How Many Names Does G‑d have?

 

Question:

In my Kabbalah classes, we are discussing the names of G‑d and I have some questions: How many names does G‑d have? Why would G‑d have any name – let alone so many! What should we have in mind when praying with these names? When can and can’t I use the names?

Response:

You’re right. In essence, G‑d has no name. He is infinite and can not be given any titles or description. You could say that by definition, He has no definition.

But then comes creation. G‑d chooses to become involved with His own thought of a physical world, descending, so to speak, within it. And in His relationship to us, the creatures of that world, He now assumes many descriptions: Creator, Judge, the Merciful One, Master…

Simply put, each name is a different manner in which we experience G‑d’s presence. When seeing the Grand Canyon, we marvel over the masterpiece he created. When reading the story of the Exodus, we recall His mighty Hand. When praying on Yom Kippur, we think about His powerful judgement.

In the words of the Midrash, "you want to know My name? I am called according to My actions."1

Kabbalah takes the concept of names one step further. You are probably familiar with the term Ohr Ein Sof, the Infinite Light, being the source for all existence. But in order for such an intense energy to translate into vitality for us, it must first be filtered through finite kelim or "vessels." Obviously, these are not containers in a spatial sense. Think of them as modalities or varied aspects of a single whole. The names of G‑d refer to the light as it is channeled through these kelim/modalities. Jewish law lists seven "Names of G‑d that are not permitted to erase" due to their holiness–these correspond to the lower seven of the ten sefirot (divine "attributes"). Sometimes we list ten such names, corresponding to all ten sefirot.2

But here it’s crucial to make the following two points:

1)We pray to G‑d – not to the sefirot, G‑d forbid (or even to the light invested within the sefirot). These sefirot are mere tools – or as we say in prayer, "an axe in the hands of the woodchopper." As I wrote above, they are no more than G‑d’s modalities of relating to us. When we wish to relate to Him as He is compassionate, we use the appropriate name. When we are appealing to Him to excercise His modality of justice, we use the name that calls upon that mode. The same with any prayer—the prophets and sages who composed them knew precisely which names to use for the appropriate effect.

2)G‑d is not bound by any rules or system. "Light and vessels" are merely the manner in which G‑d decided to generate and sustain a world. At any point, He can achieve whatever goals He wishes, with or without the mediums He has set in place.

How many names are there? The Kabbalists discuss many hundreds of names. Names used in the vernacular count as well. In fact, many halachic authorities apply the prohibition, "Do not take G‑d’s name in vain," to apply to any name that is used to refer to G‑d.3 Casually uttering "omigod," would accordingly be viewed as a transgression of this serious prohibition.

As mentioned above, however, Jewish tradition discusses seven especially holy names of G‑d that cannot be erased and must be written with special concentration. Due to the holiness of these names, we restrict their use to prayer only. Outside of a liturgical context, we may read those names as simply Hashem—meaning "the name." Or we substitute certain sounds to alter the pronunciation of a name, such as replacing the ‘h’ with a ‘k’ in names of G‑d such as ‘kel’ and ‘elokim‘.

Below is a chart of the ten divine names, based on the Shnei Luchot Habrit cited earlier. This is a classic work, mostly anthological, by Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, a major 16th century halachist and kabbalist. I have avoided writing out the actual names, since it is forbidden to erase or discard them. The transliteration of the names is interpolated with "k" and other means to avoid the actual pronunciation, since the names should only be pronounced in an appropriate context.

Name

Sefira

Attribute

Ekya

Ketter

Desire

Kah

Chochmah

Wisdom

YHVH punctuated as Elokim

Binah

Understanding

Kel

Chessed

Kindness

Elokim

Gevurah

Might

YHVH punct. Tzivaot

Tifferet

Compassion

YHVH Tzivaot

Netzach

Victory

Elokim Tzivaot

Hod

Glory

Shakkai

Yesod

Foundation

Adnai

Malchut

Royalty


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FOOTNOTES
1. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 3:6; see also Moreh Nevuchim 1:58.
2. See Shnei Luchot Habrit, Bet Hashem.
3. Shulchan Aruch HaRav: OC 85:3.
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