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The tetragrammaton (from Greek τετραγράμματον, meaning "four letters") is the Hebrew theonym יהוה, commonly transliterated into Latin letters as YHWH. It is one of the names of the God of Israel used in the Hebrew Bible.
Although Yahweh is favored by most Hebrew scholars and is widely accepted as the vocalization of the Tetragrammaton, Jehovah is still used in some translations of the Bible. The Samaritans understood the pronunciation to be iabe. Some patristic sources give evidence for a Greek pronunciation iaō.
As religiously observant Jews are forbidden to say or write the Tetragrammaton in full, when reading the Torah they use the word Adonai. And although most Christians have no prohibition on vocalizing the Tetragrammaton, in most Christian translations of the Bible, "LORD" is used in place of the Tetragrammaton, after the Hebrew Adonai, and is often written with small capitals (or in all caps) to distinguish it from other words translated as "Lord". The name may be derived from a verb that means "to be, to exist".
The letters, properly read from right to left (in Biblical Hebrew), are:
|ו||Waw||[w], or placeholder for "O"/"U" vowel (see mater lectionis)|
|ה||He||[h] (or often a silent letter at the end of a word)|
Scholars widely propose that the name YHWH is a verb form derived from the Biblical Hebrew triconsonantal root היה (h-y-h) "to be", which has הוה (h-w-h) as a variant form, with a third person masculine y- prefix. It is connected to the passage in Exodus 3:14 in which God gives his name as אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh), where the verb, translated most basically as "I am that I am" or "I shall be what I shall be", "I shall be what I am". יהוה with the vocalization "Yahweh" could theoretically be a hif'il (causative) verb inflection of root HWH, with a meaning something like "he who causes to exist" or "who gives life" (the root idea of the word being "to breathe", and hence, "to live"). As a qal (basic stem) verb inflection, it could mean "he who is, who exists".
The oldest known inscription of the tetragrammaton dates to 840 BCE, on the Mesha Stele. It bears the earliest certain extra-biblical reference to the Israelite god Yahweh. The most recent discovery of a tetragrammaton inscription, was found written in Hebrew on two silver scrolls recovered from Jerusalem, dating to the 6th century BCE.
In the Hebrew Bible, the tetragrammaton occurs 6,828 times, as can be seen in the Biblia Hebraica and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, יְהֹוָה (Qr אֲדֹנָי) occurs 6,518 times, and יֱהֹוִה (Qr אֱלֹהִים) occurs 305 times in the Masoretic Text. It first appears in Hebrew in Genesis 2:4. The only books it does not appear in are Ecclesiastes, the Book of Esther, and Song of Songs.
The pronunciation as it is vowel pointed in the Masoretic Text, the vast majority of scholars do not hold the pronunciation to be correct.
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The most widely accepted pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) among non-Jews is Yahweh. Genebrardus suggested the pronunciation Jahve based on Theodoret's assertion that the Samaritans used the pronunciation Iabe. For most Jews, however, it was forbidden to pronounce or even write in full, the Tetragrammaton.
The current scholarly consensus is that the vowel diacritic points attached to the written consonants YHWH in the Masoretic orthography of Biblical Hebrew were not intended to represent the vowels of such an authentic and historically correct pronunciation.
The original consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible was, several centuries later, provided with vowel marks by the Masoretes to assist reading. In places where the consonants of the text to be read (the Qere) differed from the consonants of the written text (the Kethib), they wrote the Qere in the margin as a note showing what was to be read. In such a case the vowels of the Qere were written on the Kethib. For a few frequent words the marginal note was omitted: this is called Q're perpetuum.
One of these frequent cases was the tetragrammaton, which according to later Jewish practices should not be pronounced, but read as "Adonai" ("My Lord"), or, if the previous or next word already was "Adonai" or "Adoni", as "Elohim" ("God"). This combination produces יְהֹוָה and יֱהֹוִה respectively, non-words that would spell "yehovah" and "yehovih" respectively.
