Our Jewish Roots: What’s in a Name?

By the time a child is but a few years old he recognizes any number of different monikers to which he must answer.  Let's take a look at fictitious Joseph James Baxter.  To his grandmother he might be "Joe-Joe," while to his friends he might be "The Big J."  His parents probably call him "Joe" unless they are upset and then it might become "Joseph James!"  If Joe's done something really bad he quickly will become "Joseph James Baxter", while in other situations that could range from his being in extreme trouble to being respected by someone who doesn't know his name, he might be called "Young Man."  You get the idea.

My own titles, or names, have included, but again are not limited to: Sherri, Cheryl, Cheryl Ann, Young Lady, mom, mother, Mrs. Dickow, Mrs. D., and Ma'am, with Ma'am being the only that actually makes me cringe.  Nonetheless, names have always played an important role in the history of mankind.  Many names can, and usually do, apply to one person.  We know that when Jacob wrestled with the angel, along with a wounded hip he acquired a new name, Israel.  Additionally, we are aware of the name changes from Abram to Abraham and from Sarai to Sarah.  Each of these biblical instances of name changes represents a critical piece of the story.

Significance in names also applies to the naming of children in the Bible.  And while most of us skip the paragraphs of lineage where name after name is recorded, we take notice when an essential part of the story is the selecting or giving of a name.  Consider when Gabriel announces to Zechariah, "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John."  The Hebrew name for John is Yochanan which means "Yahweh is gracious."  So in naming this baby boy "John," people are reminded that their God, here called Yahweh, is gracious.  Friends, family, and neighbors will certainly know this to be true because both Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are much older and past child-bearing years.  All will clearly know that Elizabeth and Zechariah have been blessed with this baby because of Yahweh's graciousness. 

All naming in the Old and New Testaments pales in comparison, though, to the giving of the one name at whose mention all knees shall bend: Jesus.  And while the Son, whose name is often said to be "Yeshua" in Hebrew, is given a name that means "Salvation," it is often thought that His name can be translated "God Saves."  Understanding the meaning found in a name is key to understanding why God Himself has so many titles.

For many Jews, and in particular Orthodox Jews, the name of God represented by the four letters Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay (YHVH) is never actually spoken.  It is considered too sacred for man to utter.  While some scholars believe that man has yet to even know the correct pronunciation of this "Tetragrammaton," as it is often called, others, including some Catholic scholars, believe that the pronunciation was lost at the time of the destruction of the temple.  The High Priests would have known the correct pronunciation but, in their understanding of its sacredness, would have only uttered it in the silence of their hearts.

 This Tetragrammaton, or four-letter name, is the name used when God identified Himself to Moses as "I AM WHO I AM", thus identifying Himself as the Eternal One.  Those scholars who believe man has never actually known the pronunciation believe this because it is without vowels and thus without indicators of pronunciation.  Thus, to avoid uttering what could be the correct pronunciation of this all-holy name (because no one is worthy to do so), or to avoid sinfully mispronouncing it, the title Adonai is often used as a substitution for Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay.  In most English versions of the Old Testament, the Tetragrammaton is found as the all-capitalized word "LORD."

Most non-Jews believe that the best translation of God's revered name is "Jehovah."  Jehovah first appeared as a result of the 1278 A.D. work of a Spanish Monk named Raymundus Martini.  In a Latin document titled Pugio Fidei, (Dagger of Faith), Martini mixed the vowels from the title Adonai with the Tetragrammaton and arrived at Jehovah.  From there it was used in other works until it was used for the first time in 1530 by Tyndale in an English Bible.  Although this English name of God, or Lord, is not considered the "true" name, as it is an English transliteration of a Hebrew name that is itself without vowels, Orthodox Jews will omit the vowel and write it as G-d, or L-rd, still recognizing it as a derivation from the sacred name of God. 

God's many names are in the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and Jewish liturgy.  They are understood to reveal to man the different characteristics that God has shown to His people throughout their history.

Like Adonai, HaShem is a very popular name for God and means just that, "The Name."  In Leah's life as Jacob's wife, HaShem is the name of God who responds to Leah's circumstances and blesses her with children.  We read that HaShem heard Leah's prayers or that HaShem knew that Leah was unloved.  We also read that Leah talks of HaShem's response to her prayers and so she names her children accordingly: Reuben, because HaShem had seen her affliction; Simeon, because HaShem had heard that she was unloved; Levi, because she hoped HaShem would join her husband to her; Judah, because she would praise HaShem. 

El-Shaddai is the Almighty God who invited Abram, "Walk in my presence and be blameless.  Between you and me I will establish my covenant, and I will multiply you exceedingly."  Using this name, which literally means "All Sufficient," God makes it clear to Abram that whatever he is being asked to do, he will do it with the might of the one who is "all sufficient" behind him.  There will be no need to worry, there will be no need for fear.  Even in the midst of circumstances that may seem foreboding, El-Shaddai promised to be at Abram's side.

