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Revering the Name of God

July 6, 2017

by: Terry Mason, BFP Staff Writer

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Studying Jewish worldview and culture has greatly enriched my life on many levels. For instance, when I see the reverence that Jewish people have for God’s name I am often challenged. It is a deeply held precept often referred to as Kiddush HaShem—Sanctifying God’s name. This is usually done in two main ways: by living a holy life that will bring glory to God and by not using God’s name in a frivolous way.

Sanctifying God’s Name

In the Bible, we have the direct command, “You shall not profane My holy name” (Lev. 22:32). Jewish people take this command very seriously. They have developed euphemisms to refer to God. For instance, when speaking they often simply use HaShem, meaning the Name, rather than actually pronouncing the ineffable name which God called Himself in the Bible. It is also common, especially during public prayer, to use the term Adonai (Lord or Master). In our English Bibles, Lord is used to signify places where this name is written in the text.

From a Jewish perspective, it is possible for common, everyday items to attain a higher degree of holiness which means they must be treated with greater respect. Therefore, anything with God’s name written on it becomes special and must be handled accordingly. This goes beyond just proper disposal. “For instance, these holy items should not be placed directly on the ground, have random things piled on top of them or be taken into the bathroom, as that demeans their sanctity” (jewishtreats.org).

A public genizah used to store written material awaiting burial (Terry Mason/bridgesforpeace.com)

Orthodox Jewish communities so revere God’s name that anything containing His name in written form is not simply discarded in the trash bin. Rather, it must be properly buried in periodic ceremonies. Such items, known as shaimot, are kept in a special location, often within the synagogue, until enough written material is collected to warrant a burial. These special places are known as genizot (singular, genizah). In some Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem public genizot are provided. Books and papers which are considered heretical can also be placed in the genizah. It then serves a double purpose, to store holy things and to protect the community from harm.

A Famous Genizah in Cairo

Occasionally a very old genizah which contains documents and ritual items of historic significance is discovered. Perhaps the most famous genizah found to date is the Cairo Genizah, which was found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt. It contained a virtual treasure trove of historic documents from AD 800–1900. The collection of approximately 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments makes up the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world (Wikipedia). They were written in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic providing scholars with details about the economic and cultural life of the Jewish communities across North Africa, primarily during the 10th–13th centuries.

A modern scholar examines a collection of fragments from the Cairo Genizah (www.schocken.jts.org_schmuel)

The collection is distributed among various universities with Cambridge holding the largest share. While the Cairo Genizah has been known to European scholars and explorers since 1752 when it was first reported, it was only fully explored in 1896–97. Cambridge University scholar, Dr. Solomon Schechter, examined the collection and the Jewish community of Egypt granted him permission to take away whatever he liked (Cambridge Digital Library). Scholars continue to glean through the vast amount of material.

Deepening Our Respect for God’s Name

In a world where it is unfortunately commonplace to hear God’s name used in vain, what can we do to be more respectful in our own practice? In some families, children are taught not to address their parents by their first name as a sign of respect. In much the same way, we need to be careful how we use God’s name. Rebecca J. Brimmer, International President and CEO of Bridges for Peace, wrote poignantly about this in her April 2017 Teaching Letter, “God does not want us to take Him or His Word for granted—He wants us to tremble at His Word. For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being,’ declares the LORD. ‘But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word’” (Isa. 66:2).

The Hebrew word translated “tremble” in Isaiah 66:2 is chared (חרד), which means fearful, afraid, trembling and reverential. Is that how we react to God and His Word? The Bible is His revelation to mankind. He has given us His blueprint for our lives. I wonder how much we grieve Him when He sees us take this rich treasury of truth, promise and blessing so casually.”

The longest chapter in the book of Psalms is 119. It is a song of praise to the LORD for His Word and the instruction that it provides for life. Verse 120 says, “My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.” There is a healthy, reverential fear of God that we need to maintain. Yes, He is loving and gracious, but He is also holy and sovereign.

In many places today the Christian church has become unbalanced with too much emphasis placed on grace while neglecting God’s holiness and justice. In Deuteronomy Moses gives a concise summary of how we are to relate to God, And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12). We need to fear God while at the same time showing Him our love through faithful obedience. One way that we can do that is to be careful to sanctify His name before others by how we live and by how we speak.

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