Dear Rabbi Fried,
Something has bothered me for years with the prayer service and many verses and it never occurred to me to ask someone. 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 A-donai, sometimes to Elo-him, etc? Please explain and I thank you in advance.
Great question! I’m glad you finally asked!
The important concept to understand is that the Names of God are not describing God Himself. The essence of God is above names or descriptions, as our limited minds have no grasp whatsoever of God’s essence.
When we assign a name to something, we fit that thing or being or concept into a finite description.
The first task given to Adam after his creation was to assign names to all the animals (Genesis 2:20). To do so, he needed 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 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,” which means “over there,” is spelled. There is a core concept that the same spelling in Hebrew reveals a deep connection between the two seemingly unconnected concepts. What is the connection between “name” and “over there”?
Every creation has its roots sham, “over there,” meaning in heaven. From heaven stems its essence, the word which was uttered at the time of its creation. That word is its name, its shem. The word “shomayim,” or heaven, is a plural — the sum total of all the “over theres.”
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 descriptions 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 what appears as 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 which is clearly noticeable; at other junctures He sees fit to hide His existence. There are times when all of 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 Zemiros” song recited at the end of the Shabbos 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…”
May we merit the insight to understand the deep connections we have with God in His interactions with us, leading to a profound and loving relationship.