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HaShem meaning

HaShem – the unspoken Name of God

term HaShem (literally “the Name”) is used by observant Jews across the world when they refer to God as, according to belief, it is forbidden to utter God’s true name which was revealed to Moses in Exodus 6:3 as YHWH (יהוה in Hebrew).  Therefore, in prayers Jews use the word “Adonai” (Lord) instead of YHWH and “HaShem in conversations and in writing.

Did you know?  The word “Adonai” is used 7484 times in the Old Testament, first appearing in Genesis 2:4: “These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven”.

The prohibition against using God’s name is, according to many scholars, found in Exodus 3:15 when God says to Moses: “…The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you; this is My name for ever…” 

But where in this passage is there an injunction not to use God’s name?  In the Hebrew, the relevant passage is written “…זֶה-שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם” – ve ze Shmi Leolam.  The word " לְעֹלָם" is written without the “O” vowel sound which makes it possible to read the word, in Hebrew, as “lealeem” – to hide. 

In the Pesachim (50b) tractate of the Babylonia Talmud it says: “…It is written, this is my name, to be hidden; [and it is also written], and this is my memorial unto all generations?...”

Exodus 20:6 and Deuteronomy 5:10 say: Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain” so observant Jews will refrain from using HaShemHaMefurush for fear of misusing or mispronouncing it.

The Penalty for using the unspoken Name of God

During the Temple period, God’s name was only spoken by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement when he was in a pure state.  To speak the unspoken Name when in a state of impurity would bring the impure speaker closer to the pure God.  But, as impurity and purity cannot exist together, this placed the speaker is a dangerous situation that could result in their death.

The “Avoda Zarah” (18:a) tractate of the Babylonian Talmud provides us with a long list of severe punishments meted out to those who spoke the unspoken Name.

In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 90:a) we are given a list of those Jews who “will  not have a portion in the world to come…”.  These include “…one who pronounces the Divine Name as it is spelt”.

Rashi, in a commentary on Exodus 20:20, “…in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless thee” states that this verse in fact means that only the High Priest in the Temple may say God’s true name Name. 

HaShem and the Kabbalah

The term “HaShem is the equivalent of the Kabbalah’s “shemhamephurash”.  This name, used to express God’s hidden and unspeakable name was originally coined by the 10-220 CE Rabbinic sages, the Tannaim, whose commentaries and interpretations are recorded in the Mishnah.

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Over the centuries, variations on the “shemhamephurash” have been suggested and we know of four versions: one with 12 letters, another with 22, another with 42 and one with 72.

  • The 12 letter version can only be found in the Talmud and is not used in the Kabbalah.
  • The 22 letter version first appears in Sefer Raziel HaMalakh, a medieval handbook of practical Kabbalah that dates back to the 13th century CE with some sections possibly dating back to the start of the Common Era.
  • The 42 letter variant was suggested by Rabbi Hai ben Sherira in the 11th century CE.  It is thought that this is one of the more ancient versions of God’s name with various accepted pronunciations.  This is suggested by some scholars to be because of the fact that whilst the consonants are known, many of the Hebrew vowel letters have been dropped over the centuries.
  • The 72 letter shemhamephurash” derives from the Book of Exodus (14:19-21). The Hebrew verses are written down without vowel letters, spaces or punctuation one verse below the other.  The first line is written from right to left, the second from left to right and the final line from right to left.  Each three letter vertical section represents one of the 72 names of God.

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