In Prayer and in the Jewish Bible we may find occasionally the expression Elokim chayim which seems to mean ‘G^d [Who is] alive.’ The word Elokim is in the plural and so is the word chayim. But I will show you that when Jews utter Elokim chayim, it never means ‘the Living G^d.’
The Editorial Board of the Hebrew Bible and Prayer, the Man of the Great Assembly, must have considered it unthinkable that anyone would take this differently, or they would not have allowed for Elokim and chayim to appear alongside one another. But in our desperate day and age, many religious Jews seem unacquainted with this. Let’s investigate.
Plural and Singular
We see occasionally that a word (in any language except no doubt in Esperanto) appears in the plural form but is regarded as one thing, or the opposite. So we find that the ‘police are’ and ‘aerobics is.’
Elokim means, among other things: ‘gods’ and has a plural form. But when it refers to the One Who created Heaven and Earth, it is always understood as: ‘G^d’ in the greatest Singularity and Uniqueness you could imagine. The second and third words of the Hebrew Bible (Torah) are, ‘G^d created.’ Created is there in the singular.
Chayim means alive or life. As a noun, it is treated as a plural: ‘chayim arukim,’ a long life – ‘arukim‘ is in the plural . Like the English words ‘trousers’ – they are to clothe us though they are one item of clothing. Unsurprisingly, the plural of the noun chayim is unchanged: ‘chayim.’
In the Prayers
Yet, in the Morning Prayers, we find ‘Elokim chayim‘ (First Blessing before the Sh’ma’) which now some people understand to mean: ‘G^d [Who is] alive.’ If it would mean that, it would read: ‘Elokim chai.’ Rather, it says: ‘b’kol, divrei Elokim chayim‘ which must mean: ‘out-loud, the words of G^d who are alive,’ or ‘out-loud, the living words of G^d.’ And not: ‘out-loud, the words of the living god[s],’ perish the thought.
This is even clearer and more important in the Addition to the Opening Blessing of the Standing Prayer that we say 60 times on the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. We are obligated to understand every word of this First Blessing so to get this right is crucial.
In that Addition, we plead for or mention to G^d that we are seeking life and that we will aim our lives to be: ‘l’ma’anchah, Elokim chayim.’ This must mean: ‘[we seek] for Your sake, G^d, lives.’ Or in a regular English order: ‘[all we want are] lives [that we live] for Your sake, G^d.’ It could also mean something else: ‘[all we want are lives] for Your sake, G^d [You are the Giver] of life’! But most certainly, it could never mean: ‘[all we want are lives] for Your sake, living G^d,’ Heaven forbid! That would be such chutzpah. To say: ‘Because You are alive, we also want to be alive.’ That would echo the snake in the Garden of Eden that enticed Eve that she could be like G^d (Genesis 3:4). When we’re pleading for our very lives, ten days a year, the last thing we want to remind G^d of is human’s first sin.
The G^d of Life in the Bible
The Hebrew Bible also has ‘Elokim chayim‘ at a total of five times. Let’s have a look at every occurrence to see what it must mean there.
Deuteronomy 5:23 (Christian counting: 5:26) says: ‘asher shama’ kol Elokim chayim medaber.’ Translation: ‘who has heard the sound of the G^d of life speaking.’
1 Samuel 17:26 and 17:36 present David preparing himself for the battle with Goliath. It’s a life-and-death struggle so it makes sense that he refers to the One Who will save him as ‘Elokim chayim,’ the G^d of life.
Jeremiah 10:10 reads: ‘VaShem Elokim emmet, hu Elokim chayim uMelech ‘olam.‘ A simple translation is: ‘But G^d is a/the G^d of Truth (or: a/the truthful G^d), He is a/the G^d of life (but it cannot mean: a/the living G^d) and a/the Monarch of the world (or: of Eternity, or: an/the Eternal King).’ (Quoted in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud in several places.)
Jeremiah 23:36 can only be translated as: ‘you have perverted the words of the G^d of life [on earth], the G^d of [the Heavenly] Legions, our G^d.’
The Living G^d in the Bible
The Hebrew Bible also has ‘Elokim/Keil Chai,’ the Living G^d. This is a metaphor, an anthropomorphism, describing G^d in human terms. It means G^d is still with us. Never, He was, is and will be absent.
Joshua 3:10 reads: ‘Keil Chai‘ (Elokim is the plural of Keil), the Living G^d.
- Kings 19:4, 19:16, Isaiah 37:4, 37:17 say: ‘Elokim Chai,’ the Living G^d.
Hosea 2:1 (Christian counting: 1:10) has: ‘benei Keil Chai,’ the children of the Living G^d.
Psalms 42:3 (Christian counting: 42:2) reads: ‘tzom’ah nafshi leiLokim l’Keil Chai.’ Translation: My Soul thirsts for G^d, for the Living G^d.
Psalms 84:2 says: ‘el Keil Chai,’ to the Living G^d.
Daniel 6:21 and 6:27 (Christian counting: 6:20 and 6:26) reads in Aramaic: ‘Elokah Chayah,’ ‘the Living G^d.’
All these ten occurrences have the adjective ‘Living’ in the singular: ‘Chai.’
The G^d of Life/of the Living in the Oral Torah
Most famously, the Talmud brings stories where a Heavenly Voice said: eilu v’eilu divrey Elokim chayim, [both] those and those are the words of Elokim chayim (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metziah, folio 59, side a, Tractate Eruvin, folio 13, side b, Jerusalem Talmud, Chapter 1, Law 4, folio 8, side b). Life brings change and diversity so people can come to different conclusions. But don’t forget that G^d is the Creat^r of each living person. Truth of one G^d-fearing knowledgeable person therefore cannot really contradict or nullify the truth of another pious competent person.
The French Rabbis to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 61, side a, contrast Elokim chayim with [idols of] wood and stone. It seems plausible to understand this as: a living god vs. [dead] wood or stone but only for someone who doesn’t know Hebrew. Also here, it must mean: the G^d of life (life-giving G^d) as different from [dead, powerless] wood and stone.
A Charming Hint
1 Samuel 4:8. The Philistines dread to wage war against the Jews. ‘Woe (‘oy‘) is unto us! Who will save us from the Hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that smote the Egyptians.’ Here ‘Elokim‘ gets the plural all the way because the Philistines did not yet grasp that G^d is One.
Later, after Seeing the crushing Hand of G^d numerous times, their priests seem to have understood. They then talk about ‘His Hand’ — not ‘their hand’ (6:3). And ‘Perhaps, He will lighten His Hand from upon you’ (6:5).
If thousands of years ago, the Philistines already understood that ‘Elokim‘ gets the singular, Jews now should certainly never again take ‘Elokim chayim‘ to mean the Living G^d because that is in Hebrew ‘Elokim chai.’
On weekdays, let’s correct this glaring mistake in the modern translations in our Bibles and Prayer books, for the Glory of the Living G^d.