Earlier this week, R. Ari Enkin offered his thoughts on why we are allowed to say the word Jehovah. I wish here to further analyze the topic, offering reasons to be strict although refraining from reaching a conclusion. The most important question is how the word Jehovah should be classified. Is it a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, God’s four-letter name, or a translation of it? R. Enkin dismisses it as a transliteration for two reasons: 1) the vowelization of the Tetragrammaton is uncertain, 2) the German “J” is pronounced like the English “Y” and not the English “J”. The first reason seems insufficient to me.

J Witnesses

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(Note that in the following I write out possible names of God for the sake of clarity. Please do not say them out loud.)

Earlier this week, R. Ari Enkin offered his thoughts on why we are allowed to say the word Jehovah (link). I wish here to further analyze the topic, offering reasons to be strict although refraining from reaching a conclusion.

I. Transliteration

The most important question is how the word Jehovah should be classified. Is it a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, God’s four-letter name, or a translation of it? R. Enkin dismisses it as a transliteration for two reasons: 1) the vowelization of the Tetragrammaton is uncertain, 2) the German “J” is pronounced like the English “Y” and not the English “J”. The first reason seems insufficient to me.

If there is a doubt regarding the pronunciation, whether it should be Yehovah or Yahweh or anything else, we should be strict and refrain from all possibilities. One could argue that this would be so even if the prohibition is rabbinic. The Ran (Pesachim, on the Rif 23a sv. ve-hashta) states that when leniency on a rabbinic rule effectively nullifies it, we must be strict. In this case, uncertainty about the pronunciation (if it is rabbinic) would lead to allowing all possible pronunciations, thereby eliminating the prohibition. Therefore, even if the prohibition is rabbinic we must avoid vocalizing the Tetragrammaton in that way. If it is biblical, then we must certainly refrain in a case of doubt.

In the only responsum I could find on the subject, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi 1:25 – link) forbids a professor to recite the Tetragrammaton in a foreign language. He does not specify which language and how the name was pronounced, but it was certainly either Yahweh or Jehovah.

Regarding the mispronunciation of the letter “J”, it is not clear to me that an unintentional mispronunciation of a letter renders the name into a different word. If we intend to refer to God but mispronounce one letter, does that render a sacred name unholy? I would not correct a Torah reader who mispronounces a word in such a way.

This is particularly important because the Gemara (Sanhedrin 101b) forbids reciting the Tetragrammaton in lashon agah. Multiple explanations of this phrase exist but one, advocated by the Yad Ramah (ad loc.), is a mispronunciation of the word’s vowels. Evidently, mispronunciations do not automatically remove the prohibition.

II. Translation

If Jehovah is not considered a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, it is certainly a translation. It would be considered an English name for God. As discussed in an earlier post (link), there is a great debate whether you may say God’s name in a foreign (i.e. non-Hebrew) language. Even R. Akiva Eiger (Responsa, no. 25), who permits erasing God’s name in a foreign language, forbids saying it needlessly. R. Yonasan Eybeschutz (Urim 25:2) harshly denounces the practice. However, others, such as the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 202:3), permit it. It seems there is ample reason to refrain from pronouncing these names for God.

III. Proper Noun

However, despite all of the above, I hesitantly point out a reason to be lenient. I do so hesitantly because I lack the stature to permit a prohibition without an explicit source. I tried to reach a posek to discuss this but was unable in time for publication.

However, we are allowed to say God’s name as part of a proper noun. For example, the city Beit El or a person named Gavriel. Both contain the divine name El but are permitted because the context is part of a mundane (i.e. non-holy) name. I suggest that the name Jehovah’s Witnesses for the religious group is similar to the city named Beit El. Jehovah, in this context, seems like a mundane name.

Sometimes the Bible itself uses names that are generally divine for mundane purposes. For example, Rashi (Gen. 18:3) writes that the word Adonai in that verse refers to an angel and not God. And Elohim (Ex. 22:27) is also accepted as sometimes being mundane. R. Elazar Fleckles devoted a book, Melekhes Ha-Kodesh, to studying every ostensibly divine name in the Pentateuch and determining whether it is holy or mundane.

