Amongst American religious Jews the most common way to refer to our deity is “Hashem,” which literally translates to “The Name.” People recognize that “Hashem” is not a name itself, but rather a stand-in for another name. What is that other name? I think most people who use this term would answer that God’s name is “Adon-ay” (lit: Master), and that “Hashem” is the stand-in, as God’s proper name should only be used during prayer or when making blessings. However, Adon-ay is not God’s actual name. The name they are referring to is the Tetragrammaton, YH-WH. Adon-ay is actually a stand-in for God’s name, as Jewish tradition teaches that YH-WH should not be pronounced as written. I fear that some people today have become so strict about the third commandment of Lo Tisa (not using God’s name frivolously) that they have distanced themselves from God’s name (and thus God Himself) to an extreme degree, in which Adon-ay is rarely used and YH-WH, the actual name of God, has become unknown.
Interestingly, it was through my studies in academic Bible that I came to this realization. Due to the nature of this publication and the scope of this article I cannot perform a full analysis of the function of the names of God in the Bible, but at some point in my forays as a Jewish Studies major it became clear to me that, according to Tanakh, God’s name is YH-WH, not Adon-ay, and certainly not Hashem. In fact, it seems logical that people referred God as YH-WH as a way of distinguishing Him from other ancient deities, such as Baal. A name such as Adon-ay could refer to any god, it is not a specific name and in the syncretistic religious practice of Ancient Israel it would not have sufficiently distinguished between YH-WH and Baal. People even named their children after YH-WH(called Yahwisitc names), such as Yehoshua (יהושע) or Yeshayahu (ישעיהו). In Ancient times, use of YH-WH was certainly not taboo.
Today YH-WH is totally out of use in the religious Jewish world; I have never heard the term used. I cannot exactly point to when YH-WH totally fell out of use, but it probably was a very long time ago. I find it interesting that it was not until recently, despite years of yeshiva education, that I came to this seemingly obvious epiphany, that the name of our God is YH-WH. It may be no coincidence that many more people today use Elohistic names for their children (names containing “el,” short for Elo-him, such as Daniel, Michael, Samuel, Gabriel etc.). I do not think we need to return to usage of YH-WH as use of this name is no longer traditional, but I do think we should be incorporating the stand-in Adon-ay a bit more. When singing Zemirot (religious songs) on Shabbat, at a Kumzits, or when learning Torah we should be using Adon-ay in place of Hashem. If we consider signing and learning to be an authentic religious experience, I do not think use of the stand-in Adon-ay is a violation of Lo Tisa. I feel that the practice in many American yeshivot to say “Hashem” when singing Zemirot and learning cheapens the religious experience (I have noticed that many native Israelis do not use Hashem). In fact, in almost seems sacrilegious to use the term Hashem in the context of a religious experience. It is understandable to be one step removed from God (Adon-ay); two steps (Hashem) seems gratuitous.
You might be wondering why I care. The answer is that I love God, and one major goal of my religious practice is to work on my relationship with Him. However, I feel that it is hard to experience Him intimately when I am two steps removed from Him. Out of respect I do not call my father by his first name, but I do not call him “the person” either, I call him dad. If I were to call him “the person” every time, I wonder if it would have been harder for us to forge a relationship. The overuse of the term Hashem seems like an insult to our Biblical historical consciousness and a barrier to our being able to come closer to God.
A professor of mine likes to joke about the “Hashemite Kingdom of ArtScroll.” In its translations, the publishing company ArtScroll translates the Tetragrammaton as a “HASHEM.” As if the term Hashem was not far-removed enough, they had to put it in all caps also! The meaning is completely lost in this translation; God has been taken out of the picture.
So the next time you are learning Torah or singing Zemirot or exclaiming “Baruch HaShem!” upon the receipt of good news, remember that just like you have a name that must be respected, as the Talmud tells us that anyone who uses an unwanted nickname for a friend ascends to Hell and will not rise, God also has a name that He wants respected. Part of respecting God’s name is not overusing it, but maybe part of respecting His name also includes not diluting it to the extent to which it is totally lost.
(Please note that my hope here is to open up a conversation. Bible scholars, historians, and Halakhists will obviously need to work together in a fuller treatment of this topic.)