When God Had a Name

Leon Nemoy's work contains some of Kumisi's writings.

Leon Nemoy’s work contains some of Kumisi’s writings.

Yesterday, a rabbi published an excellent piece about how the word “God” has become a loaded term. (See Rabbi Says, “Time to Give Up On God.”) As the rabbi astutely points out, people intend to convey vastly different feelings, meanings, and intentions when using the word “God.”

It seems to me, as a Karaite, that the ambiguity around “God” would be minimized if people actually referred to God by God’s personal name (יהוה).

Don’t worry; I’m not about to swat the hornet’s nest by advocating for a particular pronunciation of God’s name.

In truth, I don’t have the conviction or courage for such a post.

But as recently as a 1100 years ago, a contingent of Karaites believed it to be an act of “unbelief” to replace the Divine Name with the generic title “Adonai” (usually translated as “Lord”).*

Of course, “recent” is a relative term. The rabbinic ban on pronouncing the Divine Name dates back approximately 1800 years (depending on when one believes the ban went into full effect). (See Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1.) And by all accounts, the Essenes also prohibited the pronunciation of the Divine Name. (See 1QS 6:27-7:2.)

We’ve mentioned Daniel al-Kumisi’s famous Sermon to the Karaites before. In it, Kumisi, a tenth century Karaite, argues (solely from the Bible) that we are forbidden to pronounce God’s name.

From a Karaite perspective, it doesn’t matter that there is disagreement about the permissibility of pronouncing God’s name. All that matters is whether each person arrived at the interpretation based on an honest reading of the Scripture.

It appears even Kumisi recognized this, for after explaining why he believed it was forbidden to state the name, he urged his readers to search the Scripture for themselves: “What I had in my mind concerning the uttering of the Lord’s name, that have I written down for you. As for you, do ye investigate the matter according to your own wisdom, lest you should to according to my wisdom in reliance upon my opinion.”*

I don’t actually expect the average person to use God’s personal name, but it sure would make discussions about our belief in God – and whether we’re intending to convey the same concept – much clearer.

* See Leon Nemoy, The Pseudo-Qumisian Sermon to the Karaites, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 43 (1976) pp. 49-105.

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Today is the 4th day of the 5th week of seven weeks. Today is the 32nd day of the counting of fifty days from the day of the waving of the Omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.


Filed under Daniel al-Kumisi, Divine Name

21 Responses to When God Had a Name

  1. Awesome article Shawn, as usual. May Yehovah bless you! 😉

  2. Zvi

    I know you mean well, Deborah Arndt, and Shawn’s piece is sound enough, except you did not catch the mistake of attributing the *Pseudo*(this is a giveaway that he was not the author)-Qumisian Sermon to al-Qumisi himself. I recall one of the Hakhamim, probably N. Gordon, maintaining that this document is not in line with al-Qumisi’s opinion on the matter that actually favored pronouncing God’s Name.

  3. maurice

    Actually, I agree with the article. Calling by its name when we can’t pronounce the name and don’t know what it is anyway represents a meaningless discussion. In fact, it wants to be referred to as ‘I am what I am’. That sounds like a plea to be left alone anyway. Even if it is translated as ‘I will be what I will be’, I think we are getting instructions to stop trying to define it and call it anything. In the meantime, people use the word ‘god’ often several times a day anyway. Either we/they should look for a new word or just stop touching on an untouchable issue. After all, it will be what it will be. That’s what it wants.

    • Zvi

      I was not aware I cannot pronounce the Name and have been engaged in meaningless discussion each time I have called on Him by what I believe His Name is, notably in prayer, reading from the Tanakh, and uttering blessings outside of mundane daily life.

  4. Matityahu

    I forget where but someone suggested we use the Creators nickname, Yah, of which we know the correct pronunciation.

  5. יוחנן בן-דוד

    I was unaware that I could not pronounce the name! Is this because it is supposedly not known to anyone? What about the term Ya’H, which is clearly known, and a form of the name? Then, again, there are several linguistic scholars who offer up pronunciations of the name based purely on the language, which are interesting (even if I disagree with them), such as Yeheweh or Yehewih.