Or perhaps this permission does not apply to the Tetragrammaton which we never pronounce, even when reading verses. Even when reading from the Torah the mundane name of the altar that Moshe built (Ex. 17:15) which uses the Tetragrammaton in a proper noun, we refrain from pronouncing the Tetragrammaton and instead read Adonai Nisi.

IV. Not A Conclusion

I wish to emphasize again that I am only making a suggestion here that requires review of a qualified halakhic authority. However, if this approach is deemed valid, then I would conclude as did R. Enkin but not for his reason.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

29 comments

  1. Gil,
    You wouldn’t correct a torah reader who said Jehoshua, or, even worse, soemthing like jehiyeh. I’m not saying this undermines your argument, but I am rather surprised at this point.

  2. MDJ, even if he would mispronounce God’s name in a even slighter way we must correct him. Many people make this mistake and think that if the bal kriyah already said God’s name after the mistake we don’t correct because then he would be saying God’s name in vein. People have even added on details to this halachik myth; if it is a mistake that is me’akev then we correct him non the less otherwise we don’t. The truth is there is no such halacha. Even if the mistake doesn’t invalidate the kri’ya, correcting it would be considered at least a hi’dur, which is sufficient reason to recite God’s name again.

    I am just anticipating the retorts I will recieve , but rabbi so and so also told me. This, mistake is widespread and deeply entrenched for many years, they think it is halacha because that’s what they heard when the grew up. The details
    of this myth lend one to think that it is authentic.

  3. ” If Jehovah is not considered a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, it is certainly a translation. It would be considered an English name for God. ”

    In that case we can add “hashem” to the list, since that is what we use nowadays to refer to him. I think there is a difference between a name which it’s connotation and denotation are the same as the hebrew equivalent. For example elohim and lord. When we use Hashem we are not referring directly to God, we are referring to the name which refers to him. Similarly when one says Jehovah since it is a transliteration he is referring to the name and only in turn referring to God. If yo are right and hashem is also problematic them Uncle Moshe is in for a big surprise when he passes to the next world.

  4. This is a wonderful continuation and dialogue on the issue.

    I am with ‘Anonymous’ above — according to your approach “Hashem” is one of the names of God. In fact, we are starting to see “Hash-em” more and more these days which is rediculous. I have even heard “Beit K-el” when referring to the city. Really!

    Re: “Is it a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, God’s four-letter name, or a translation of it?”

    It could also be neither.

    Also – Rav Chaim Soloveitchik told me that he recalls his father (Rav Aharon) saying “Jehova’s Witnesses” without hesitation. (And “Jesus” too, for that matter)

    Ari Enkin

  5. I’m not sure why this is different than saying “Keil” or “E-lokim”. Jehovah is further from the original, if anything. If changing a hei into a quf is good enough to turn a sheim into a kinui WRT lo sisa es sheim H’ E-lokekha lashav, why wouldn’t parallel changes also avoid the issur derabbanan (diverei soferim) of saying sheim Havayah?

  6. Sorry, that parenthetic should have read “(diverei soferim?)” I don’t know how to classify it. But a full deOraisa it isn’t.

  7. Yaakov Fuchsman

    “If there is a doubt regarding the pronunciation…”

    But there is no doubt, it is certainly a mistake!

  8. Ari Enkin: The old joke runs, “Can I get you a ginger keil in Beit Kel?”

  9. MDJ: You wouldn’t correct a torah reader who said Jehoshua, or, even worse, soemthing like jehiyeh.

    It doesn’t change the meaning because it is not another word. So, no, I wouldn’t correct him.

    Anonymous: even if he would mispronounce God’s name in a even slighter way we must correct him.

    What is your source? I don’t recall seeing that in R. Moshe Rosenberg’s RJJ Journal article on the subject.

    Anonymous: In that case we can add “hashem” to the list, since that is what we use nowadays to refer to him.

    Not so fast. We say Hashem specifically to avoid saying God’s name. That’s different than applying a name. Here we have specific intention to the opposite. In a similar fashion, when we “affirm” in court instead of swearing, affirming is considered a vow! However, because we do so specifically to avoid swearing, it is not considered swearing. When we say something to avoid saying God’s name, it does not become God’s name.

