Aramaic, Arabic and Jewish Names of God


This post was updated, 8/28/18, correcting an error in the section on Aramaic names for God. HaMakom [The Place] and Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] are Hebrew. (Thanks to Norman Shore for pointing out the mistake; only took me 18 months to make the correction!)

יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא

In a previous post, I mentioned that kaddish is not filled with God’s names, as are many of Jewish prayers, but about God’s name. Consider, e.g., the Amidah — Judaism’s central tefilah [prayer], which speaks directly to God, using the four-letter name [YHVH] and second-person address [masc. sing. “you”]; it begs, for instance, “May YOUR greatness and YOUR holiness be realized… [תתגדל ותתקדש].” In contrast, the kaddish speaks in the third-person, and asks, as it’s often translated, “May HIS great name be magnified and sanctified [יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא].”

In trying to make this point, I accidentally gave the impression that I meant that Aramaic, as a language and/or as employed by the Rabbis, had no name for God. This is far from the truth (see below) and not what I meant. But the misunderstanding led to an interesting discussion at Temple Micah’s recent Siddur Study session.

In many translations of kaddish, “רבא (rabba),” which appears in the first line and in the congregational response, is rendered “great,” as in “[God’s] great name.” But one participant argued that “rabba” could be read as a noun, rather than an adjective.

Here is the way that “rab” is translated in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon:

rb, rbˀ (raḇ, rabbā) n.m.
chief; teacher
rb (raḇ, rabbā) adj.
great, big

The final aleph makes “rab” (“chief” or “teacher,” here) into “the chief” or “the teacher.” So, if rabba is read, not as “great” but as “The Teacher” or “The Chief,” this could be a name of God. It would parallel, he argues, “Rab” as “Lord” in Arabic.

Here, as one of many examples, is the first appearance of Rab, usually rendered “Lord,” in the Quran:

1_2

Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alAAalameen
[All] praise is [due] to Allah , Lord of the worlds
— Sura 1:2, from this great interactive study tool

This change of reading of “Rabba” does not alter the pervasive third-person nature of the kaddish. But it does provide food for thought and reminds us of the close associations, or entanglements, in neighboring conceptions of God.

Continue Reading

Va-eira: A Path to Follow

Amram took to wife his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the span of Amram’s life was 137 years. The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri. The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzapha, and Sithri. Aaron took to wife Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadav and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. the sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph. Those are the families of the Korahites. And Aaron’s son Eleazar took to wife one of Putiel’s daughters, and she bore him Phinehas. Those are the heads of the ancestral houses of the Levites by their families. Continue Reading

Va-eira: More Great Sources

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HASHEM [YHVH]. I appeared [va-eira] to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but with My Name HASHEM I did not make myself known [nodha’ti] to them.
Shemot/Exodus 6:2-3 (Stone translation*)

The Holy Name of Being

Rabbi Shefa Gold writes:

THE BLESSING OF VA-EYRA comes to us as God’s self-revelation. “I am YHVH – I am Being itself. And yes I am the same one that your ancestors perceived as El Shaddai, the very same One. All the names you have called Me are aspects of the One, and now you are ready to receive a glimpse of the Whole, that Unnameable One. [Exodus 6:2]

“You will see Me and know Me through the process of liberation that you are about to experience… Freedom is the key to knowing Me… Through this process I will bring you to fulfillment, to a state where you can receive the divine inheritance, which is the knowledge of the divine spark at your core. I am YHVH. I am Being itself.” [Exodus 6:6-8]

In receiving the blessing of Va-eyra, I place my journey in the context of cosmic process. I know that every tragedy I suffer and every delight I enjoy moves me towards the fulfillment of the divine promise. As each face of God appears to me, I can see it in the greater context of the One. Each day in my prayers I can remember (with the Sh’ma3 ) that all conceptions of God (Eloheynu) are aspects of YHVH, which is Being itself. Continue Reading

Va-eira: Great Source(s)

God [Elohim] spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HASHEM [YHVH]. I appeared [va-eira] to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but with My Name [u-shemi] HASHEM I did not make myself known [nodha’ti] to them.
Shemot/Exodus 6:2-3 (Stone translation*)

There is a raft of commentary on just these two verses. Nechama Leibowitz, for example, directs two of her six essays on this portion — in New Studies in Shemot/Exodus* –to these first two verses, discussing many classical, and a few contemporary, commentaries along the way.

Some commentary focuses on the variety of names for God — Elohim, El Shaddai and YHVH — used in this brief span. Some, the verb nodhati, “made myself known.” Cassuto combines several of these themes in his commentary*:

…This enables us to understand the text before us clearly: I revealed Myself (God declares) to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in My aspect that finds expression in the name Shaddi, and I made them fruitful and multiplied them and gave them children and children’s children, but by the name YHWH (the word shemi [‘My name’] is to be construed here as an accusative of nearer definition, and signifies ‘by My name’), in My character as expressed by this designation, I was not known to them, that is, it was not given to them to recognize Me as One that fulfills His promises, because the assurance with regard to possession of the Land, which I had given them, I had not yet fulfilled….

Some teachers take a more inward approach to the meaning and experience of ‘knowing’ the Name. See More Great Sources: The Holy Name of Being.

*For complete commentary citations, please see Source Materials.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.