Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rambam Yisodei Hatorah Perek 6 Halacha 2: Which Names of G-D are Forbidden to Erase

ושבעה שמות הם. השם הנכתב יו"ד ה"א וא"ו ה"א והוא השם המפורש. או הנכתב אדני. ואל. אלוה. ואלהים. ואהיה. ושדי. וצבאות. כל המוחק אפילו אות אחת משבעה אלו לוקה:

There are seven names [that are forbidden to be erased]. The name written with a yud-hey-vav-hey, this is the explicit name (Shem Hamefurash) or if it is written as Alef-dalet-nun-yud, EL, Eloha, Elohim, Eheyeh (In Rambam Frankel), Shadai, and Tzivaos. Anyone who erases even one letter from these seven [names is punished with] lashes.

The Rambam here is quoting the Gemara in Shevuous 35a where it basically says what the Rambam says, verbatim. However, the Rambam (The Guide for the Perplexed Part 1 Chapter 61) discusses the names of G-D a little more in depth. I think it is appropriate to bring down his words here:

IT is well known that all the names of God occurring in Scripture are derived from His actions, except one, namely, the Tetragrammaton, which consists of the letters yod, hé, vau and hé. This name is applied exclusively to God, and is on that account called Shem ha-meforash, "The nomen proprium." It is the distinct and exclusive designation of the Divine Being; whilst His other names are common nouns, and are derived from actions, to which some of our own are similar, as we have already explained. Even the name Adonay, "Lord," which has been substituted for the Tetragrammaton, is derived from the appellative "lord"; comp. "The man who is the lord (adone) of the land spake roughly to us" (Gen. xliii. 30). The difference between Adoni, "my lord," (with ḥirek under the nun), or Adonay (with kameẓ), is similar to the difference between Sari, "my prince," and Saraï, Abraham's wife (ib. xvi. 1), the latter form denoting majesty and distinction. An angel is also addressed as "Adonay"; e.g., "Adonay (My lord), pass not away, I pray thee" (ib. xviii. 3). I have restricted my explanation to the term Adonay, the substitute for the Tetragrammaton, because it is more commonly applied to God than any of the other names which are in frequent use, like dayyan, "judge," shadday, "almighty," ẓaddik, "righteous," ḥannun, "gracious," raḥum, "merciful," and elohim "chief" all these terms are unquestionably appellations and derivatives. The derivation of the name, consisting of yod, hé, vau, and hé, is not positively known, the word having no additional signification. This sacred name, which, as you know, was not pronounced except in the sanctuary by the appointed priests, when they gave the sacerdotal blessing, and by the high priest on the Day of Atonement, undoubtedly denotes something which is peculiar to God, and is not found in any other being. It is possible that in the Hebrew language, of which we have now but a slight knowledge, the Tetragrammaton, in the way it was pronounced, conveyed the meaning of "absolute existence." In short, the majesty of the name and the great dread of uttering it, are connected with the fact that it denotes God Himself, without including in its meaning any names of the things created by Him. Thus our Sages say: "'My name' (Num. vi. 27) means the name which is peculiar to Me." All other names of God have reference to qualities, and do not signify a simple substance, but a substance with attributes, they being derivatives. On that account it is believed that they imply the presence of a plurality in God, I mean to say, the presence of attributes, that is, of some extraneous element superadded to His essence. Such is the meaning of all derivative names: they imply the presence of some attribute and its substratum, though this be not distinctly named. As, however, it has been proved, that God is not a substratum capable of attributes, we are convinced that those appellatives when employed as names of God, only indicate the relation of certain actions to Him, or they convey to us some notion of His perfection.

So we see that the name yud-hey-vav-hey is the true name of G-D that has no KNOWN meaning. However, all other names come to describe some action that G-D performs. With this in mind I will try to explain why these names are specified and not any others.

As Rambam points out, the yud-hey-vav-hey name of G-D is THE true name of G-D with no ulterior meaning, therefore, it is clear why erasing this name should be included in the prohibition of erasing G-D's name.

The truth is, there is one principle guiding this law that is pointed out time and again by the commentators and the Gemara itself. When a person writes the name of G-D it is forbidden to erase it. Why then does it specify these 7 names? Because, these seven names are used, almost exclusively, to refer to G-D. It is true that once and awhile someone might write these names referring to things other than G-D, but since the common usage of these words is to refer to G-D it is forbidden to erase them. I guess the idea of going after the majority (Rov) is the effective rule when dealing with erasing letters of G-D's name.

As will be pointed out in Halacha five of this chapter, other names of G-D are allowed to be erased. Why? Because they are less often used to refer to G-D and are more often used to refer to other things.

The reason for this law, it seems, is because we can not be cavalier with G-D. We need to always have a sense of awe whenever we deal with G-D. Therefore, even when we are writing G-D's name, we must be conscious of what we are doing. Matters dealing with the divine are no light matter. We need to show G-D respect in every aspect possible.

I think that the reason this law is included in the section of the Rambam which deals with the foundation of Judaism is because it teaches us that we need to realize G-D encompasses every aspect of our lives. No matter how minute the situation, we can never forget about G-D.


Anonymous said...

I came across this article while trying to research a question. Why does so much of our prayer and liturgy focus on praising g-d's name rather than praising g-d directly. Why the enormous emphasis on the name?

E-Man said...

We praise G-D through the different attributes that the different names convey. We are not praising just his name, but what the name represents. It is a way that man can connect to G-D, by discussing the humanized attributes of G-D.