One of the great religious wonders in Jewish tradition is how to pronounce God’s name; the sense of its ineffability adds to the oblique question of who and what God is. In Exodus 3, after Moses questioned who he was to take on his leadership role, he immediately transitioned to who God is, in verses that wrap the mystery in an enigma: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Glad we cleared that up.
According to the Ten Commandments, we are not allowed to take God’s name in vain, which is not hard when we have no idea what God’s name actually is or how to pronounce it. To clarify, we use an English term that makes it all better: the Tetragrammaton. Judges of this weekend’s National Spelling Bee might try this one to slip up an ambitious young speller.
It turns out that in this past week’s Talmud cycle, the issue of why God’s name is not made public is discussed, using the verse above as a prooftext: “This is My name forever.” In Hebrew, the words forever and hidden are linguistically related, leading to this incident: “Rava planned to expound the way to say God’s hidden name in a public teaching. A certain elder said to him, “It is written so that it can be read l’alem - keep it hidden” [BT Kiddushin 71a].
Then the passage adds this confounding detail: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: ‘Not as I am written, am I pronounced.’” As it turns out, long ago, the sages would tell anyone who wanted to know, God’s 12-letter name. But then people used it disrespectfully so the priests used to say it only when blessing the people, but sang it absorbed in a melody. Thus, it would remain concealed. One sage, it’s recorded, inclined his ear to hear it. People will always be curious.
According to this debate, if people were to treat God’s name respectfully, then God’s name would be used more publicly. No one wants to get too casual with the Almighty. The Talmud continues to this effect: “
Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Rav: ‘The 42-letter name of God may be transmitted only to one who is discreet, and humble and stands at least half his life and does not get angry and does not get drunk and does not insist he is right. And anyone who knows this name and is careful with it and guards its purity is believed above and treasured below and fear of him is cast upon the creatures and he inherits two worlds, this world and the World to Come,” [BT Kiddushin 71b].
So now we understand who gets to use God’s name: people who are Godly. What underlines most of the above description is the characteristic of humility. Those modest in spirit are trusted not to abuse God’s name.
This brings us to one of the heroes of our upcoming holiday, Shavuot: Boaz. We meet Boaz in the Book of Ruth in what appears to be a preoccupied moment. “Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you!’” It’s a tender moment of elevated greeting that leads to a legal precedent. The Talmud concludes that when you greet someone, you should do so in the name of God [BT Brakhot 54a].
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among our people. Bearing Boaz in mind, I often greet people with “Shalom” - which is a name of God - and part with people by saying “God bless” or “God bless you.” It feels like a little insertion of everyday holiness, and I enjoy when people say this to me. After all, we need all the blessings we can get. When I say this to non-Jews after a transaction, they regularly bless me back. But if you say this to Jews, they often raise an eyebrow and say simply, “Goodbye.”
This fascinating debate about the use of God’s name is, at heart, an attempt to keep a healthy balance between spiritual intimacy and proper reverence. What we find in Boaz is a man who saw in his employees, and Ruth in particular, a shadow of God - and as a result, he treated them with utmost care and respect.