By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
In my review of Israel Rubin’s “The How & Why of Jewish Prayer” (link) I made mention of his view that the word “Jehovah” cannot possibly be a translation of the “Y-H-V-H” and hence there would be nothing halachically problematic with referring to the religious group “Jehovah’s Witnesses” when appropriate.
This excerpt made Rabbi Shalom Spira (Montreal, Canada) very uncomfortable, to put it lightly. He wrote to me voicing his opposition to this view citing Rabbi Moshe Tendler as one of his sources. As this issue is both recurring and serious in nature, I wanted to take this opportunity to present Israel Rubin’s view in greater detail. [Please see footnote].
Rubin notes that the correct pronunciation of the Y-H-V-H- was lost during the Talmudic period. The name was used as part of the Temple Service during the First Temple period. During the Second Temple period the name was not used as it was feared that the name would be misused or articulated unlawfully. As a result of this disuse of the Y-H-V-H the correct pronunciation of The Name was lost.
In Koren publications the Y-H-V-H appears without any vowelization which reflects the reality that there is no one who authoritatively knows how to pronounce it. The vowelization that frequently accompanies the Y-H-V-H is simply an ancient printer’s insertion to remind the reader to pronounce Y-H-V-H as “Adon-ai”. Indeed, the vowelization there clearly “belongs” to the word Adona-ai and not any possible transliteration of the Y-H-V-H.
Rubin claims that the word “Jehovah” cannot possibly be a transliteration of Y-H-V-H based on two errors:
The first [error] is the attempt to read the Y-H-V-H with the vowels that appear with it in the printed Tanach text. While the vowels are actually the vowels of the word Adon-oi, the Chataf Patach under the Alef of Adon-oi changes to a Shevah under the Yud of Y-H-V-H. The second mistake is that the English readers took the German transliteration of the mistaken reading –Jehovah- and pronounced the letter J as a J. In German the letter J is pronounced as a Y. Thus, the German really reads Yehovah. Nevertheless, whether you pronounce it as the Germans did or as the Americans do, the word Jehovah/Yehovah is total gibberish and has no sanctity whatsoever according to the halacha. Modern scholars introduced an equally erroneous pronunciation, again based on the German, of Yahweh. This word is also gibberish and has no meaning or legal standing. (The How & Why of Jewish Prayer p.531)
I feel that Rubin’s arguments are convincing. It is also worth citing William Robertson Smith in his In A Dictionary of the Bible (1863) who concludes that “whatever, therefore, be the true pronunciation of the word, there can be little doubt that it is not Jehovah“.
If those in the era of the Second Temple and post Second Temple period did not know how to pronounce or articulate the Y-H-V-H how can anyone suggest that our era knows better?
What do you think?
 I will also note Rabbi Spira’s opposition of even writing “Jehovah” in English, again citing Rabbi Tendler as one of his sources. However, considering that a) there is no clear consensus that “Jehovah” in English is indeed the transliteration God’s name, b) even if it is indeed God’s name, the Shach (YD 179:11) seems to say that God’s name written in a foreign language has no sanctity, c) that electronic matter generally has no halachic value (see for example: Yabia Omer 4:20; Igrot Moshe, YD 1:173), and d) that Rabbi Avishai David gave his haskama to Rubin’s book as-is, I have decided to use “Jehovah” without reservation. Neverthless, I have no criticism for those who choose to be machmir in this regard.
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