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The Divine Name

In Jewish mysticism great emphasis is placed upon the importance of the Divine Name. It is said to consist of 42 letters; not, as Moses Maimonides pointed out, comprised in one word, but in a phrase of several words that convey an exact notion of the essence of God. With the priestly decadence in the last days of the Temple, a name of 12 letters was substituted for the Divine Name, and as time went on even this secondary name was not divulged to every priest, only to a few. The longer name was sometimes said to contain 45 or 72 letters. The ten Sefiroth are also supposed, in a mystical sense, to be the names of the Deity (see Kabala ). The Divine Name Yahveh is greater than "I am that I am," since the latter signifies God as he was before the creation, the Absolute, the Unknowable, the Hidden One, while but the former denotes the Supreme Manifestation, the immanence of God in the Cosmos.

In the course of time, the Divine Name was preserved as a tradition but only whispered aloud once a year by the high priest when he entered the Holy of Holies in the temple on the Day of Atonement. In general usage, the Name was indicated by secondary terms such as Elohim (the god), Adonai (the Lord), or Sabaoth (Lord of Hosts) to avoid the true name's being profaned.

The Shemhamforash (Name That Rusheth Through the Universe) was the greatest of mysteries of kabalistic folklore, which contains many stories of its power, telling how correct utterance of this supreme sound could hasten the redemption of a sick and sinful world. The creative power of divine utterance is indicated in Genesis in the phrase "and God said," which precedes creation; this is repeated in the Christian fourth gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1).

The concept of the Logos as the Word of God, immanent and creative, derived from Philo Judaeus of Alexandria in the first half-century of the Christian era. Philo fused together traditional Jewish teachings from the Talmud and the Hellenistic philosophy of Greece (influenced by Hindu mysticism). The 72-syllable name became the Tetragrammaton of four-syllable form. A Christian Kabalist of the sixteenth century developed a Pentagrammaton said to increase the power of the Tetragrammaton by adding the letter S to express the name of Jesus.

According to Hindu mysticism, the universe was created through divine utterance, symbolized by a Trigrammaton of three letters: A-U-M. This sacred sound prefixes and concludes reading of Hindu scriptures, and a whole scripture (Mandukya Upanishad ) is devoted to its symbolism. AUM is often rendered as OM, the middle syllable being implicit in correct pronunciation, and its repetition constitutes one of the more popular Indian mantras.


Schaya, Leo. The Universal Meaning of the Kabbalah. Balti-more, MD: Penguin Books, 1973.

Wood, Thomas E. The Mandukya Upanishad and the Agama Shastra: An Investigation into the Meaning of the Vedanta. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

The Divine Name

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