Hashem’s Names and their Meanings

Rabbi Bernie Fox

In the beginning Elokim created the heavens and the earth.  (Sefer Beresheit 1:1)

These are the produce of the heavens and the earth when they were created – on the day that Hashem Elokim created the earth and heavens.  (Sefer Beresheit 2:4)

1. The introduction of the name Hashem-Elokim
Parshat Beresheit describes the creation of the universe and the earliest development of humankind.  The parasha begins with the initial moment of creation – creation ex nihilo.  It describes humanity’s first failing or sin and its consequences.  It relates the tragic rivalry between humankind’s first siblings, and the first instance of repentance.  The parasha lists humankind’s earliest pioneers.  The narrative ends with a set of passages that outline the circumstances that led to the Deluge – the Mabul.  

Our Sages note that in the initial section of the parasha – the description of the universe’s first seven days – G-d is referred to as Elokim.  In this section, the Tetragrammaton – the four-letter name of G-d to which Hashem refers – is not used.  Only at the completion of this section is G-d referred to as Hashem-Elokim.  

Our Sages provide an enigmatic explanation for the introduction of the reference Hashem-Elokim only after the initial creation narrative.  They remark that G-d’s full name is only used after the emergence of the full universe.  

And in His goodness He renews each day, continually, the process of creation.  (Morning blessings accompanying Shema)

2. The meaning and message of Elokim

Many interpretations are provided for these comments.  One of the most interesting is provided by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l.  Rav Soloveitchik explains that according to the Torah, G-d is not only the creator of the universe.  He is also its sustainer.  As Maimonides explains in the opening chapter of his Code – Mishne Torah – the created universe is not endowed with self-sustaining existence.  Its existence must be sustained and renewed every moment.  This is the meaning of the above phrase.  At first glance the phrase seems redundant.  We praise Hashem as the G-d who renews creation each day, continually.  Why is it necessary to acknowledge that this renewal is daily and continual?  According to Rav Soloveitchik, the intent of the phrasing is to communicate that renewal takes place at every moment.  Creation is not renewed merely at regular periods; it is renewed each and every moment of every day.  

Rav Soloveitchik explains that the name Elokim and the Tetragrammaton both refer to Hashem but have very different meanings.  The term Elokim refers to power or authority.  This term is used to refer to Hashem but also used in the Torah to refer to angels and even to judicial authorities.  The use of the term in reference to Hashem is appropriate as He is the ultimate power and authority.  He is omnipotent.  Creation is the most profound demonstration of G-d acting as Elokim.  He conceives and fashions the universe.  His omnipotence forms the galaxies and their stars.  He fashions all creatures and endows them with life.  He endows His creations with the capacity to thrive.  The mightiest powers of the universe are merely expressions of the creative vision and will of Elokim.

3. The meaning of the Tetragrammaton

According to many commentators, the Tetragrammaton communicates the unique nature of Hashem’s existence.  His existence is not sustained by a cause external to Him.  He is the cause of His own existence.  Therefore, He is eternal.  He has no beginning; His existence cannot end.  The existence of all else in the universe is maintained through His will.  He is self-sustaining and self-sufficient.  

This understanding has profound implications in regard to one’s understanding of the universe.  The universe’s existence requires continual renewal.  It is only sustainable because of the existence of a sustaining cause or force that acts upon the very substance of the universe at every moment.  This cause or force is Hashem.

Rav Solovietchik explains that the Tetragrammaton – Hashem – was combined with Elokim only upon the completion of creation.  With the universe’s creation G-d was no longer just Elokim – the omnipotent creator.  He now emerged as the self-sustaining existence that acts upon and sustains the created universe.