    Micha: I’m not sure why this is different than saying “Keil” or “E-lokim”.

    If you said Jehovah intentionally to avoid saying God’s name, then I would hear it. Otherwise anything is a kinuy.

    Yaakov Fuchsman: But there is no doubt, it is certainly a mistake!

    What is the mistake — the “J” or the vowelization? Both are discussed in the post.

  10. “Ari Enkin: The old joke runs, “Can I get you a ginger keil in Beit Kel?””

    Or the famous song, “Keilikaku ha-Navi . . . “

  11. In a similar fashion, when we “affirm” in court instead of swearing, affirming is considered a vow! However, because we do so specifically to avoid swearing, it is not considered swearing.

    Somewhat off-topic, but I don’t think this is correct. When one affirms (or declares), in court or in a court paper, then what you are doing is accepting that if you are not telling the truth, you will be subject to perjury charges. In fact, the standard formula in federal court for declarations is:

    “I affirm (or declare or certify) under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.” **

    You are not invoking anything religious, you are just saying that you are willing to be prosecuted for prejury if it turns out you deliberately lied about the matter.

    ________
    ** Outside the U.S., the formula is “I affirm (or declare or certify) under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States of America that the foregoing is true and correct.”

  12. “them Uncle Moshe is in for a big surprise when he passes to the next world.”

    Ouch. Unfair. And IMHO completely wrong. He does it for chinuch and with reverence. Most of his song I know (and I admit I’m not completely beki here) could clearly use the shem Alef Dalet.

  13. This has probably been discussed before, but our family minhag is to say Hashem or Elokim when singing shabbat zmirot. My rationale is that it isn’t tefilla.

    But others demur and point out that in many cases the author must have intended that the names be said as can be seen from the rhyming. I counter with “Who says they intended it to be sung out loud?”

  14. Part II. also opens the general question of using generally accepted “translations” (or rather morphed transliterations) of common Hebrew names in prayer. Can one praying in English say: “As it is written in the Law of Moses your servant” or “son of David [read Dayved] your anointed one”. AFAIK it had been the common practice in many congregations.

  15. Yaakov Fuchsman

    “What is the mistake — the “J” or the vowelization? Both are discussed in the post.”

    The vowelization of course, since it is keri ukhetiv. This is basic commonsense. Nothing in the post denies that it is an error, and “discussing” it doesn’t create doubt where none exists.

  16. However, we are allowed to say God’s name as part of a proper noun. For example, the city Beit El or a person named Gavriel.

    That’s only relevant if you say YKVK and (K)el are of equivalent holiness for these purposes. Is that really the case?

  17. “That’s only relevant if you say YKVK and (K)el are of equivalent holiness for these purposes. Is that really the case?”

    Good question. The closest we get to the name in real life is Yud He Vav (and the last Vav is almost certainly not even from the tetragrammaton).

    However, see Yirmiyahu – Jeremiah 23:6.

  18. Yaakov Fuchsman: The vowelization of course, since it is keri ukhetiv.

    How do you know that?

    Shlomo: That’s only relevant if you say YKVK and (K)el are of equivalent holiness for these purposes. Is that really the case?

    That is essentially what I asked in the last paragraph of section III. I’m not sure.

  19. Nachum on September 13, 2011 at 3:05 am
    4. How is “Yahweh” “gibberish” based on German? It’s a scientific reconstruction of the name, based on the fact that lots of names end in “-yah” and the rest of the word is probably derived from the word “howeh” (the correct pronunciation of a vav is “w”) meaning “is” or “causes to be”, i.e. “He Who Is” (as Hashem said to Moshe) or “He Who creates”, and is probably the best guess

    ________________________________________
    Word origin of Jeho/vah

    The word Jeho/vah/Yah/weh (with its variations) is of relatively recent Christian origin. Jews never used the term. The fact is that we do not know the original pronunciation of Jeho/vah. We can only surmise. There were no vowels in the Hebrew word of ‘Jeho/vah.’ The absence of vowel marks (consonants only) makes it impossible to determine exact pronunciation. Yah/weh is not correct for Yah/weh contains vowels. At any rate Jews would not dare enunciate that word for its absolute holiness. Instead they pronounced it Adonai which means ‘the Lord.’