When El-Shaddai, the Almighty God, provides Abram with a heroic rescue of Lot, it is Melchizedek who proclaims that this Almighty God is, in fact, Jehovah-Elyon, thus revealing another aspect of God's character as the "Lord Most High."  The emphasis is on most high as it was often the case that pagan nations pitted their god against an enemy god and whoever had the most powerful, or most high, god was the "winner."  In using the name Jehovah-Elyon, there is no mistake that in these daily battles of "whose god is better," the God that Abram serves is the Lord Most High, sovereign Creator and Ruler of the universe, bar none. 

When questioned by Isaac as to the whereabouts of the ram needed for sacrifice on Mount Moriah, Abraham's confident response was to use God's name Jehovah-Jireh, meaning "God will provide."  As Christians, we can understand this in that God has provided His Son as a sacrifice for our sakes.  He is our Jehovah-Jireh, our God who provides a way to Himself and a means for our salvation.

In choosing to reveal characteristics of Himself through different names at different times in the Torah, God helps illuminate His nature in a way that, although we can never fully comprehend who He is, we can better understand that He has a rightful place in every aspect of our lives, in the minutia and in the grand scheme of things.  He is our healer (Jehovah-Repheka) and the Lord of Hosts (Jehovah-Tsebaoth).  He is always there (Jehovah-Shamah) and is righteous (El-Tsaddik).  He has perfect knowledge of all things and as Christians we call Him omniscient while our Jewish roots use the name El-De'ot.  Just as we would hope, He is compassionate (El-Rachum), gracious (El-Channun), and strong (El-Sali).  And we are blessed to call Him Father.

Cheryl Dickow

By

Cheryl Dickow is a Catholic wife, mother, author and speaker. Cheryl’s newest book is Wrapped Up: God’s Ten Gifts for Womenwhich is co-authored with Teresa Tomeo and is published by Servant (a division of Franciscan Media); there is also a companion journal that accompanies the book and an audio version intended for women’s studies or for individual reflection. Cheryl’s titles also include the woman’s inspirational fiction book Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage. Elizabeth is available in paperback or Kindle format. Her company is Bezalel Books where her goal is to publish great Catholic books for families and classrooms that entertain while uplifting the Catholic faith and is located at www.BezalelBooks.com. To invite Cheryl to speak at your event, write her at Cheryl@BezalelBooks.com.

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  • Guest

    Again, many thanks for the article!

    I was thinking one day on how names have meanings in the language where the particular name came from. (In Cheryl Dickow's column last week, the meanings of the names of the archangels were given.) At that time, I also remembered the conversations my wife and I had when we were choosing a name for our baby.

    In that I realized two critical things about names and naming (or being named). One is the precedence of the meaning and the other is precedence of the one who gave the name. Both have to exist prior to the person being named.

    And that is when I stumbled upon how appropriate God's name of I AM is for Him. Since no one and nothing came before Him, there is no context to derive a meaning from upon which to base His name. Moreso, no one came before Him to name Him. So, the only name appropriate for God is I AM– a name that explains who He is but at the same time does not really explain anything. That is, until you meditate on how names come to be– which I think was done more often than us by people in ancient times.

    On being named. What a reminder of humility it is (or should be), that no one can claim to have chosen a name for him/herself. (Or, at least I know of no one.)

    May God be praised.

    –Michael

    Ave Maria, Gracia plena
    Maria, gracia plena
    Maria, gracia plena
    Ave, ave dominus
    Dominus tecum
    Benedicta tu in mulieribus
    Et benedictus
    benedictus fructus fructus ventris
    Ventris tuae, Jesus.
    Ave Maria

    Ave Maria
    Mater Dei
    Ora pro nobis peccatoribus
    Ora, ora pro nobis
    Ora, ora pro nobis peccatoribus
    Nunc et in hora mortis
    in hora mortis nostrae
    in hora mortis mortis nostrae
    in hora mortis nostrae
    Ave Maria

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iy-ZvD0Pnq0

  • Guest

    I know every word of the above Latin – Ave Maria. I do not know Greek or Hebrew. My question to the author is this: Are all the Hebrew names for God gender specific? Would we consider God to be more of a male based on the language or do we only assign the gender because Jesus asked us to call Him Father?

  • Guest

    Michael,

    Thank you for the beautiful meditation upon the name, "I AM," when you say… a name that explains who He is but at the same time does not really explain anything…as I, like so many others, continually quest to know Him intimately and realize that when my earthly journey is complete, I will find that I have hardly known Him at all.  How can we ever grasp who He is?

  • Guest

    Goral,

    Remembering that I am no theologian but just a gal (well maybe older than a gal) who loves the Jewish roots of her Catholic faith and somewhere along the way obtained a master's degree in education…

    Having said that, I will share with you that in my mounds of reading and research I do find that there is a strong Jewish teaching about a feminine aspect, or reference/presence, called the Shekinah.  This, then, makes me believe that the gender references to Adonai and the other names of God are male oriented. 

    But I welcome any feedback on this as I believe we have a great wealth of knowledge to tap into from our CE readers.

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