The Tetragrammaton and Hashem’s other Names

And I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as, Kel Shakai, and by my name Hashem I did not make myself known to them.  (Shemot 6:3)

The Torah uses various names in referring to G-d.  Each name has a specific meaning.  In general, each describes a unique aspect of G-d’s behavior or a characteristic we descriptively ascribe to Him.  Two of these names are discussed in this passage.  One of these names is Kel Shakai.  The other is the Tetagrammaton – the Name of Four Letters.  This is the most sacred of G-d’s names.  Its sanctity is represented by the manner in which the name is pronounced.  The actual letters of the name are not sounded.  Instead, a form of the term Master is substituted.  Why is this name more sacred than G-d’s other names?  It seems that whereas the other names describe some aspect of G-d’s behavior, or a characteristic that we ascribe to Him; the Tetagrammaton seems to approach being a reference to G-d’s nature.  It is, therefore, fitting that the name is not pronounced as it is  written.  We cannot know G-d’s true nature.  We can only comprehend a descriptive approximation of His nature.  Through not expressing the name as it is written, we symbolize the unattainable nature of true knowledge of G-d.  The Tetagrammaton is often replaced by the term “Hashem”.

In our pasuk, G-d explains to Moshe that He revealed Himself to the Forefathers.  However, this revelation was limited.  He revealed Himself only as Kel Shakai.    He did not reveal Himself as the G-d “described” by the Tetagrammaton.    The exact meaning of the name Kel Shakai is discussed by the commentaries.  But regardless of the exact meaning of this name, the intent of the passage is clear.  In Egypt, Hashem will reveal Himself more fully.

How will the revelation in Egypt be different from the previous revelations experienced by the Forefathers?  Nachmanides explains that the Avot – the Forefathers –witnessed Hashem interfere with natural events.  The interference was often subtle and barely detectable.  However, these miracles were of a limited scale.  In Egypt, Hashem will perform incredible miracles.  These events will not be minor alterations in the natural order.  The laws of nature will be abrogated in a manifest and fantastic manner.

It should be noted that Nachmanides maintains that there is a natural order.  Physical laws govern this order.  We release a ball and it falls.  This is because the Creator instituted physical laws that govern mundane events.  Gravity is one of these laws.  Nachmanides also maintains that Hashem performs hidden miracles.  He rewards us for merits and punishes evil.  These rewards and punishments are concealed miracles.  Physical law does not dictate that the righteous should prosper or the evil should perish.  These outcomes involve interference with natural cause and effect.  Therefore, Nachmanides regards these outcomes as minor miracles.[1]

Why does Hashem need laws of nature in order to govern the universe?  Could not the Creator guide every single event, directly?  This question is based upon a lack of appreciation of the beautiful wisdom expressed in these laws.  The laws governing our universe are an awesome expression of the unfathomable wisdom of Hashem.

Minor miracles – even those experienced by the Avot – fail to express the extent of Hashem’s authority over nature.  The basic pattern of nature remains intact.  Often these interventions are not even identifiable.  In this sense, these miracles represent a limited revelation of Hashem.  In Egypt, miracles were performed that shattered the very pattern of natural phenomena.  The Reed Sea split.  The firstborn died.  Hashem was revealed as the G-d ruling the universe.  He was recognized as the cause of all that exists and capable of altering the universe to suit His will.


Pharoh’s Sorcerers’ Imitations of Moshe’s Wonders

And the sorcerers of Egypt also did so with their sorcery.  And Paroh’s heart became strong.  And he did not listen to them, as Hashem had foretold. 

(Shemot 7:22) 

 Hashem instructed Moshe to perform the first plague.  Aharon struck the river with his staff.  All of the water in Egypt was transformed into blood.  Paroh summoned his sorcerers.  They were also able to change water into blood.  Paroh concluded that the wonder performed by Moshe and Aharon had been duplicated by the magicians.  He decided that Moshe had not proven himself to be Hashem’s prophet, nor had he established Hashem’s omnipotence.  He refused to release Bnai Yisrael.

It seems odd that Hashem should command Moshe to perform a miracle that could be duplicated by these magicians!  Why did Hashem not instruct Moshe to offer more convincing proof of his claims?

Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that the transformation performed by the Egyptians was a weak imitation of the miracle performed by Moshe and Aharon.  He outlines three essential differences.  First, Moshe and Aharon transformed all the water in Egypt.  The magicians only changed a small quantity of water into blood.  Second, the water altered by Moshe and Aharon was flowing.  As new water entered Egypt, it was changed into blood.  The sorcerers performed their illusion with stagnant water held in a utensil.  Third, the miracle performed by Moshe and Aharon continued for a period of days.  However, the water transformed by the Egyptians only retained the appearance of blood for a short period.[2]

The miracle performed by Moshe and Aharon provided adequate proof of their claims.  This evidence was not truly challenged by the trick of the magicians.  Paroh chose to equate the illusion of the sorcerers to the miracle of Moshe and Aharon.  This choice provided him a rationalization for refusing to heed the message of Hashem.


Bnai Yisrael’s Exclusion from the Plague of Wild Beasts

And I will set apart on that day the Land of Goshen in which My nation dwells so that there will not be wild beasts there.  Through this, you will know that I, Hashem, am in the midst of the Land.  (Shemot 8:18)

Hashem announces the fourth plague to Moshe.  He tells Moshe, that in this plague, will not affect the Land of Goshen.  Wild beasts will overwhelm all of Egypt.  However, the Land of Goshen – in which Bnai Yisrael live – will be protected from the infestation.  This protection will provide another indication of the providential nature of the plagues.

This creates an interesting question.  Did the first three plagues affect Bnai Yisrael?  The simple implication of the passage is that Bnai Yisrael were not spared from the plagues of Blood, Frogs, and Lice.  Only now would Hashem differentiate between the Jewish people and the Egyptians.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that this indeed was the case.  Bnai Yisrael experienced the first three plagues.  During the plague of Blood, the Egyptians were forced to dig wells to secure potable water.  The Jews were required to take the same measures.  Bnai Yisrael also suffered through the Frogs and Lice.  However, now Hashem differentiated between the two nations.

Why did Hashem only begin to differentiate now?  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that there is a basic difference between the plague of Wild Beasts and the previous punishments.  The plagues were progressively more severe.  The first three plagues caused discomfort and suffering.  However, they did not endanger the people.  Hashem does not perform miracles gratuitously.  Bnai Yisrael was not mortally threatened by these first plagues.  Therefore, they were not spared from them.  The plague of Wild Beasts added a new dimension to the torment of the Egyptians.  Now, their lives were threatened.  It was necessary for the miracle of the plague to be accompanied by another miracle.  The Jewish people would be protected from the infestation.[3]

Nachmanides disagrees.  He maintains that Bnai Yisrael were protected from all of the plagues.  The Jews did not experience the previous plagues of Blood, Frogs, and Lice.  What, then, is the meaning of our passage?  Nachmanides explains that Hashem is not saying that He will now first separate the Jews from the suffering of the Egyptians.  Hashem is telling Moshe that this protection will have a new significance.  This special protection will reinforce the providential nature of the plagues.  The previous plagues could be interpreted as localized phenomena.  The water of Goshen was not contaminated.  Frogs and Lice did not fill the Land of Goshen.  This could be explained through natural causes.  However, no natural explanation could be offered for the rescue of Goshen from the wild beasts.  These beasts roam at will.  They should have infested Goshen.  But somehow they were held back.  This was a miracle.  The influence of Hashem was clearly demonstrated.[4]

It seems that Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides have different views on the message the plagues were intended to communicate.  According to Ibn Ezra, the plagues were designed as punishments for the Egyptians and as demonstrations of Hashem’s omnipotence.  The first three plagues also affected Bnai Yisrael.  This was not their intended purpose.  However, this incidental impact did not detract from the effectiveness of the plagues.  The Egyptians suffered as intended and they witnessed Hashem’s power over the elements of their environment.  Bnai Yisrael was shielded from the plague of Wild Beasts only because of the physical devastation caused by the plague.

Nachmanides agrees that the plagues were intended as punishments and as demonstrations of Hashem’s omnipotence.  However, he maintains that the plagues were also intended to differentiate between the Egyptians and Bnai Yisrael.  Each plague not only communicated Hashem’s displeasure with the Egyptians and His power over the material world; it also communicated the cause of His anger and His ultimate objective.  The exclusion of Bnai Yisrael from the affects of the plagues demonstrated that His anger was on their behalf and His objective was their liberation.

[1]  Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 6:3. [2]   Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:22. [3]  Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 7:24. [4]  Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 8:18.