    The argument that Nehemia Gordon makes about it being pronounced the way the Miq’ra has it written is a plausible argument too , which would offer up a few different dialect pronunciations, which would make the lack of not knowing how to pronounce it properly null and void anyways.

    Two groups of Yisraelim separating for a few centuries, with one using “waw” and the other using “vav” does not mean that either of them pronounces Hebrew incorrectly, they merely have two different dialects of the same language, but this would give two different pronunciations of the name. Some vowels are pronounced differently too, depending on whether one is Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Yemeni, Mizrakhi and/or etc., so another reason that even if we did know the correct vowel points in the name, it might be pronounced differently by different Yisraelim.

    So no matter what we might not being pronouncing the name the same way even if we had all the parameters to do so correctly, this is why this is not a valid argument on not pronouncing the name!

  6. The problem is that we are utilizing a generic word “god” which can refer to any religious ideology’s deity. So if we are going to merely use the term “god”, then we need to add other descriptive pronouns to it, such as “God of the Hebrew Scriptures”.

  7. Abe

    Let’s look at the text of the bible, The bible starts with GEN “Berisheet Bara Elohim” then it goes on till the end of creation Gen 2, 4 “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Yeh…. Elohim God made the earth and the heavens”.
    Now fast forward to Jacob’s wife Leah Gen. 29 35 “And she conceived again, and bare a son: and she said, Now will I praise the Yehovah… therefore she called his name Yehoudah and left bearing. From here we know that they knew GOD’s name. Fast forward to the Ten Commandments, in there were the discussion starts about do not use the name of GOD in vain.

  8. Art Phillips

    Good article Shaun I always wondered ,whats more important ? what we should call the creator or what kind of picture we paint about our creator through our actions toward others and ourselves. ….Shalom!

  9. Tehilah

    This is interesting Shawn, thanks.

  10. This whole argument on whether to pronounce or not to pronounce the ONLY NAME of the Mighty One of Israel (יהוה) is entirely academic and superfluous, for the simple reason that Israel is COMMANDED to INVOKE His Name and SWEAR in and by the Name. The children of Israel have NO CHOICE in the matter, any more than we have a choice whether to LOVE and SERVE YHWH and ONLY Him. No matter which way you believe it should be pronounced, it MUST be pronounced. My own understanding of it is to pronounce it as the (Karaite) Masoretes did (Yehowah), but whatever YOUR understanding about the pronunciation is, if you are a son of Israel, you MUST pronounce His Name. You have no choice in the matter.

  11. Dale

    If you were to look up”god” in the 2nd College Edition-The American Hertage Dictionary:1.God 2.A being conceived as the perfect,omnipotent,omnipresent originator and ruler of the universe,the principal object of faith and worship in a monotheistic religions. 2.A being of supernatural powers or attributes,belived inand worshiped by a people,esp. a male deity thought to control some part of nature or reality. 3.An image of a supernatural being;idol. HOW CAN YOU COMPARE YAH´S NAME TO A old english-germanic form of who HE is. Even the word-“bio” means life,just as the word “theos” is a greek word that describes the study of God…of which is still using “theo” if you look up the meaning behind it….it gives a much different meaning..let me show you: I looked this up in a Lexical aid. “Theos”=GOD,Originally used by the HEATHEN and adopted in the N.T.as the name of the true God.The HEATHENS thought the gods were disposers(theteres,placers) and formers of all things. The ancient greeks used the words both in the singular and plural.In the pl. they intimated their belief that elements such as the heavens had their own “disposer or placer” e.g. “the god of money” as (in the heavens were a grand objects of divine worship,names attribute to the gods by the ancient greeks)-refers to Job… ALL of WHICH IS FORBIDDEN OF YAH..see (Job chapter 31 but esp.26,27,28.) Why,just read Isaiah-YESHA´YAHU 43.everywhere in the book of YESHA´YAHU esp.in chap. 41:25-43:07-“10,11”. If you really search the meaning of the verse in Exodus-SH´MOT pertaining to verse 07 of chapter 20: As I was typing this…it says in YAHU´SHUA chapter 43:10…For me.. given the example of the High Priest who is showing Yah´s true character…acting on HIS NAME.