    I am told that the divine name occurs almost 7,000 times in Tanach and is spelled (in English) with four consonants—YHWH or JHVH. These four-consonant words are commonly called the Tetragrammaton, or Tetragram, derived from two Greek words meaning “four letters.” Be that as it may, Jeho/vah is an artificial name and does not represent anything in our liturgy. It appears from research that the word Jeho/vah was incorrectly created by a non-Jewish German interpreter with limited knowledge of Hebrew. In truth it is gibberish with no historical import or connotation. On the other hand there are those who maintain that it was not created by a German interpreter. Those who hold that opinion claim that the word goes back to Roman times well before the era of German scholars. The ‘I’ in Latin became ‘J’ in English. In fact many pronounce J as a Y. and V as a W. In which case Jeho/vah and Yah/weh are the same. The goyim erroneously ascribe both these terms to HaShem, and some claim that the name is derived from Jove which relates to Jupiter. But note the timeline! Hebrew came well before the Latin and the Hellenistic Empires, so how is it possible to claim that our Creator was a derivative of “Iupiter”!

    It is a result of Christian misconstruction of the Tetragrammaton, the “Shem HaShem” In Hebrew, the Tetragrammaton is spelled yud, h/ei, vav, h/ei. Hence the transliteration into English with the letters YHVH. But in German, the letter ‘W’ sounds like a ‘v’.
    The result: “Yahweh” in English. ‘Jeho/vah’ is a variation of ‘Yahweh’. Biblical Hebrew alphabet has no corresponding letter to ‘J’ or ‘W’. Consequently both the words Jeho/vah and Yah/weh are not anything. From our standpoint these terms are gibberish

  20. What is your source? I don’t recall seeing that in R. Moshe Rosenberg’s RJJ Journal article on the subject.

    I’m sorry I oversimplified things a bit. The basic halacha is based on the peshara of the Beis Yosef between the Rambam which rules all is to be corrected and that of the Tur which does not require correcting. The Beis Yosef suggests that we only correct a mistake that would make the text misunderstood if gone uncorrected. Other mistakes that do not change the meaning or those that can be deduced from context need not be corrected. We do not correct these mistakes because we are more concerned with the embarrassment that we will cause the bal kri’ya by doing so. That withstanding common practice is different. It seems that in most ashkinazi shuls people think it is a mitzvah for all to shout out mistakes such as eis instead of es but to let pass the mix up of קמץ and פתח. Since this is known to all, the bal kri’ya in such shuls is hired to be subjected to their shouts if he makes a mistake (which BTW makes him practice more to avoid them). All I meant to say was, that it is permissible to correct such a mistake were they do correct mistakes. Some balei kri’ya don’t mind being corrected and would actually prefer it. It sounded like from what you wrote that you believed in the common myth, and that is what I was correcting. As a side point I personally think that if one would make a mistake while pronouncing God’s name he should be corrected, not because he wasn’t yotzeh, but because it is very disrespectful to mispronounce God’s name. This similar to Taz’s objection to those that say Ado’shem. I am not familiar with the article in RJJ so I cannot comment on it.

    When we say something to avoid saying God’s name, it does not become God’s name.

    Well, how does that work? It seems that you would agree that if one would chant God’s actual name and think to himself “I am not intending God” but just practicing (chazzunuhs) that it would be forbidden. You also agree that if you mispronounce God’s name while intending God it has sanctity. So how exactly does it become ok now that you have done both at the same time? If just not intending isn’t enough how is that by changing a letter it becomes allowed? (I went to clarify that when I write to ‘not intending’, I mean specifically intending that the name shouldn’t have sanctity but intending to refer to God)
    I think the reason I gave makes more sense.