The oldest complete or nearly complete manuscripts of the Masoretic Text Hebrew Bible with Tiberian vocalization, such as the Aleppo Codex and the Codex Leningradensis, both of the 10th or 11th century CE, mostly write יְהוָה (yehvah), with no pointing on the first H; this could be because the o diacritic point plays no useful role in distinguishing between Adonai and Elohim (and so is redundant), or could point to the Qere being 'Shema', which is Aramaic for "the Name".
In ancient Hebrew, the letter ו, known to modern Hebrew speakers as vav, was a semivowel /w/ (as in English, not as in German) rather than a /v/. The letter is referred to as waw in the academic world, and accordingly יהוה is represented in English academic texts as YHWH.
In unpointed Biblical Hebrew, most vowels are not written and the rest are written only ambiguously, as the vowel letters are also used as consonants (similar to the Latin use of V to indicate both U and V). See matres lectionis for details. For similar reasons, an appearance of the Tetragrammaton in ancient Egyptian records of the 13th century BCE sheds no light on the original pronunciation. Therefore it is, in general, difficult to deduce how a word is pronounced from its spelling only, and the Tetragrammaton is a particular example: two of its letters can serve as vowels, and two are vocalic place-holders, which are not pronounced. Thus 1st-century Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus said that the sacred name of God consists of "four vowels".
This difficulty occurs somewhat also in Greek when transcribing Hebrew words, because of Greek's lack of a letter for consonant 'y' and (since loss of the digamma) of a letter for "w", forcing the Hebrew consonants yod and waw to be transcribed into Greek as vowels. Also, non-initial 'h' caused difficulty for Greeks and was liable to be omitted; χ (chi) was pronounced as 'k' + 'h' (as in modern Hindi "lakh", i.e., लाख) and could not be used to represent 'h' as in Modern Greek Χάρρι = "Harry", for example.
The vocalizations of יְהֹוָה (Yehowah) and אֲדֹנָי (Adonai) are not identical. The schwa in YHWH (the vowel ְ under the first letter) and the hataf patakh in 'DNY (the vowel ֲ under its first letter) appear different. The vocalization can be attributed to Biblical Hebrew phonology, where the hataf patakh is grammatically identical to a schwa, always replacing every schwa naḥ under a guttural letter. Since the first letter of אֲדֹנָי is a guttural letter, while the first letter of יְהֹוָה is not, the hataf patakh under the (guttural) aleph reverts to a regular schwa under the (non-guttural) yodh.
The table below considers the vowel points for יְהֹוָה (Yehowah) and אֲדֹנָי (Adonai), respectively:
|Hebrew Word #3068|
|Hebrew Word #136|
|ְ||Simple Shewa||E||ֲ||Hataf Patah||A|
Note in the table directly above that the "simple shewa" in Yehowah and the hatef patah in Adonai are not the same vowel. The same information is displayed in the table above and to the right where "YHWH intended to be pronounced as Adonai" and "Adonai, with its slightly different vowel points" are shown to have different vowel points.
The origins for the composite term Jehovah came from early English translators who transposed the vowels from Adonai to the Tetragrammaton, and read the word literally so that the Y in YHWH, was pronounced as a J in English, and the W as a V. Taking the spellings at face value may have been as a result of not knowing about the Q're perpetuum, thus resulting in the term "Jehovah" and its spelling variants. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) states: "Jehovah (Yahweh), the proper name of God in the Old Testament". Had they known about the Q're perpetuum, the term "Jehovah" might never have come into being. Emil G. Hirsch was among the modern scholars that recognized "Jehovah" to be "grammatically impossible" (Jewish Encyclopedia (1901), Vol VII, p. 87).
Nehemia Gordon argues against what he calls the scholarly consensus and says that "the English form Jehovah is quite simply an Anglicized form of Yehovah", the pronunciation preserved by Karaite Jews, who included the Masoretes. Scott Jones also argues that "modern scholarship has no evidence for the pronunciation of Yahweh whatsoever" and that its assumption is merely based on a series of other assumptions, while "the born again Christian knows - and the evidence testifies - that the first words ever written by man were simply - 'In the beginning God ...'" Some argue that Jehovah is preferable to Yahweh, based on their conclusion that the Tetragrammaton was likely tri-syllabic originally, and that modern forms should therefore also have three syllables.
