Names of God

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The various Names of God refer to different aspects of His Being. The Hebrew word for “names” is shemot (שֵׁמוֹת), or in its singular form, shem (שֵׁם).

Four categories of Holy Names

In general, there are four different categories of Names ascribed to the Almighty.

The first is the essential Name י־הוה, also called the Tetragrammaton, meaning, the four-letter Name. Because of the special sanctity of the four-letter Name, it was only pronounced in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. To refer to it, we use one of its four-letters’ permutations, הֲוָיָ־ה which is pronounced: Havayah. God's essential Name, Havayah, is treated in a separate entry.

In the second category are those Names, which by Jewish law are sacred and may not be erased. These are:

Hebrew spelling אֶ־הְיֶה יָ־ה אֵ־ל אֱ־לֹהִים צְבָאוֹת שַ־דַּי אֲדֹנָ־י אהוה אהוי
pronunication Ekyeh Kah Kel Elokim Tzevakot Shakai Adni Akvah Ehevi

The third category includes the connotations used to describe God in the Bible (and by the sages). The largest and most explicit group of Divine connotations that appears in the Torah is the Thirteen Principles of Divine Mercy.

The fourth category of Names includes all the words that appear in the Torah! Kabbalah teaches us that the entire Torah is indeed one great Name of God and that each of its words is a Divine Name in particular.

These four categories of Divine Names can be seen to correspond to the four letters of God’s essential Name, Havayah.

Names and sefirot

Just like the sefirot, the Names of God reveal certain aspects of His Being. What then is the difference between a Name and a sefirah. For one, the Names of God are clearly mentioned in the Bible. A handwritten Torah scroll is written by a sofer, a scribe. Before inscribing any of the Names of God on the Torah’s parchment, the sofer must sanctify his thoughts. The names of the sefirot, on the other hand, when they appear in the Bible, are not treated in any special way.

Chassidic teachings add to this by explaining that the difference between God’s Names and the sefirot can best be understood in the context of our direct relationship with the Almighty in prayer. When praying, God can only be addressed using His Names, but He cannot be addressed through the sefirot. Translating this difference into grammar, we would say that the Names of God are like proper nouns, while the sefirot are like adjectives. In the words of the sages: “we must address God and not His attributes [adjectives].” In simple words, when addressing God with any one of His Names we are addressing God Himself, whereas were we to turn to Him as the crown or as the wisdom we would be addressing His attributes, which emanate from His essence but are not He Himself. While, as we shall see, there is a correspondence between the Divine Names and the sefirot, the Names refer to the essence of God, the Emanator, within His emanations, not to the emanations themselves.

The Arizal stressed the importance of knowing the Names of the Almighty and their meanings. In the spirit of the quote introducing this chapter, the Arizal revealed the kavanot—the Kabbalistic meanings and mystical of the prayer service’s text—as based on the holy Names of the Almighty.

The Ba’al Shem Tov stressed heartfelt devotion during prayer. Thus, the importance of knowing the Names of the Almighty and their meanings became secondary. Nonetheless, knowledge of God’s Names remains essential for gaining a clear understanding of Kabbalah, especially in its contemplative and meditative forms.

The various Names of God correspond to the sefirot in the following manner:

אֶ־הְיֶה (Ekyeh)
understanding wisdom
יֱ־הֹוִה יָ־ה (Kah)
אהוה (Akvah)
might loving-kindness
אֱ־לֹהִים (Elokim) אֵ־ל (Kel)
יְ־הֹוָה (Havayah)
acknowledgment victory
אֱ־לֹהִים צְבָאוֹת (Elokim Tzevakot) יְ־הֹוָה צְבָאוֹת (Havayah Tzevakot)
שַ־דַּי (Shakai)
אֲדֹנָ־י (Adni)


  • Excerpted from What You Need to Know About Kabbalah.
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