  12. I have used the tetragram and Yehovah when I had felt that my life was was in danger. I was amazed how fast YHWH heard my plea and came to my rescue. I also use His holy Name to distiguish Him from all the other gods. It’s like having a special relationship with Him because of His Name.

  13. Shoshana

    Beyond the fact that we are to praise His name in word and by our behavior, Is it really pronounced Yeh… or Yahovah or some other form that starts with Yah? After all Yah and not Yeh is the shortened form of the sacred name. We have seemingly lost even the correct spelling of the Creator’s name. In Paleo Hebrew He introduced Himself to Moshe as YHVH which means behold hand behold nail but to admit that would cause great commotion as it ties it to scriptures like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22.

    • Ari Bahir

      Shoshana- We have very little knowledge of the meaning of pictoral Hebrew that pre-dates paleo-Hebrew. The idea that the pictoral vav represents a nail and the heh is a hand is imaginative speculation on behalf of Christians. The yod traditionaly is associated with a hand not the heh as well. Further, the Torah was written in the pre-Aramaic ashuri script which was the paleo-Hebrew. This was a variation of Phoenician and the stylistic appearance is divergent from the assumed earlier pictoral style. In all honesty, there is little to no real evidence that the pictoral style you are promoting was ever a legitimate Hebraic script.

      • Ari, the Rabbis in the Talmud were discussing whether the Paleo Hebrew Script or the Aramaic Script (which is what we currently use) is the original Hebrew script. They decided that the aramaic script is the original because the “vav” looked like a “hook” – vav in hebrew is hook.

        When Nachmanides arrived in Israel, he saw an ancient coin with Paleo Hebrew. The local Samaritans helped him read it. He then saw that the “vav” in paleo hebrew looked like a hook – way more so than in the aramaic script.

        So he realized that the rabbis of the Talmud were incorrect on this point.

        All this to say that the association between images and their meaning is not (necessarily) “imaginative speculation on behalf of Christians.”


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  15. Jacob Metz

    One of the greatest “proofs” that the Karaites- who vocalized the Aleppo Codex- did not, in fact, vocalize the יהוה according to its true pronunciation can be demonstrated in how the inseparable prepositions, especially מ , is prefixed to the Name. The מ, when prefixed to a guttural, is always vocalized with a tsere- this is so in every instance the מ is prefixed to יהוה. Another “proof” is in the different manner of vocalization of יהוה appear in the Text- in some places with the vowels of אלהים and in others with the vowels of אדני. These clearly demonstrate a readiness, on the part of the “Karaite” annotators to vocalize the Name in line with the, then familiar and well known, Rabbinic ban on pronouncing the Name.

    The only place the verb הוה is vocalized in the pa’al 3rd imperfect forms in in the Aramaic Text of Tenakh; this is done because the Hebrew היה did not exist in “Biblical” Aramaic. The cognate of the Aramaic הוה in Hebrew is היה. That fact alone is why this verb- and no other- is conjugated with the ל prefix in those Aramaic passages- to prevent the accidental pronunciation of the Name. According to the “Karaite” Scribes who annotated the Aleppo Codex, the verb הוה , as a pa’al 3rd imperfect, should be conjugated and vocalized as יֶהֱוֶה and is noted so in nearly all Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicons- such as Gesenius.

    The only exception I have to vocalizing the Name as a verb is found in the fact that verbs- aside from infinitives and sometimes participles- are not prefixed with prepositions. The fact the יהוה appears int eh Text with these preposition prefixes demonstrates that יהוה is- in fact- a noun. In the Hebrew Text of Tenakh, when a name is formed from an imperfect verb- especially with III-ה verbs- the final seghol He is replaced with qamets He. If יהוה is to be pronounced, based upon the Tenakh and Karaite vocalization, then the Name should be pronounced as יֶהֱוָה.

    I am not, however, opposed to any pronunciation of יהוה as long as it conforms to Hebrew grammar and not to fanciful speculation.

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