Jehovah's Witnesses argue that "Jehovah" is the established form of the name in English, and should no more be abandoned than "Jesus" should be replaced by a form closer to the original Hebrew, such as Yehohshua.
In the early 19th century, Hebrew scholars were still critiquing "Jehovah" [a.k.a. Iehovah and Iehouah] because they believed that the vowel points of יְהֹוָה did not represent (and were never intended to represent) the vowel sounds of the early authentic pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton.
The Latin pronunciation of the letter I/J as a consonant sound was [j], the 'y' sound of the English word 'you'. This changed in descendant languages into various stronger consonants, including, in English, the sound [dʒ], the 'j' sound of the word 'juice'. Thus the English pronunciation of the older form Jehovah has this 'j' sound. In order to preserve the approximate original Hebrew pronunciation, however, English spelling uses an initial Y and for the third consonant uses W, a letter unknown in Latin, thus producing the form Yahweh.
The Hebrew scholar Wilhelm Gesenius [1786–1842] had suggested that the Hebrew punctuation יַהְוֶה, which is transliterated into English as "Yahweh", might more accurately represent the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton than the Biblical Hebrew punctuation "יְהֹוָה", from which the English name "Jehovah" has been derived. His proposal to read YHWH as "יַהְוֶה" (see image to the left) was based in large part on various Greek transcriptions, such as ιαβε, dating from the first centuries CE, but also on the forms of theophoric names. In his Hebrew Dictionary, Gesenius supports "Yahweh" (which would have been pronounced [jahwe], with the final letter being silent) because of the Samaritan pronunciation Ιαβε reported by Theodoret, and that the theophoric name prefixes YHW [jeho] and YH [jo] can be explained from the form "Yahweh". Today many scholars accept Gesenius's proposal to read YHWH as יַהְוֶה. Gesenius' proposal gradually became accepted as the best scholarly reconstructed vocalized Hebrew spelling of the Tetragrammaton.
A version of the BHS text, which is derived from the Leningrad Codex, is used to translate the Old Testament of almost all English Bibles other than the King James Bible. The Brown–Driver–Briggs Lexicon of 1905 shows only two different vowel pointings [ i.e. variants ] of YHWH are found in the Ben Chayyim Hebrew Text of 1525, which underlies the Old Testament of the King James Bible.
Six Hebrew spellings of the tetragrammaton are found in the Leningrad Codex of 1008–1010, as shown below. The entries in the Close Transcription column are not intended to indicate how the name was intended to be pronounced by the Masoretes, but only how the word would be pronounced if read without q're perpetuum.
|Chapter & Verse||Hebrew Spelling||Close transcription||Ref.||Explanation|
|This is the most common set of vowels, which are essentially the vowels from Adonai (with the hataf patah reverting to its natural state as a shewa).|
|This is the same as above, but with the dot over the holam/waw left out, because it is a little redundant.|
|When the Tetragrammaton is preceded by Adonai, it receives the vowels from the name Elohim instead. The hataf segol does not revert to a shewa because doing so could lead to confusion with the vowels in Adonai.|
|Just as above, this uses the vowels from Elohim, but like the second version, the dot over the holam/waw is omitted as redundant.|
|Here, the dot over the holam/waw is present, but the hataf segol does get reverted to a shewa.|
|Here, the dot over the holam/waw is omitted, and the hataf segol gets reverted to a shewa.|
The o diacritic dot over the letter waw is often omitted because it plays no useful role in distinguishing between the two intended pronunciations Adonai and Elohim (which both happen to have an o vowel in the same position).
Yeho or "Yehō-" is the prefix form of "YHWH" used in Hebrew theophoric names; the suffix form "Yahū" or "-Yehū" is just as common. This has caused two opinions:
Those who argue for argument 1 above are: George Wesley Buchanan in Biblical Archaeology Review; Smith's 1863 A Dictionary of the Bible; Section # 2.1 The Analytical Hebrew & Chaldee Lexicon (1848) in its article הוה.
