Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What to Call G-d in Conversation

Let's momentarily get back to the practical, "don't make a fool of yourself" advice that this blog is known for. In this topic especially, I welcome the comments of others. This post is based solely on what I've been able to pick up in approximately 10 years of reading and discussions with others.

The problem: some "names" used to refer to G-d are not "appropriate" in conversation. They'll mark you as someone who doesn't know what you're talking about. But you'll probably have seen them written or heard them in prayers, so it can be hard to determine which ones are "allowed" other than through several years of trial and error.

And before anyone decides to get all "You can't write Gd's names on your blog!!!!1!" on me, a succinct discussion about writing Gd's name or Torah verses on a computer can be found at the Chabad site. If you want to go more in depth, a more technical discussion is available from Yeshivat Har Zion in Word doc format. However, there's an argument whether the word "god" in English or other languages is any different than "Hashem" in Hebrew for the purposes of writing, but that's another discussion.

Likewise, the names of Gd can even be said aloud for the purposes of education, such as teaching someone to say a blessing, answering a beit din's question "what would you say if I handed you an apple to eat?" or a beit din asking you to read aloud from the siddur to test your Hebrew skills. Therefore, I've chosen a middle ground below. For the purposes of educating you and avoiding misunderstandings, I have written the names of Gd below where appropriate. However, because you might print out this post, I have inserted hyphens in those names I'm aware have an "issue" in order to break them into "two" words and thus avoid an issue. 

"Acceptable" Names:
Hashem: Literally means "The Name."
HaKadosh, Baruch Hu: "The Holy One, Blessed be He" (abbreviation: HKBH).
Abishter / Eibishter: "The Almighty." Used in conversation like Hashem, but commonly limited to circles with more Yiddish influences. My understanding is that it is particularly common in the chassidic community. Modern orthodox or "just plain orthodox" people may not know what you're talking about, especially in smaller communities.
Ribbono Shel Olam: "Master of the world." I've only heard this a few times.
Ein Sof: "The Infinite," a Kabbalistic name.
Ohr Ein Sof: "Light of the Infinite," a Kabbalistic name.

As a practical matter, most "just plain orthodox" people will say only Hashem, G-d, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, or maybe Ein Sof (probably only during a shiur on Kabbalah). 

Names Not Used in Normal Conversation:
Ado - nai.
The four letter name of God: YHVH (the "Tetragrammaton").
El: I've never heard this used in conversation, but I could be wrong. As a general rule, "El" is used with an adjective such as "El HaRachaman."
Elo - him.
Elo - hei - nu.
El Shad - dai: Usually translated as "Gd Almighty."
Avinu Malkeinu: I'm not aware of a prohibition against using this, but I don't think I've ever heard it used in conversation except to refer to the prayer Avinu Malkeinu. 
Adon Olam: Same as Avinu Malkeinu above.
Elo - hei Avraham, Elo - hei Yitzchak ve'Elo - hei Ya'akov: Again, have never heard this phrase except in prayers.
Elo - hei Sarah, Elo - hei Rivka, Elo - hei Leah ve'Elo - hei Rachel. Same as above.
Melech HaMelachim: Same.
HaRachaman: Same.
El Elyon: Same.
Yahweh: This name is a gibberish attempt by early Christian scholars to pronounce the Tetragrammaton. Only Messianic Jews and mainstream Christians use this term. If you say this in Jewish company, don't be surprised if they inch away slowly and then run away.
Yeshua: This name refers to Jesus and is primarily limited to Messianic Jewish circles. Again, if you use this to refer to Gd, you will probably end the conversation. However, don't be like me and become afraid of saying the name Yehoshua (Joshua) because you're terrified you'll accidentally call him Yeshua.

Altered Names:
When it's necessary or desireable to use the "unacceptable" names above, it may be possible to say the name with an altered sound or there may be an "equivalent" name.
Hashem (instead of Ado - nai, especially when reading prayers or Torah aloud)
Elokim: Instead of Elo - him.
Elokeinu: Instead of Elo - hei - nu.
Adoshem: I've heard this said a couple of times, but my online research says it can be considered disrespectful.

An interesting fact from the Jew FAQ: "The number 15, which would ordinarily be written in Hebrew as Yod-Hei (10-5), is normally written as Teit-Vav (9-6), because Yod-Hei is a Name."

