Naming the Mystery
Whether or not you call yourself “religious,” you may have had an unexplained experience of awe, transcendence, or union with your surroundings. Perhaps a feeling of being guided, or an inner imperative to act justly. As my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught, religion is “the afterthought of the believer,” because such personal spiritual experience precedes the theology we build around it and the names we give it.
Jewish tradition has various names for this ultimate mystery, this Being-Power-Force we call “God” in English. The two main names for God in our Biblical tradition are Elohim and YHWH. You can understand those names as a traditional believer, a mystic, or a humanist.
Elohim is usually translated “God,” and is the general name for God. It is interesting to note that in Gematria (Hebrew numerology, in which every letter has a numerical value), Elohim is equal to Ha-Teva, meaning Nature. Indeed, it’s the name of God the Creator in the first chapter of Genesis. In Rabbinic thought, this name represents the experience of God’s judgement, because Nature functions according to laws. Sometimes I think of this is the experience of the divine force as impersonal. For the humanist, it can be “God” as the sum of everything.
There is another name, the “personal name” of God. The sacred four letter name seen at the top center of the Hebrew illustration on this page is written in English letters YHWH (or YHVH). YHWH is related to the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush, Eheyeh, “I will be what I will be,” essential Being. It can also be translated as Eternal One, Source of Being, or Breath of Life (a translation suggested by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who notes that its letters make the sound of breathing). In Rabbinic thought, YHWH is associated with the transcendent, merciful experience of God. I sometimes think of this as the personal experience of God. This can be the deepest and most mystical, immediate sense of God. And I think that there is a place here for the humanists here as well, because everyone has to discover his or her own transcendent meaning.
In Jewish mysticism, the four Hebrew letters in the divine name YHWH represent Four Worlds of Creation (Physical, Emotional, Intellectual, and Spiritual), which form the template of this site.
Here’s a nice, short and traditional explanation of how these two Biblical names of God both speak of One unified reality.
Jewish mysticism has emphasized the name Shechinah, which is associated with the immanent (indwelling, close) and feminine or motherly experience of God, often as manifested in nature. For Kabbalists, this is related to the experience of God as sovereign, malkhut, infusing and reigning in the natural world. I remember coming back from an intensive Jewish spiritual retreat, and realizing as I tried to put my experiences into words that I had felt so close to “Her,” to the Shechinah.
There are many other Jewish names for God, which function as metaphors for various experiences of divinity. Some of these names, like “Rock” or “Light,” come from nature, and will be noted on this site.
YHWH is considered too holy to pronounce aloud, and therefore is traditionally exchanged by the names Adonai (Lord) in prayer, or Hashem, “The Name” at other times. Today in the Jewish Renewal community, based on the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schacther-Shalomi and a teaching in the Talmud (Bavli Eruvin 18b), you will hear some substitute “Yah,” which is the second part of the name, and reminds us of the praise: Hallelu-Yah! Mystical texts sometimes re-ordered the four Hebrew letters and called God, “Havayah,” a name that suggests endless becoming.
Hebrew Pronunciation Guide
In the Hebrew transliterations, pronounce the “ch” as in “Bach.” (Due to technical limitations on the site, the Hebrew letter khaf כ and the Hebrew letter chet ח are both transliterated as “ch,” except in some words where the chet is generally written as an “h” in English.)
Pronounce the vowels as in Spanish:
a = ah, as in father
e = eh, as in bed
i = ee, as in bee
o = oh, as in low
u = oo, as in too
ei = like the vowel sound in hay
ai = like the vowel sound in guy
In addition to the divine names and sacred texts, here are some Hebrew terms that are frequently used:
Berachah (may be spelled “Berakhah”): Blessing
Kavannah: Intention or focus of a prayer, meditation, or deed.
Mitzvah (plural: Mitzvot): A Torah commandment or divine imperative. It is also used to mean a “good deed.” Hassidic sources relate it creatively to the Aramaic word “tzavta,” signifying connection, something that connects us to God.
Tzedakah: charity (literally, “righteousness,” or “doing the right thing”)
Tikkun Olam: “Repairing the World.” This term has a long history in rabbinic and mystical thought. Today it is often used to mean Social Action, making the world better. It is said that Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, starts with Tikkun HaLev, repairing the heart.
Shabbat: The Jewish Sabbath, the day of rest, which begins at sundown on Friday and continues until dark (when three stars visible in the sky) on Saturday night.
Shalom: Peace, from a word-root meaning “wholeness, completeness.” Also used as a word for greeting and parting.
Yom Tov: “Good Day,” refers to the holy Shabbat-like days that are part of the major Jewish festivals