Showing Respect for G-d’s Name

Under which circumstances do you most often hear G-d’s name mentioned? What emotions go along with the person saying G-d’s name?  What do you think of when you hear G-d’s name mentioned in that setting?

Most think of sanctifications of G-d’s name (קדוש ה). At the end of today’s Torah portion, however, there is a negative usage of G-d’s name (חלול ה).  A story is told of a fight between a man who was half-Israelite, half-Egyptian with a man who was fully Israelite.  The man who was half-Israelite cursed his fellow with G-d’s name, and G-d told Moses to have the Israelites take him outside their camp and stone him.  This became the source for killing someone who blasphemes, violating the 3rd commandment by taking G-d’s name in vain.

This story is peculiar to me for several reasons.  Why is the man not given a name?  We are told his mother’s name is Shelomit, that she is daughter of Dibri and that they are of the tribe of Dan, but we are not told this man’s name.  As the Bible is a book that loves genealogy, often telling us people’s names in list form without elaborating on them, it is unusual that we have an example of an unnamed individual.  Also, why does it make a difference that this man is half-Israelite, half-Egyptian?  One could argue that he was of lesser status, since his mother was an Israelite and father was an Egyptian, and in biblical times patrilineal descent was the standard of one’s ethnicity, yet I still see it as strange for the text to mention this man’s parentage twice without giving him a name.[1]

The commentators have a field day posing answers to these questions.  Rashi states that the man’s Egyptian father was the Egyptian who Moses killed because he was oppressing an Israelite.  He says that he converted to Judaism, as the text says that he was “within the children of Israel.”  He also asserts that the man’s mother, Shelomit, was a harlot, which alludes to earlier in the Torah portion, where it says “You shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry.”  Furthermore, he states that Shelomit was a chatterer, seen by her being the daughter of Dibri, as the word Daber means to speak.  Shelomit’s excess chatter led to her ruin, as we see through her son’s behavior and eventual stoning.  This follows a common pattern of Rashi using Midrash to both recycle biblical characters (the father of this man is the Egyptian that Moses killed) and to make sinners into people with bad lineage.

Ibn Ezra, instead of focusing on this man’s genealogy, centers on the word for curse, yikov.  This is not the common word for curse in the Bible, and Ibn Ezra, who was a grammarian, points out that this word can also mean “to pronounce,” which he believes is its correct use here.  This would mean that the man’s sin is not to curse in G-d’s name but saying G-d’s name, specifically the Tetragrammaton.[2]

Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the word yikov as “pronounce” rather than “curse” is probably more accurate, as that is how it is used more times in the Torah.  Nevertheless, the implications of this are frightening: simply saying G-d’s name could be grounds for death.  It is also problematic, albeit less so, to say that one is liable for death if he/she curses in the name of G-d, as in a fit of anger it is easy to say “G-d d— it” even though one generally does not mean that G-d should curse.  The rabbis of the Talmud were also bothered by this, and in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin they sought to limit the applicability of one being killed for cursing in G-d’s name.  They said that one needs to be witnessed by two witnesses and that he/she has to say a specific formula: “May G-d smite G-d.”  Such a formula is not likely to be said (as it is much more likely to say “May G-d smite you”) and may have been used to combat Gnostics, who believed in multiple parts of G-d that could be in opposition to one another.  Talmudic rabbis often limit cases, like this one of blaspheming, in order to minimize situations where one would need to be punished.

As we read Parshat Emor, let us think about the situations in which we say G-d’s name, or a variation of it, like “gosh.”  Do we generally say G-d’s name when we are happy, “Thank you G-d!” when we are surprised, “Oh my G-d” or when we are angry “G-d d— it!”  How can we ensure that we use G-d’s name in positive contexts rather than for a negative outburst or a curse?  G-d represents what is special and sacred about the world, and I therefore want to be sure to use G-d’s name to highlight the awe and reverence that I have.  At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that we are human and will likely use G-d’s name in an outburst of anger.  Doing so is not the same as the man who cursed in the Bible, as he specifically used G-d’s sacred name, the Tetragrammaton, which we no longer know how to pronounce.  It is also paramount to recognize that at times we might not see G-d in a positive light, or we might question G-d’s existence, both of which are different from using G-d’s name for a negative or destructive purpose.  May these days leading up to Shavuot be times of thinking about how we view G-d’s name in whatever form we conceptualize G-d: Adonai (lord), Elohim (judge), Shadai (almighty), Shechinah (the feminine presence of G-d which dwells amongst us) or simply as G-d, and may our contemplation of G-d bring us closer to the divine.

[1] After this man blasphemes he is brought before Moses, but Moses waits for G-d to give him the man’s verdict.  There are only a few times in the Bible where Moses does not directly tell the Israelites what to do, others being when the daughters of Zelopehad come before him to ask for land and when the man who violates Shabbat by carrying sticks is caught.

[2] Jews had such a great fear of the wrong person pronouncing the Tetragrammaton and angering G-d that it became only pronounced by the High Priest at the Temple.  After the Temple’s destruction, that name became forgotten and was replaced by Adonai, meaning “the LORD.”  Over time Adonai, the term substituted for the Tetragrammaton, became a sacred name in and of itself, which is why some Jews today will not refer to G-d as Adonai but as Hashem, “the name.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s