Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
IT is well known that all the names of God occurring in Scripture are derived from His actions, except one, namely, the Tetragrammaton, which consists of the letters yod, hé, vau and hé. This name is applied exclusively to God, and is on that account called Shem ha-meforash, "The nomen proprium." It is the distinct and exclusive designation of the Divine Being; whilst His other names are common nouns, and are derived from actions, to which some of our own are similar, as we have already explained. Even the name Adonay, "Lord," which has been substituted for the Tetragrammaton, is derived from the appellative "lord"; comp. "The man who is the lord (adone) of the land spake roughly to us" (Gen. xliii. 30). The difference between Adoni, "my lord," (with ḥirek under the nun), or Adonay (with kameẓ), is similar to the difference between Sari, "my prince," and
[paragraph continues] Saraï, Abraham's wife (ib. xvi. 1), the latter form denoting majesty and distinction. An angel is also addressed as "Adonay"; e.g., "Adonay (My lord), pass not away, I pray thee" (ib. xviii. 3). I have restricted my explanation to the term Adonay, the substitute for the Tetragrammaton, because it is more commonly applied to God than any of the other names which are in frequent use, like dayyan, "judge," shadday, "almighty," ẓaddik, "righteous," ḥannun, "gracious," raḥum, "merciful," and elohim "chief" all these terms are unquestionably appellations and derivatives. The derivation of the name, consisting of yod, hé, vau, and hé, is not positively known, the word having no additional signification. This sacred name, which, as you know, was not pronounced except in the sanctuary by the appointed priests, when they gave the sacerdotal blessing, and by the high priest on the Day of Atonement, undoubtedly denotes something which is peculiar to God, and is not found in any other being. It is possible that in the Hebrew language, of which we have now but a slight knowledge, the Tetragrammaton, in the way it was pronounced, conveyed the meaning of "absolute existence." In short, the majesty of the name and the great dread of uttering it, are connected with the fact that it denotes God Himself, without including in its meaning any names of the things created by Him. Thus our Sages say: "'My name' (Num. vi. 27) means the name which is peculiar to Me." All other names of God have reference to qualities, and do not signify a simple substance, but a substance with attributes, they being derivatives. On that account it is believed that they imply the presence of a plurality in God, I mean to say, the presence of attributes, that is, of some extraneous element superadded to His essence. Such is the meaning of all derivative names: they imply the presence of some attribute and its substratum, though this be not distinctly named. As, however, it has been proved, that God is not a substratum capable of attributes, we are convinced that those appellatives when employed as names of God, only indicate the relation of certain actions to Him, or they convey to us some notion of His perfection.
Hence R. Ḥaninah would have objected to the expression "the great, the mighty, and the tremendous," had it not been for the two reasons mentioned by him; because such expressions lead men to think that the attributes are essential, i.e., they are perfections actually present in God. The frequent use of names of God derived from actions, led to the belief that He had as many [essential] attributes as there were actions from which the names were derived. The following promise was therefore made, implying that mankind will at a certain future time understand this subject, and be free from the error it involves: "In that day will the Lord be One, and His name One" (Zech. xiv. 9). The meaning of this prophecy is this: He being One, will then be called by one name, which will indicate the essence of God; but it does not mean that His sole name will be a derivative [viz., "One"]. In the Pirke Rabbi Eliezer (chap. iii.) occurs the following passage: "Before the universe was created, there was only the Almighty and His name." Observe how clearly the author states that all these appellatives employed as names of God came into existence after the Creation. This is true; for they all refer to actions manifested in the Universe. If, however, you consider His essence as separate and as abstracted from all
actions, you will not describe it by an appellative, but by a proper noun, which exclusively indicates that essence. Every other name of God is a derivative, only the Tetragrammaton is a real nomen proprium, and must not be considered from any other point of view. You must beware of sharing the error of those who write amulets (kameot). Whatever you hear from them, or read in their works, especially in reference to the names which they form by combination, is utterly senseless; they call these combinations shemot (names) and believe that their pronunciation demands sanctification and purification, and that by using them they are enabled to work miracles. Rational persons ought not to listen to such men, nor in any way believe their assertions. No other name is called shem ha-meforash except this Tetragrammaton, which is written, but is not pronounced according to its letters. The words, "Thus shall ye bless the children of Israel" (Num. vi. 23) are interpreted in Siphri as follows: "'Thus,' in the holy language; again 'thus,' with the Shem ha-meforash." The following remark, is also found there: "In the sanctuary [the name of God is pronounced] as it is spelt, but elsewhere by its substitutes." In the Talmud, the following passage occurs: "'Thus,' i.e., with the shem ha-meforash.--You say [that the priests, when blessing the people, had to pronounce] the shem ha-meforash; this was perhaps not the case, and they may have used other names instead.--We infer it from the words: 'And they shall put My name' (Num. vi. 27), i.e., My name, which is peculiar to Me." It has thus been shown that the shem ha-meforash (the proper name of God) is the Tetragrammaton, and that this is the only name which indicates nothing but His essence, and therefore our Sages in referring to this sacred term said "'My name' means the one which is peculiar to Me alone."
In the next chapter I will explain the circumstances which brought men to a belief in the power of Shemot (names of God); I will point out the main subject of discussion, and lay open to you its mystery, and then not any doubt will be left in your mind, unless you prefer to be misguided.