Why is this interesting? - The Tetragrammaton Edition

On God, language, and knowledge

Emanuel Derman (ED) has written a number of excellent editions for us, most recently The Volatility Edition. He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and came to Columbia University in New York to study for a PhD in physics. Since then he’s lived mostly in Manhattan. The following is adapted from a chapter in his book Models.Behaving.Badly.

Emanuel here. From an early age in school, I was taught to pray in Hebrew, though no one ever took the trouble to tell me what the prayers meant. In kindergarten we learned to chant the Modeh, a prayer to be recited on waking that, I now understand, thanks God for restoring your soul after its disappearance during the night. Translated, it begins:

I give thanks before you, living and eternal king, that you

have returned within me my soul with compassion ...

Nowhere in the Modeh does the Hebrew word for God actually appear. The prayer refers to him only metaphorically as the living and eternal king.

But God in the bible actually has a name, יהוה, or for the sake of simplicity YHVH (four Hebrew consonants corresponding approximately to these English letters, pronounced Yahweh), and the Tetragrammaton is the name of his name. A single name—Bjork or Madonna—is grand. A single name with its own name is even grander.

If you are familiar with Hebrew prayer, you will recognize the awe that accompanies a glimpse of the Tetragrammaton. It is the letters that produce the awe, not their pronunciation. I have seen the word printed innumerable times in bibles and prayer books, yet I never once heard the word pronounced as Yahweh. Everyone I knew pronounced YHVH as though it were the entirely different Hebrew word אֲדֹנָי, or, transliterated,  ADNY, pronounced Adonai and meaning roughly Milords, as though the letters YHVH were, in reality, the letters ADNY. The words ADNY and YHVH barely resemble each other. It was as though you were taught to say ‘HRM’ whenever you saw the printed name of the Queen of England, but never pronounce the word ‘Elizabeth’ itself.

Why is this interesting?

ADNY is one of God’s many aliases in the book of Genesis. The Bible sometimes also refers to God as ADNY ADNM, pronounced Adonai Adonim, a vocative My Lords of Lords, more wondrous than Adonai alone by virtue of its recursion. Surprisingly, God’s aliases in the Bible precede the appearance of his real name. God as Yahweh is absent throughout the first chapter of Genesis, whose first line reads “In the beginning Elohim created the skies and the earth ...” Elohim is the plural of El, a generic God, and means simply Gods in the sense of a royal pluralized divinity.

The Tetragrammaton YHVH makes its first appearance in Genesis 2:4 only after God has perfected the Creation and can finally rest: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that YHVH Elohim made earth and the skies.”

It was not until late adulthood that it dawned on me that the letters YHVH did not literally spell ADNY. We were taught to pronounce Adonai whenever we saw the letters YHVH.

No one ever mentioned that the actual pronunciation of YHVH was not ADNY. No observant Jew ever utters the word Yahweh. By custom rather than commandment, God’s name is not pronounced aloud or even under one’s breath. Being brought up customarily, my friends and I were never told not to say his name. We really didn’t know he had one.

A few of my more observant school friends went a step further: not only did they avoid uttering the word, they also avoided uttering the alias ADNY. Instead, they pronounced Adonai as AdoShem, because the Y in ADNY is the first letter of YHVH, and so you shouldn’t even pronounce that letter. Shem instead means name itself. It’s as though HRM, when it refers to Queen Mary, is pronounced HRName.

Orthodox Jews carry this to extremes, and avoid pronouncing anything reminiscent of the Tetragrammaton. Thus even the word Elohim is pronounced Elokim, so that the shared H of and EloHim and YHVH is replaced by the cognate but symbolically insignificant ‘K’. And even the number 15, which in the Hebrew alphabet would be written as YH = 10+5, because Y is the 10th letter and H is the 5th, is replaced by TV = 9+6. Some don't know where to stop, and write G-d rather than God, as though "God" were God's name. It isn't.

We like to understand puzzling things by comparing them to things we already comprehend. Thus, when computers first appeared people used to explain that the computer is like a brain, and now they like to say that a brain is like a computer. Either comparison provides a relative kind of knowledge, and when someone says one thing is like another you are entitled to ask for justification. I like to think that a deeper kind of knowledge is absolute knowledge, actual properties of reality. Here are some examples: matter has inertia, electric charges with the same sign repel each other, people enjoy jokes, even good jokes when repeated too much lose their funniness  … Both science and art in their own way are most penetrating when they identify a previously unarticulated bit of reality.

How is this related to the idea of God? The following story in the Book of Exodus is concerned with absoluteness.

Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, near the mountain of Horeb, saw a burning bush whose flame could not consume it. God, from within the bush, declared Himself to Moses and commanded him to deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh.

"Who shall I tell them sent me?" asks Moses.

"Tell them: I am that which I am," answers YHVH.

YHVH is the phenomenon that cannot be described or known by comparison. A bit like Popeye, He is what He is. (ED)

Comic of the Day:

A) This XKCD is great. B) I had never heard the bit about Von Neumann and Shannon. Looks like it’s probably not true. Here’s Shannon in an interview from 1989 with John Horgan being asked about it: “It sounds like the kind of remark I might have made as a joke… Crudely speaking, the amount of information is how much chaos is there in the system. But the mathematics comes out right, so to speak. The amount of information measured by entropy determines how much capacity to leave in the channel.” (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Emanuel (ED)

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