Smith's 1863 A Dictionary of the Bible says that "Yahweh" is possible because shortening to "Yahw" would end up as "Yahu" or similar. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901–1906 in the Article:Names Of God has a very similar discussion, and also gives the form Yo (יוֹ) contracted from Yeho (יְהוֹ). The Encyclopædia Britannica also says that "Yeho-" or "Yo" can be explained from "Yahweh", and that the suffix "-yah" can be explained from "Yahweh" better than from "Yehovah".
Exod. 3:15 is used[by whom?] to support the view that the Tetragrammaton was at one time spoken in Ancient Israel, the way it is written: "...this is My name for ever, and this is My memorial unto all generations." The term "for ever" is le'olam, which in biblical Hebrew means "always, continually".
Maimonides relates that only the priests in Temple in Jerusalem pronounced the Tetragrammaton, when they recited the Priestly Blessing over the people daily. Since the destruction of Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Tetragrammaton is no longer pronounced. Rabbinical sources indicate that there was an exception for the temple liturgy, where the name of God was only pronounced once a year, by the high priest, on the Day of Atonement. Others argue that the name was also pronounced in the liturgy of the Temple in the priestly benediction (Num. vi. 27) after the regular daily sacrifice, while in the synagogues a substitute (probably Adonai) was used. According to the Talmud, in the last generations before the fall of Jerusalem, however, it was pronounced in a low tone so that the sounds were lost in the chant of the priests.
Some time after the destruction of Solomon's Temple, the spoken use of God's name, as it was written, had ceased even though knowledge of how it was pronounced was perpetuated in rabbinic schools. It was certainly known in Babylonia in the latter part of the 4th century. Philo calls it ineffable, and says that it is lawful for those only whose ears and tongues are purified by wisdom to hear and utter it in a holy place (that is, for priests in the Temple). In another passage, commenting on Lev. xxiv. 15 seq.: "If any one, I do not say should blaspheme against the Lord of men and gods, but should even dare to utter his name unseasonably, let him expect the penalty of death."
The vehemence with which the utterance of the name is denounced in the Mishna suggests that use of Yahweh was unacceptable in rabbinical Judaism. "He who pronounces the Name with its own letters has no part in the world to come!" Such is the prohibition of pronouncing the Name as written that it is sometimes called the "Ineffable", "Unutterable" or "Distinctive Name".
Halakha (Jewish Law) prescribes that whereas the Name written yud-hei-vav-hei, it is only to be pronounced "Adonai;" and the latter name too is regarded as a holy name, and is only to be pronounced in prayer. Thus when someone wants to refer in third person to either the written or spoken Name, the term "HaShem" ("the Name") is used; and this handle itself can also be used in prayer. The Masoretes added vowel points (niqqud) and cantillation marks to the manuscripts to indicate vowel usage and for use in ritual chanting of readings from the Bible in synagogue services. To יהוה they added the vowels for "Adonai" ("My Lord"), the word to use when the text was read. While "HaShem" is the most common way to reference "the Name," the terms "HaMaqom" (lit. "The Place," i.e. "The Omnipresent") and "Raḥmana" (Aramaic, "Merciful") are used in the mishna and gemara, still used in the phrases "HaMaqom y'naḥem ethḥem" ("may The Omnipresent console you"), the traditional phrase used in the Jewish mourning house and "Raḥmana l'tzlan" ("may the Merciful save us" i.e. "God forbid").
The written Tetragrammaton, as well as six other names of God, must be treated with special sanctity. They cannot be disposed of regularly, lest they be desecrated, but are usually put in long term storage or buried in Jewish cemeteries in order to retire them from use. Similarly, it is prohibited to write the Tetragrammaton (or these other names) unnecessarily. In order to guard the sanctity of the Name sometimes a letter is substituted by a different letter in writing (e.g. יקוק), or the letters are separated by one or more hyphens.
Some Jews are stringent and extend the above safeguard by also not writing out other names of God in other languages, for example writing "God" in English as written "G-d," and so forth. However this is beyond the letter of the law.