And Moshe said to Elokim:  Behold, I will come to Bnai Yisrael and I will say to them, “The G-d of your fathers sent me to you.”  And they will day to me, “What is his name?”  What shall I say to them?  (Sefer Shemot 3:13)

4. Moshe asks Hashem His name

Rav Soloveitchik’s comments explain another difficult section of the Torah.  In Sefer Shemot the Torah describes Moshe’s initial encounter with Hashem.  Hashem reveals to Moshe that He will redeem Bnai Yisrael from the terrible oppression of Egypt.  He will form a nation from these liberated slaves.  This nation will conquer the mighty nation of Cana’an and possess their land.  Hashem assigns Moshe the tasks of securing Bnai Yisrael’s freedom, preparing the people for their destiny, and leading the nation into the Land of Cana’an.  Moshe protests.  His initial protests are easily understood.  He questions his own qualifications for this assignment.  He presses Hashem to explain more clearly how he will execute his assigned duties.  However, these initial protests are followed by a very strange question.  Moshe predicts that the people will ask Moshe to provide the name of the deity to whom he has spoken and who has made these remarkable promises.  Moshe asks, “How shall I respond?”  Hashem replies that Moshe should reveal to the nation a version of the name represented by the Tetragrammaton.   In other words, Hashem tells Moshe to provide the nation with a lesson on the unique nature of His existence.

This entire twist in the dialogue is unfathomable.  Certainly, the people can be expected to respond to Moshe’s tidings with skepticism and even bewilderment.  They can be expected to require proof of his agency – that he truly speaks for Hashem.  They can be expected to want more information regarding the plan for their redemption.  However, why would they care to know the name of the deity that Moshe professed to represent?  Even if some reason can be imagined for their inquiry, why did Hashem instruct Moshe to respond with a lesson on the metaphysics of existence?

In order to understand the question posed by Bnai Yisrael to Moshe, it is necessary to project oneself into their state of mind.  Moshe was to address a group of oppressed slaves.  These people were the chattel – the property – of the most powerful king of the era.  They were weak, demoralized, and forlorn.  Moshe was to tell them that they would cast off their yokes; they would triumph over their masters.  They would travel to the Land of Cana’an – a land of mythical wealth, fertility, and beauty.  They would conquer the mighty nations inhabiting the land and dispossess them.  This was a vision completely in discordance with the people’s conception of reality.  Moshe was to describe a vision that these people could only regard as a wild fantasy.  Moshe was to respond that he was a messenger of G-d and G-d – not Moshe – would be their redeemer.

They would demand this deity’s name.  There are two types of names.  Some names are merely appellations.  They are an arbitrary means of identifying objects or people.  Our own given names are of this type.  Other names are intended to define the nature of that to which they refer.  Names of chemical compounds are examples of this second type of name.  In asking for the name of Moshe’s deity, the people were not asking for an appellation.  They asked Moshe to define this G-d – a G-d possessing the power to redeem them and lead them in the conquest of the Promised Land.  Hashem instructed Moshe to respond with the equivalent of the Tetragrammaton.

5. The significance of the name Moshe was to reveal

In his description of the universe’s dependence upon Hashem, Maimonides utilizes a strange phrase.  He asserts that the universe derives its ongoing existence from the truth – the emet – of Hashem’s existence.  What does Maimonides mean by this phrase?  Referring to something as true is to assert that it is reality.  It is true that the sun rises.  A sleeper’s dreams are not true; they are fantasies not reality.  Maimonide’s description of Hashem as emet is intended to communicate that His existence is more fundamentally real or absolute than any other element of reality.  All else is real because He wishes it so.  He is absolute reality.  All else is derived from Him.  

The Tetragrammaton is a description of Hashem’s unique existence.  Therefore, it also communicates that He is the ultimate reality.  The material world is only an apparent reality.  It exists as it exists only by virtue of Hashem’s will.  The response that Hashem instructed Moshe to deliver was an expression of sensitivity and compassion.  It also communicated Hashem’s irresistible power – His omnipotence. 

The answer expressed compassion.  Hashem told Moshe to explain that their suffering and despondency is the result of their acceptance of their condition as an absolute, unalterable reality.  Their world is one of immeasurable suffering and relentless oppression.  They can imagine no alternative reality.  Hashem told Moshe to explain that their experience is not the true absolute reality.  Their universe – every particle – is continually sustained by Hashem.  Hashem is the only true and ultimate reality.  His will can change their lives in a moment.  His promise of redemption is more real than the lives and world that are familiar to them.  

The answer expressed Hashem’s omnipotence.  All existence is derived from Hashem.  Paroh, his taskmasters, and his armies, exist by the grace of Hashem.  The mighty rulers of Cana’an and their nations of warriors derive their existence from Hashem.  Consequently, they cannot resist His will.  Their existence and their destruction are merely expressions of the will of the omnipotent Hashem.