As I said above, please feel free to post additions, suggestions, and corrections in the comments section.


  1. HaKadosh, Baruch Hu

    must be pronounced "h'koddoshborchu" to be understood. The beginning h sound is optional, as are most of the vowel sounds.

    1. Never before have I wanted a "like" button on Blogger. Well done!

    2. In Modern Israeli Hebrew, the heh is often pronounced like aleph; akadosh baruch oo. I see my kids make these mistakes all the time when they're learning to spell.

      There's also ample evidence that this is a long standing practice, as seen in the development of Biblical Aramaic -> Talmudic Aramaic, where it's pretty clear that the spelling changed to reflect the pronunciation, and many words shifted following this pattern.

  2. I am still getting over my terror of mispronouncing Yehoshua. I thought it was just me. lol

    1. Oh, no. It's not just you. I met a convert who choose the name Yehoshua, and I looked at him hard, like, "Why on earth would you do that?" Of course, it's fine to choose such a nice name, but it still makes me paranoid.

    2. Yehoshuah is Hebrew for Joshua. Yeshu is Aramaic for the same. Yeshua is a made-up euphemism by early Xians beause their detractors had made up an offensive-to-them acronym out of Yeshu that said "Jesus is not the Lord." Modern Messianics tend to use Yeshua to refer to Jesus. Modern Jews use yeshua in prayers as the literal word "salvation"

    3. my brother's name is Yehoshua, so even though I am a former Christian, the name doesn't bother me at all.

  3. You haven't heard of Eibishter outside of Chabad circles? It is in heavy use in Boro Park, and in my house, which ain't Chabad! It comes naturally to Yiddish speakers, whether they be chassidish or otherwise. I use Eibishter all the time.

    1. Makes sense! Thanks for sharing that! I have never known many chassidim or chareidim. Didn't really know any until I moved to NY! Not too surprisingly, I know more Lubavitch than anything else.

  4. Interesting post. I have rarely seen "ein sof" and have never heard it in normal conversation.

    When we have a speaker at our organization, we always tip them off not to use the term "Hashem." Many have never heard it.

    1. Ruchi, why do you tip them off not to use Hashem? That's the universally accepted non-blaspheming reference to G-d.

  5. FWIW, the Israeli equivalent outside of the Religious Ashkenazi community (i.e., Sefardim, traditional of all backgrounds, and secular) of Baruch Hashem is Todah La'e-l (lit: Thank G-d (better: Thanks _to_ G-d, but not in the "Thanks to G-d, I can..." sense; rather "All thanks to be given to G-d")).

    From a halachic standpoint, I'm not sure if their use of the word E-l (really Ei-l) is treated as a descriptive name (the way we can say G-d in English) or a proper name, and whether this has any bearing on why many will say E-l and not Kel the way we usually do)

    1. I knew a woman whose grandfather refused to oreder his favourite soda pop by name (Ginger ALE) for fear of using G-d's Name in vain.

  6. I've never heard anyone use Ein Sof in conversation, except Kabbalah experts/students chatting. On the other hand, however you want to define the Shechinah, that term does seem to come up more than any other kabbalistic God-name in non-specialist circles.

  7. I asked my rav about typing G-d versus Gd (with an o- left out in case someone decides to print this) and the answer was along the lines of "whatever you want...?"

    One thing to be cognizant of is that speaking "Gd" is not across the board, necessarily, allowed. Saying "Oh my Gd!" according to some/many, is most definitely a problem of taking Gd's name in vain.

  8. I know a woman who is married to a Yehoshua and converted before getting engaged to him. If I remember right, there were at least two times where she misspelled his Hebrew name and wrote Yeshua.

  9. I'm slowly catching up - in many ways! But I've also heard some interesting variations to share:
    To specifically refer to the Y-H-V-H, rather than Hashem, I've heard people say Havaya. Also, so as to not actually say the name of that guy that sounds like Yehoshua, but when referring or talking about him, I've heard people say Yashka

  10. Yashka (or, as I have heard it, Yoshka) is a word some Jewish people use when referring to Jesus and it's not complimentary. In the same vein that person's supposed birthday can be referred to as kratzmach. I think it is bad manners to christians to use those words. Of course some Jewish people don't like saying christmas because of the suggestion that he was a Christ, a messiah, so then kratzmach is a handy alternative