Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Name of God, Pt. 3: Ineffable?

When I was growing up, I was told that the Name of God is ineffable--that is, unpronounceable--due to being written without any vowels. Of course, what the person telling me this didn't say (and probably didn't know) was that much of written Hebrew lacks vowels. That is to say, the vowels are inferred by the reader. The result is much the same as the way some people today write English in shorthand; for example:
My name is Michael, and I live in Atlanta.

My nm s Mchl, nd I lv n 'Tlnth.
More difficult to read, certainly, but hardly unpronounceable--though there might arise a debate about whether "Mchl" should be pronounced Michael, Machil, Mochul, etc. One might also debate whether the "y" in "my" is meant as a vowel (as indeed it is) or a consonant, so that the first word of the sentence could be rendered my, may, mya, etc.

The Masorites added vowel-marks to the text of the Tanakh in order to provide guides for those less familiar with the Biblical text than a native-born Hebrew speaker who grew up hearing the text read aloud, for which we owe them a tremendous thank-you. (However, it should be noted that because the vowel-marks are a late addition, as indeed are the spaces between the letters, we have to be careful in how we lean upon them.)

In any case, this shows that the lack of vowels would not make it impossible to correctly pronounce a word. Moreover, many Hebrew letters can be either a consonant or a vowel, and this is the case with all of the letters of the Name YHVH.
yod = either a y or an i
heh = a small breath, just like the name of the letter
vav = either a v (consonant) or a u or o (vowel)
We can be certain that the popular English pronunciation Jehovah is not correct. First of all, the yod is never pronounced like an English j. Secondly, this pronunciation came about because of the custom of substituting Adonai (Master, or Lord) for YHVH when reading the text aloud--the Masoretic scribes inserted the vowel-marks for Adonai (a-o-e) into the letters of YHVH, which resulted in an amalgamation of the two (YaHoVeH). Thirdly, Yahoveh in Hebrew would be broken into Yah and hoveh; the latter word means "a ruin" and "disaster" (Strong's #1943)--in other words, it's like saying "Yah is a ruin and disaster"!

The two most likely and popular pronunciations are Yahweh and Yahveh, the main point of contention being whether the vav should be pronounced as a consonant and a vowel. Proponents of the former view lean on Josephus, who stated that the Name written on the High Priest's turban was comprised of "four vowels" (Wars. 5:5:7, ref. Exo. 28:36-37). The early Church fathers seem to have preferred this reading:
It was in connection with magic that the Tetragrammaton was introduced into the magic papyri and, in all probability, into the writings of the Church Fathers, these two sources containing the following forms, written in Greek letters: (1) "Iaoouee," "Iaoue," "Iabe,"; (2) "Iao," "Iaho," "Iae"; (3) "Aia"; (4) "Ia." It is evident that (1) represents , (2) , (3) , and (4) . The three forms quoted under (1) are merely three ways of writing the same word, though "Iabe" is designated as the Samaritan pronunciation. (The Jewish Encyclopedia, Tetragrammaton)
The Samaritan pronunciation, mentioned above, favors the pronunciation as Yahveh, as a b-sound may be easily derived from an original v-sound. It has the advantage of having come from an area geographically and linguistically close to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the bulk of the early testimony and scholarly study is on the side of Yahweh. I myself am not 100% sure, though I tend to use Yahveh right now, with the slightest of skips, not quite a breath, on the first heh, making it Yah'veh. (A good friend has told me that his uncle, who is a native Aramaic speaker, also pronounces the first heh, saying, "The heh is the breath of life; it should be pronounced!")

This study has, of course, been extremely brief. Those readers interested in a more in-depth study will find a longer article and a link to an e-book here. I don't agree with all of its conclusions, but the chapters dealing with the pronunciation of the Name were of immense interest and help to me.

A final caveat, which has already been said, but bears repeating: We have to walk a tightrope here. We want God's Name to be known and used in proper reverence, but we never want it to become common. Nor do we want it to be a stumbling block for anyone. For this reason, Beth HaMashiach uses the traditional circumlocution ADONAI in prayer and liturgy, and even omits the vowels from L-rd and G-d, lest a Jewish visitor think we are being too light with the Name.

But at the same time, let us remember to bless the Name of YHVH.


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