Yitro: The Power of the Name

The Israelites and their fellow-travelers camp at Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, and Moses tells them to prepare for a divine revelation. God comes down to the top of Mount Sinai with fire, smoke, lightning, thunder, and horn blasts. Then God makes ten statements, commonly called the “Ten Commandments”. First God declares Itself and tells the people not to worship other gods (or the gods of others; see my earlier post, Yitro: Not in My Face). God continues by telling them not to make or bow down to images.

detail of Mount Vesuvius in Eruption, by Jacob More, 18th century

The third commandment, according to the 1611 King James translation, is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

That is not a bad translation, although it raises the question of what it means to “take” God’s name “in vain”. Let’s look at the Hebrew words that translated as “take” and “in vain”.

You shall not nasa the name of God, your god, lashav; because God shall not leave unpunished whoever will nasa Its name lashav. (Exodus/Shemot 20:7)

nasa (נָשָׂא) = lift up, raise, carry, take on a burden, lift away a burden.

lashav (לַשָׁוְא) = for falsehood, for  deceit; for emptiness, needlessly, idly.

What does it mean to “raise” God’s name? It does not mean merely raising the subject of God. Nor does it mean praising God, anywhere in the Hebrew bible.

The consensus in ancient commentary is that “raising the name of God” means invoking God’s name while swearing an oath or vow. In the Hebrew bible, lifting up one’s hand often means taking an oath. Sometimes the bible uses the verb nasa (lift up) but omits the word for “hand” when someone swears an oath.

The Talmud devotes a whole tractate to oaths, and advises against swearing oaths whenever possible. About the same time, Philo of Alexandria wrote in On the Decalogue: “For an oath is the calling of God to give his testimony concerning the matters which are in doubt; and it is a most impious thing to invoke God to be witness to a lie.” God will not bear false witness, and therefore will punish anyone who swears falsely using God’s name.

The word lashav can mean either “for falsehood” or “for emptiness”. Invoking God’s name to support a false claim, or a promise that one might not carry out, denigrates God and denies God’s power. But what if you are in the habit of sprinkling God’s name throughout your conversation? Philo and 12th-century rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra argued that this habit of invoking God for “emptiness” inevitably leads to using God’s name “for falsehood”.

Rabbis in the Talmud were so concerned about invoking God’s name for emptiness—i.e., idly or needlessly—that the mishnah (core text) of tractate Berakhot says anyone who invents trivial blessings such as “May Your mercies extend to a bird’s nest!” should be silenced.

I was alarmed when I read this, since I often say Barukh Hashem! (Bless God!) when I notice something beautiful or wonderful; and when I lead Saturday morning services, I give ad-hoc blessings to the people who have come up for the honor of the Torah reading. Should I be silenced?

I think not, because I am not using the name of God that is given in the third commandment. There, the Hebrew word I translate above as “God” is the co-called Tetragrammaton, the sacred four-letter name composed of the same letters as the various three-letter forms of the Hebrew verb that means “be”, “become”, or “happen”.

I follow the Jewish custom of avoiding any attempt to write or pronounce that particular name of God. On the other hand, I freely use synonyms such as Hashem (“the Name”), the Holy One, or the English word God, and I transliterate the common god-names Adonai and Elohim as they are pronounced in Hebrew—practices that many orthodox Jews avoid.

Maybe I do not take God’s sacred name seriously enough. The second commandment forbids making images of things that other people consider gods; the third commandment forbids misusing God’s name. In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut wrote, “Both image and name are aspects of identity, and man must take care lest he infringe on the sanctity of God in any manner.”

I can understand commitments between human beings that are so sacred they take top priority. I also consider some ethical imperatives sacred. But I find it harder to understand the sanctity of God—perhaps because I am always wondering what the word “God”, and the Tetragrammaton, actually refer to. There are so many different definitions of God, even within the Hebrew bible! So am I entitled to use the word “God” for a definition that means something important to me? Or am I limited to one of the more common definitions that other people assume?

I hope this prayer is not lashav, “for emptiness”:

May Hashem guide me to do this work that comes from my love of Torah, this work that means so much to me, without falseness or deception. And may we all discover our own inner truths, and find ways to live by them without hurting others.

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