Singing the Name of God
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 at 10:09PM
Zemel Choir in adomai, adonai, adonai, adoshem, adoshem, benjamin wolf, benjamin wolf, celebrate with song, daniel tunkel, daniel tunkel, dudley cohen, god's name, hashem, hashem, israeli music, jewish choir in london, jewish choral music, jewish music institute, lewandowski, robert brody, sephardi, singing gods name, singing jewish music, spiro ark, vocal coach, yavneh college, yiddish, zamir chorale, zemel, zemel, zemel choir, zemel choir

As a Jewish choir, performing to Jewish audiences and frequently singing music from the Prayerbook or from biblical sources, this question arises routinely. Other Jewish choruses around the world will have encountered the same issue, and will have their own approaches to dealing with this. I thought that a note here on the subject might be useful, and I have no doubt that if this section of the web site is as frequented as our home page is, then this should stir up quite a bit of discussion.

1. What is the problem?

This note is not intended to provide any measure of halachic authority (I am not a rabbi, and the views expressed here, though informed - I hope - by reliable sources, are my own).

The issue derives in essence from the Third Commandment. See Exodus 20:7 or Deuteronomy 5:11. These two verses are usually translated: “Do not take the name of God in vain …”. Chiefly, and originally, this refers to the use of God’s name as a part of a binding form of oath. It has come to refer to more general gratuitous use of the Divine name. And whereas once this probably referred only to the special manner of the pronunciation of the ineffable four-letter name of God, Orthodox Jewish tradition has extended this to a variety of different usages that are supposedly of holy character (including the creation of English usages “G-d” and “L-rd” – even though in fact there is no application of this command in relation to the naming of God in any language other than Hebrew).

What we are looking at, therefore, is gratuitous or irrelevant use of the holy form(s) of God’s name, since these are reserved, according to longstanding Jewish tradition, for proper ritual and religious use.

And historically, the way this has been solved for Jews who are concerned that this is an issue of significance is to amend the name form(s), so that when uttered outside of a holy or ritual context, the form you hear is sufficiently different from the holy form that the stricture of the Third Commandment is not transgressed. I will consider these amended forms presently, since this is a part of the problem as well.

2. How does this interplay with Jewish music?

What is happening here is a process of extending and extending the scope of the Third Commandment. If we accept the premise that gratuitous use of the name(s) of God is at least discouraged, at most banned, by this Biblical provision, the question arises as to when the use is gratuitous. When a Jew prays, or recites a blessing in the performance of a ritual, or reads from the Torah on one of the many occasions when public Torah reading is prescribed, he or she uses the properly formed name(s) of God according to the correct and received tradition. To use a substitute in such cases, or to omit the reference altogether, is accepted by everybody as clearly wrong.

It follows, in a way, that when a Jew operates outside this holy or ritual context, a distinction might be drawn, so that that person, and those with him or her, understand that there is a difference between the holy and the routine. Various forms of the name(s) of God appear over and over again in prayer texts and Biblical sources. What, say, if a teacher is teaching this material to little children, and needs for this purpose to go over and over the lines again and again? Might this repetitive behaviour be considered a gratuitous (if necessary) use of the name(s), and in order to defend their sanctity, might it be proper to find a form for the various names that prevents their holy accepted form(s) from being uttered with such freedom? As noted above, I am not asking this question to solicit an answer, or with a view to providing one: that is for people with rabbinical standing and qualifications to offer. I am merely highlighting the issue, because for many Jews it is, indeed, a real issue.

And if it is a real issue for the classroom, or for everyday general communication between Jews, or for the production of non-sacred texts that nevertheless address sacred subjects, then it is in theory at least an issue for the rehearsal and performance of a great deal of Jewish music, as this draws heavily upon the same sacred texts: and herein the problem.

One final point before passing on. When is a usage sacred and when is it not? Leaving aside (for the moment) the matter of repetitive rehearsal, if the Choir performs the entirety of a Psalm in a concert setting, or even a section, or just a verse or two, is that, in and of itself, a sufficiently sacred conception that, at least so far as the concert is concerned, the use of the holy form(s) of the name(s) of God in that text is acceptable? I have heard arguments for and against this proposition. Some argue that the recitation of a full verse or more, let alone a section or chapter from the Bible, represents holy usage. I suspect this derives from an extended conception of what it means to study these sacred texts, and the study of anything Biblical (especially, but not only, the Torah itself) is a sacred duty in all circumstances. I am also aware that, more by way of social convention than anything else, Sephardi Jews generally take a more lenient approach from that of the Ashkenazi Jewish world to the whole subject.

And a quick anecdote. Dudley Cohen, founder of the Zemel Choir and its conductor for 20 years, relates that his relative, the late Dayan Lazarus, rabbi and Dayan of the London Beth Din, attended a concert given by the Choir perhaps 40 or so years ago. Dudley had been prevailed upon to direct the Choir to perform psalm settings etc. using various of the adjusted forms for God’s names. After the performance, the Dayan spoke to Dudley about this and was very clear that this adjustment was not necessary and, in principle, wrong. It was fine for the singers to perform using the holy forms of the various names. For whatever reason or reasons, the Choir’s convention has not been developed around the Dayan’s privately expressed views, and generally speaking, we use adjusted forms of the various names.