The Samaritans shared the taboo of the Jews about the utterance of the name, and there is no evidence that its pronunciation was common Samaritan practice. However Sanhedrin 10:1 includes the comment of Rabbi Mana "for example those Kutim who take an oath" would also have no share in the world to come, which suggests that Mana thought some Samaritans used the name in making oaths. (Their priests have preserved a liturgical pronunciation "Yahwe" or "Yahwa" to the present day.) As with Jews, the Aramaic ha-Shema (השמא "the Name") remains the everyday usage of the name among Samaritans, akin to Hebrew "the Name" (Hebrew השם "HaShem").
The oldest complete Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) versions, from around the 2nd century CE, consistently use Κυριος ("Lord"), where the Hebrew has YHWH, corresponding to substituting Adonay for YHWH in reading the original; in books written in Greek in this period (e.g., Wisdom, 2 and 3 Maccabees), as in the New Testament, Κυριος takes the place of the name of God.  In the P. Ryl. 458 (perhaps the oldest extant Septuagint manuscript) there are blank spaces, leading some scholars[who?] to believe that the Tetragrammaton must have been written where these breaks or blank spaces are.
Sidney Jellicoe concluded that "Kahle is right in holding that LXX [Septuagint] texts, written by Jews for Jews, retained the Divine Name in Hebrew Letters (palaeo-Hebrew or Aramaic) or in the Greek-letters imitative form ΠΙΠΙ, and that its replacement by Κύριος was a Christian innovation". Jellicoe draws together evidence from a great many scholars (B. J. Roberts, Baudissin, Kahle and C. H. Roberts) and various segments of the Septuagint to draw the conclusions that the absence of "Adonai" from the text suggests that the insertion of the term Kyrios was a later practice; in the Septuagint Kyrios is used to substitute YHWH; and the Tetragrammaton appeared in the original text, but Christian copyists removed it.
Eusebius and Jerome (translator of the Latin Vulgate) used the Hexapla.  This is further affirmed by The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, which states "Recently discovered texts doubt the idea that the translators of the LXX (Septuagint) have rendered the Tetragrammaton JHWH with KYRIOS. The most ancient mss (manuscripts) of the LXX today available have the Tetragrammaton written in Hebrew letters in the Greek text. This was custom preserved by the later Hebrew translator of the Old Testament in the first centuries (after Christ)"
In the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Hebrew and Aramaic texts the tetragrammaton and some other names of God (such as El or Elohim) were sometimes written in paleo-Hebrew script, showing that they were treated specially. Most of God's names were pronounced till about the 2nd century BC. Then, as a tradition of non-pronunciation of the names developed, alternatives for the Tetragrammaton appeared, such as Adonai, Kurios and Theos. A Greek fragment of Leviticus (26:2-16) discovered in the Dead Sea scrolls (Qumran) has ιαω ("Iao"), the Greek form of the Hebrew trigrammaton YHW. The historian John the Lydian (6th century) wrote: "The Roman Varo [116–27 BCE] defining him [that is the Jewish god] says that he is called Iao in the Chaldean mysteries". (De Mensibus IV 53) Van Cooten mentions that Iao is one of the "specifically Jewish designations for God" and "the Aramaic papyri from the Jews at Elephantine show that 'Iao' is an original Jewish term".
It is assumed that early Jewish Christians inherited from Jews the practice of reading "Lord" where the tetragrammaton appeared in the Hebrew text, or where a tetragrammaton may have been marked in a Greek text. Gentile Christians, primarily non-Hebrew speaking and using Greek texts, may have read "Lord" as it occurred in the Greek text of the New Testament and their copies of the Greek Old Testament. This practice continued into the Latin Vulgate where "Lord" represented "Yahweh" in the Latin text. In Petrus Alphonsi's Tetragrammaton-Trinity diagram, the name is written as "Jeve." At the Reformation, the Luther Bible restored "Jehova" in the German text of Luther's Old Testament.
