Monday, July 6, 2015


Many traditional Jews, and even some Christians, prefer to spell the name of God by writing “G-D” or “L—D.” I think this is unnecessary and based on wrong assumptions. 

In support of the spelling of the word as “G-D,” many say that this is because it is prohibited by the Decalogue. This, however, is not so clear. The 3rd commandment is worded ambiguously. We do not exactly know what it means “to swear falsely by/take in vain the name of the Lord (YHVH).” Does the commandment prohibit “misuse (in court?)” or “identifying YHVH with a false god”? (See my book, And God Spoke These Words; The 10 Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, 64). 

In 1963, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, a prominent Reform Jewish legal scholar, dealt with this issue in a responsum, and argued that “the primary prohibition against erasure ..of the name of God [on which this custom is based] applies to the sacred names in the properly written text of the Torah, and even in the Torah itself those names of God are not sacred unless the scribe sanctifies them with a specifically uttered formula” (Recent Reform Responsa, 53).  

Furthermore, as we all know, Biblical and Rabbinic texts contain various names for God, but the only one that can be considered as God’s personal name in the Hebrew Bible is not “God,” an English word, but YHVH (from the verbal root hvh, an older form of hyh, meaning “to be”), which can be translated as “[YHVH] is” or, “[YHVH] is present” or even “[YHVH] causes to be.” It is found in the Bible in many places, and was uttered by the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem only during certain occasions. In time, its pronunciation was lost and the Rabbis substituted for it the name Adonai (meaning, “My Master”). So, Adonai is NOT God’s personal name; only YHVH is, and we do not even know how to pronounce it.  

In our time, the word “God” stands for something very important for many of us. For some it represents “the ground of existence,” for others “the fountain of ultimate meaning,” and for me, “the energy of the universe.”  (You can add here your own concept of God). God should be invoked simply as “existence,” without a personal name. We do not exert power over God by using God’s proper name. 

The word God is a symbol. In English prayers, using a generic term such as “God” (fully spelled) is enough. Let people apply to it their own meaning. The divinity does not need or require a personal name.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
July, 2015