YHVH with Adonai written in the Heh


By Jason Hare
Last updated: 26 March 2023


I live in Tel Aviv, the most open-minded city in the modern state of Israel. People in this city feel free to express themselves in any and every way—to show their individuality, to demonstrate their uniqueness, to exhibit identification with others from the same social circles, and to put their politics into words and actions (as in the recent demonstrations taking place in defiance of Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to weaken the power of the Supreme Court, which has sparked an uprising among people throughout the state). People from every walk of life—from extreme secularism to the strictest of religious orthopraxy—share this space and rarely all have the same opinion on any given topic.

There is one topic, however, on which most people in Israel, even in Tel Aviv, agree. The superstition that is associated with pronouncing the name of the God of Israel (יהוה) has been passed down from generation to generation for over 2,000 years. For those who were raised religious, it feels like sacrilege to even consider saying it aloud or talking about how it was or should be pronounced. Even those who are unconvinced of the existence of this God (or any god) may find themselves hesitating before allowing the name to escape their lips, concerned with how someone might react who hears you uttering the name. It is something that is drilled into our brains when we are learning to read Torah as children—when you come across the name יְהוָֹה in the text of the Bible and in prayers, you say אֲדֹנָי ʾăḏōnāy rather than reading the word as it is spelled. It is a rule that everyone knows and by which all abide.

People generally (and there are certainly exceptions) do not feel free to express themselves in public by speaking the name aloud. When not praying or reciting Scripture, it is most common for people to say either הַשֵּׁם “the Name” or הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא “the Holy One, blessed is he,” an inordinately long circumlocution. With the aversion that people feel toward attempting to pronounce the name, it should be no surprise that most people never really consider the issue. If they hear anyone pronounce it, it is often in comedy skits like this one by the group הַיְהוּדִים בָּאִים, in which the main singer represents God complaining that people call him by all sorts of titles but never use his real name. As soon as he gets to the very last word of the song, we see him about to sing the word “Yehovah,” and he pops out of existence! The song is catchy, and the ending is certainly funny, but it represents a real fear that exists in the subconscious of Jews all over the world—that speaking the name aloud may have real consequences.

The part that interests me most of all is the fact that the singer was about to say “Yehovah” as the specific name of God. If you were to read the letters exactly as written, you would certainly get the form “Yehovah.” That is, יְהוָֹה would be spelled out יְ “Ye-,” הֹ “ho-,” and וָה “vah” (in academic transcription: Yəhōvâ). Israelis come to this pronunciation by simply reading the vowels that are written on the name. No one ever taught a Jew in Israel that the name should be read this way. All that they were taught was that when you come to that name, you read אֲדֹנָי. The common idea about the pronunciation is simply derived from reading it as it is written. That’s it.

Is it possible, though, to know if Yehovah (or the common English version Jehovah) was the actual pronunciation of the name יהוה? Is there any reason to doubt that this was the pronunciation, and why might we be convinced that it was otherwise?

Before we get to this, I should make it clear that I am convinced that Jehovah was not the pronunciation of the name, despite its appearance in seven verses of the King James Version of the Bible (and all over the New World Translation and the American Standard Version). I understand that Jehovah is the way that most English speakers pronounce the name, but it has become more and more common to hear Yahweh among Evangelicals that have been influenced by Hebrew lexicographers from the academic realm and through praise and worship songs like “Yahweh” by Andy Park. I am for the destigmatization of the pronunciation of the name in public use and especially in academic discussions. No one should suffer any kind of ill effects as the result of speaking a word, nor should we be afraid to speak the name of the God of Israel just as they did in the times of the Bible as illustrated in the text of Ruth 2:4. The name was used in greetings, in oaths, in wishes, in storytelling. No one in the texts of the Bible held back in using the name, though it was clearly prohibited to make a false oath in this name or to profane it.

Despite my position (which I will present on this page) that Jehovah is not the correct way to say the name, I do not oppose the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a valid faith group. They are often denounced for their departure from mainstream Christianity’s teachings on the Trinity, for their use of the name Jehovah, for creating and adopting their own translation of the Bible (New World Translation), and for their belief in soul annihilation. For these things, Evangelicals often consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be a cult organization. I disagree with them on everything related to theology. I’m a secular Israeli Jew, but I do not come to this question with any accusations. People must be free to express their own faith traditions and have conversations in an attempt to change minds—with rationalism, not with threats or name-calling. My approach is to deal with the linguistic issues related to the name’s pronunciation and not get involved in theological conclusions or threats of damnation and hell. These things simply don’t interest me.

That said, I’d like to have you choose which direction to take as you go forward into my reasoning for rejecting the pronunciation Jehovah in favor of Yahweh:

My Hebrew is rusty.
My Hebrew is great.

Site Comments

    1. The font for transliteration of Hebrew used on this site is Gentium Plus, and for Hebrew I use Shofar. These should be embedded on your browser reader. If they do not show up, check that the URL is prefaced with https:// rather than http:// (so that it is secured browsing). This will also have an effect on viewing Paleo-Hebrew text (שלום עליכם), which is displayed in the font Mesha.
    2. On the simplified section, my goal will be to provide an explanation of the forms of the Tetragrammaton to those who have not study any or much Hebrew. It will use only simplified (non-academic) transcription. The regular section will provide all examples in Hebrew and most with academic transcription to demonstrate the morphological / phonological effects on the name that appear as a result of forces within the character of the Hebrew language.