No Greek manuscript of the New Testament uses the Tetragrammaton. However, the Sacred Scriptures Bethel Edition used by adherents of the Church of God (Seventh Day) inserts the name Yahweh in the New Testament, and the New World Translation preferred by Jehovah's Witnesses inserts the name Jehovah. Other translations into English render the Greek words kyrios as "Lord" or "lord", and theos as "God".
Delitzsch's 1877 translation of the New Testament into Hebrew frequently uses the tetragrammaton, i.e. Hebrew (יְהֹוָה), which Jews read aloud as "Adonai", particularly in verses where the New Testament quotes or makes reference to Old Testament texts.
In the Catholic Church, the first edition of the official Vatican Nova Vulgata Bibliorum Sacrorum Editio, editio typica, published in 1979, used the traditional Dominus when rendering the Tetragrammaton in the overwhelming majority of places where it appears; however, it also used the form Iahveh for rendering the Tetragrammaton in 3 known places:
In the second edition of the Nova Vulgata Bibliorum Sacrorum Editio, editio typica altera, published in 1986, these few occurrences of the form Iahveh were replaced with Dominus, in keeping with the long-standing Catholic tradition of avoiding direct usage of the Ineffable Name.
On 29 June 2008, the Holy See reacted to the then still recent practice of pronouncing, within Catholic liturgy, the name of God represented by the tetragrammaton. As examples of such vocalization it mentioned "Yahweh" and "Yehovah". The early Christians, it said, followed the example of the Septuagint in replacing the name of God with "the Lord", a practice with important theological implications for their use of "the Lord" in reference to Jesus, as in Philippians 2:9-11 and other New Testament texts. It therefore directed that, "in liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced"; and that translations of Biblical texts for liturgical use are to follow the practice of the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, replacing the divine name with "the Lord" or, in some contexts, "God". The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed this instruction, adding that it "provides also an opportunity to offer catechesis for the faithful as an encouragement to show reverence for the Name of God in daily life, emphasizing the power of language as an act of devotion and worship".
The spellings of the tetragrammaton occur among the many combinations and permutations of names of powerful agents that occur in Jewish magical papyri found in Egypt. One of these forms is the heptagram ιαωουηε. In the Jewish magical papyri, Iave and Iαβα Yaba occurs frequently.
Kabbalistic tradition holds that the correct pronunciation is known to a select few people in each generation, it is not generally known what this pronunciation is. In late kabbalistic works the Tetragrammaton is sometimes referred to as the name of Havayah—הוי'ה, meaning "the Name of Being/Existence." This name also helps when one needs to refer specifically to the written Name; similarly, "Shem Adonoot," meaning "the Name of Lordship" can be used to refer to the spoken name "Adonai" specifically.
As explained by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the tetragrammaton "unfolds" in accordance with the intrinsic nature of its letters, "in the same order in which they appear in the Name, in the mystery of ten and the mystery of four." Namely, the upper cusp of the Yod is Arich Anpin and the main body of Yod is and Abba; the first Hei is Imma; the Vav is Ze`ir Anpin and the second Hei is Nukvah. It unfolds in this aforementioned order and "in the mystery of the four expansions" that are constituted by the following various spellings of the letters:
ע"ב/`AV : יו"ד ה"י וי"ו ה"י, so called "`AV" according to its gematria value ע"ב=70+2=72.
ס"ג/SaG: יו"ד ה"י וא"ו ה"י, gematria 63.
מ"ה/MaH: יו"ד ה"א וא"ו ה"א, gematria 45.
ב"ן/BaN: יו"ד ה"ה ו"ו ה"ה, gematria 52.
Luzzatto summarizes, "In sum, all that exists is founded on the mystery of this Name and upon the mystery of these letters of which it consists. This means that all the different orders and laws are all drawn after and come under the order of these four letters. This is not one particular pathway but rather the general path, which includes everything that exists in the Sefirot in all their details and which brings everything under its order."
Another parallel is drawn between the four letters of the Tetragrammaton and the Four Worlds: the י is associated with Atziluth, the first ה with Beri'ah, the ו with Yetzirah, and final ה with Assiah.
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