    Shimon S., I think you took me too seriously, I was just trying to be cute and funny. I sure Uncle Moshe will have beautiful portion in Gan Eden surrounded by ‘mitzvah men’, right next to big Gedalya Gumber.

  21. “Shimon S., I think you took me too seriously”

    Couldn’t help it, I’m a big chossid of Dodeinu veRabbeinu shlita.

  22. “but our family minhag is to say Hashem or Elokim when singing shabbat zmirot”

    I hope you don’t say (as many do) “Baruch Hashem Yom Yom.” The word there is Adonai; “Hashem” is properly used only for YHWH.

    R’ Rubin, I’m afraid your response makes no sense. “Yahweh” is a modern reconstruction by scholars completely unrelated to “Jehovah” (or, in German, Yehovah). You seem to be combining the two.

  23. I’m not closely reading the articles, and the replies, but in legal situations, it would be advantageous, from an advocacy point of view, for me to actually utter, J– Witnesses, rather than what I’ve said in the past, Jekovah’s Witnesses. Moreso years ago, I would occasionally have a case involving medical ethics – to treat or not to treat – and, in court, arguing the prodigious amount of appellate case law on the subject, there are precedents involving the JWs, and their refusal to accept blood transfusions for themselves, and more troubling, their children. I sound like a religious fanatic myself saying, Jekovah’s Witness, thereby detracting from my argument. I’m thinking out loud – even assuming, arguendo, the issur, is there a heter for a lawyer or litigant, in such a situation, to correctly say the JW name? What would Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler say?

  24. Elliot Pasik, if you felt compelled to not say Jehovah, then why not “Jeyovah” instead of “Jekovah?” Seems like it would accomplish the same thing and nearly no one would realize.

  25. Didn’t think of that, but everything gets noticed in court, everything, even slight mispronunciations, and sometimes, when you win, or, lose, you’ll never really know why.

  26. Apropos of a discussion on religious fanaticism:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/15/police-arrest-amish-men-i_n_964682.html

    Nine Amish were sentenced to jail in Kentucky for breaking a state law that requires them to put orange signs on their horse-drawn buggies.

    The triangular signs are required as a safety warning to indiciate slow-moving vehicles. But the men refused to comply with the law because their religious beliefs forbid them from wearing bright colors, The Courier-Journal reported.

    The men, from a strict Amish sect called Old Order Swartzentruber, used reflective tape as a substitute, because the triangle is a symbol restricted for the Holy Trinity, CNN said

    Eight of the men began serving sentences in Mayfield ranging from three to 10 days after refusing on Monday to pay a fine for the misdemeanors. The ninth man’s fine was paid by a self-described “concerned citizen” so the protesting Amish man could be with a sick child, TV station WPSD said.

    As a courtesy, they were provided with dark uniforms instead of the usual bright orange garb worn by inmates.

    The local chapter of the American Civil LIberties Union has taken up their cause by representing them since 2008, when they were first convicted, according to the station. They’ve appealed the conviction to the Kentucky Supreme Court, but the state’s high court hasn’t decided if it will hear the case, The Courier-Journal said.

  27. Under Pope Benedict, similar concerns are being raised in the Church.

    http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0804119.htm

  28. Re: the first anonymous response to this post — like you I am amazed at how many otherwise educated people — rabbis and laymen alike — do not know the how to proceed when the bal kriyah makes a mistake in a posuk and then says a Shem HaShem or, conversely, first says the Shem and then makes a mistake later in the same posuk. This appears to be a long standing problem. Over 25 years ago Rav Schachter authored an article on “Lesser Known Laws of Torah Reading” in the Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy in which he noted: “There is a common misconception that in the event that the Ba’al Keriah made an error, and has already read God’s name in the verse, he should first complete the reading of the verse, and then reread it correctly. The Poskim write explicitly that such an approach is highly illogical. Rather, the Ba’al Keriah should stop immediately upon realizing his mistake, and reread the verse correctly, starting from the phrase containing the error.” Perhaps the article, or at least this particular paragraph, needs to be republished in a journal that enjoys a broader audience and wider readership.

  29. I call them just Russelites 😉 They are NOT Hashem´s Witnesses, but WE are!

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