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Thursday, October 1, 2009


In Mishkan T’filah, the new prayerbook published by the Reform Jewish movement in the US (CCAR, 2007), God is often addressed in English prayers as Adonai, such as, “Praise to You, Adonai, who sanctifies Shabbat.” I am uncomfortable with this practice, for the simple reason that Adonai is not God’s personal name. I would add that even if we knew God’s real name, it would not be appropriate to address God by using a proper name, for God is incapable of being expressed in words, let alone with a personal name.

Jewish classical texts contain various names for God, but the only one that can be considered as God’s personal name in the Hebrew Bible is YHVH (from the verbal root hvh, an older form of hyh, meaning “to be”), which can be translated as “[God] is;” or, “[God] is present,” or, even “[God] causes to be.” It is found in the Bible more than 6800 times, and was uttered by the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem only during certain occasions. In time, its pronunciation was lost and the Rabbis substituted for it the name Adonai (which means, “My Master”). They taught, “Not as I am written, am I pronounced. I am written YHVH, but I am pronounced Adonai.” So, Adonai is NOT God’s personal name; only YHVH is, and we do not even know how to say it.

In the past, gods had multiple names. Marduk, the national god of Babylonia had 50. Knowing a name implied an ability to relate as well as (so in magic) to wield power over the one or thing that is named. In our time, if God stands for the ground of existence, or, the energy that sustains the universe, or, as the fountain of ultimate meaning (you can add here your own concept of God), God should be invoked simply as “existence,” without a personal name. We do not exert power over God by using God’s proper name.

The word God is a symbol. It stands for something. I agree with Erich Fromm who writes, “The truly religious person…does not expect anything from God; he does not love God as a child loves his father or his mother; he has acquired the humility of sensing his limitations, to the degree of knowing that he knows nothing about God.” For me, in English prayers, using a generic term such as “God” is enough. Let people apply to it their own meaning. The divinity does not need or require a personal name.

Rifat Sonsino
Oct. 1, 2009


  1. What would you substitute for "Adonai," Rifat? The older forms were gender specific and that's a bit idolatrous. Of course, we could just leave out the entire word in translation in recognition of its theological ineptness. How about, HaShem? But then people might think that that is God's name. Do you believe our congregants think that they are addressing God by name when they say "Adonai" in our prayers?

  2. Maybe we need to give more consideration to the Hebrew in the translation by offering, "Praised to You, YHVH..." And inform the congregants that the YHVH is not to be said, but that they are to freely associate how they would like to understand God in their hearts when verbalizing the prayers.