, giving us something to “fix” in the world, and free choice (to choose against the powers of evil), and that He controls all such powers. 

G-d will also, at the time He sees fit (when they have run their course and finished their purpose), eradicate the powers of evil from the world. 

This is the name used most in conjunction with G-d expressing the trait of strict judgment in the world. 

4. E-l: This is a very common name which refers to G-d’s sustaining the world with His kindness, providing food for us and the animal kingdom. 

It also is the Name which, according to the Kabbalists, is the first of the “13 attributes of kindness” which form the foundation of our Yom Kippur services. 

There is much more to elaborate on and there are more Names as well. I hope this brief discussion helps you find meaning for the majority of the service.

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