Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
Psychology, Medicine, Science, Politics, Oppression, Integrity, Philosophy, Jews

Elokim chayim never ever means ‘the Living G^d’

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.

  1. 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.

About the Author
MM is a prolific and creative writer and thinker, a daily blog contributor to the TOI. He is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (https://diethylstilbestrol.co.uk/studies/des-and-psychological-health/), born in 1953 to two Dutch survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork, and holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam). He taught Re-evaluation Co-counseling, became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's a strict vegan since 2008. He's an Orthodox Jew but not a rabbi. * His most influential teachers (chronologically) are: his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach and lehavdiel bein chayim lechayim: Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, Rav Zev Leff and Rav Meir Lubin. * Previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. For a couple of years he wrote hasbara for the Dutch public. His fields of attention now are varied: Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science (statistics), Politics (Israel, the US and the Netherlands, Activism - more than leftwing or rightwing, he hopes to highlight Truth), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, GLBTQAI, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust and Jewish Liberation), Ecology and Veganism. Sometimes he's misunderstood because he has such a wide vision that never fits any specialist's box. But that's exactly what many love about him. Many of his posts relate to affairs from the news or the Torah Portion of the Week or are new insights that suddenly befell him. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, reassure the doubters but make the self-assured doubt more. He strives to bring a fresh perspective rather than bore you with the obvious. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds must be disputed. In short, his main political positions are: anti-Trumpism, for Zionism, Intersectionality, non-violence, democracy, anti the fake peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, Science, Free Will, anti blaming-the-victim and for down-to-earth optimism. Read his blog how he attempts to bridge any discrepancies. He admits sometimes exaggerating to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quit a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * His writing has been made possible by an allowance for second generation Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. November 13, 2018, he published his 500st blog post with the ToI. If you're a native English speaker and wonder why you should read from people whose English is only their second language, consider the advantage of having a peek outside of your cultural bubble. * NEW: To see other blog posts by him, his overspill blog you can reach by clicking on the Website icon next to his picture at the head of every post. There you may find precursors to later TOI blog posts, addition or corrections of published TOI blog posts, blog posts the TOI will not carry and some thoughts that are too short to be a TOI blog post. Also, the TOI only allows for one blog post per blogger per 24 hours. Sometimes, he has more to say than that. * To send any personal reaction to him, scroll to the top of the blog post and click Contact Me.
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