3. The use of “Adoshem”

The principal name, the one that is revered above all others, is the name that is used to pronounce the Hebrew letters Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. This is translated in traditional sources as “The Lord”, and in Hebrew used in ritual or holy contexts is pronounced “A-do-nai”. According to tradition, the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh representation is itself a euphemistic substitution for a wholly ineffable version of the name, taught only to a select few in Israelite/Jewish history (including the High Priests, for use in certain of their holiest Temple duties) and now long since forgotten. And as so often happens in the evolution of euphemisms and language substitutions, the substitute that was originally there to protect the real term of value itself acquires value and needs to be protected.

And so “A-do-nai” got doctored and in the UK (and certain other parts of the world) became “A-do-shem”. The “shem” bit is a Hebrew word on its own, meaning “name”, and the result is the creation of an adjusted version of this name of God which (a) includes the Hebrew word that itself means a name, and (b) is in its entirety a sort-of nonsense word. And by being a nonsense word, it is not therefore a profanation of the real name, even though everyone knows what it represents. Indeed, in everyday parlance among the orthodox Jewish world, the variant used in the same circumstances is “Hashem” (which literally means “the Name”). If one converses with a strictly observant Jew from, say, Stamford Hill or Brooklyn, and asks after his health, he will probably respond “Fine, boruch Hashem” (signifying that he is doing well, but this is at the behest of his Creator, may He be blessed). The fact that this is a blessing of sorts does not, apparently, open up this locution to the holier form of the name (c.f. Arabic usage in Islamic contexts, where apparently the use of a full and unadjusted name for Allah is not required – even in a religion that is arguably far more conscious than modern Judaism of conceptions of blasphemy and Divine profanation).

It is not easy to provide a meaningful analogy in English. The closest might be to compare the word “Christmas” with its frequent shorthand version, “Xmas”. The latter is not a word, but it is a representation of another that is, and hence we know both what it represents and how it should in reality be pronounced. It is, incidentally, of importance that the substitution for “A-do-nai” that we choose is a nonsense word, and I will relate an example of where this went wrong lower down.

4. The problem with Adoshem

So, if we have an adjusted version, and this keeps our singers and our audience happy, what is the problem? Actually, it is musical rather than religious. “A-do-nai” affords a nice long and open vowel, while “A-do-shem” presents a hard labial consonant. Singers, especially amateurs, struggle with the placement of terminal consonants. Labials in this position foreshorten words; they break up the flow of the material; they may affect breathing and phrasing; and they generally lead to the production of a less attractive musical performance. Moreover, the e in the “-shem” bit is short and is compressed by the sh on one side and the m on the other. It is, in short, a passport to bad singing, and requires a great deal of management. Given everything else that needs to be managed in an amateur chorus, why add to the list?

Sometimes, in poetic material, the “-nai” syllable is a conspicuous part of the rhyming scheme, and to render this “-shem” damages the rhyme and makes a mess of the writer’s lyric. A good example of this that should be familiar to all those who sing around the Sabbath table at home is the song Tzur Mishelo, where every stanza rhymes something against the “-nai” of God’s name.

5. A solution

Many choruses in the USA have arrived at a very sensible solution. Yes, for the sake of those in the choir or its audience with an issue of principle, there needs to be an adjustment to “A-do-nai”. So the adjustment is subtly made by changing the “-nai” to “-mai”. This leaves the terminal vowel unaffected and nicely open. In this position in the word, the labial m is no problem at all to manage. The adjusted form of the name is just as “deconsecrated” as the “A-do-shem” version, and just as inherently meaningless. Concert programmes, CD liner notes etc. all say, prominently, “The XXXX Choir sings ‘Adomai’”. Audiences, choirs and their musical directors are all happy.

The solution did in fact go wrong on one occasion. The Zemel Choir performed the Ernest Bloch Sacred Service under the baton of the late Lord Menuhin at St Paul’s Cathedral in the 1990s. The Hebrew for the Bloch is Ashkenazi, where among other things, certain vowels are different from modern Israeli Hebrew usage. “A-do-nai” would have been “A-do-noi”, for a start. Conscious of the need for the adjustment to the name in performance, the “-noi” was modified, but not to “-moi”; rather, for some reason, to “-moh”. This created, inadvertently, the Hebrew word “A-do-moh”, which means something: it is the word for ground or earth. And as noted above, it is important that whatever substitute is used has no stand-alone meaning and is essentially a nonsense word.

Subject to very occasional exceptions and directions (such as in the above episode), the Zemel Choir has unfortunately generally adjusted itself to the “A-do-shem” version of the substitute for the name. Put a new piece of music in front of us that is relevant to this context, and the adjustment is made on autopilot. Which is unfortunate, since actually, the “-mai” (or, where relevant “-moi”) ending is so much more musically malleable.

6. The basis for this solution

Aside from being common sense, the adoption of A-do-mai” did not distil itself out of the ether. It does not represent the caprice of a conductor or conductors in America that forced this idea on their singers. It has a basis in Jewish law. Faced with the problem of how to use or adapt the name of God in concert or rehearsal, The Zamir Choral Foundation in America sought a formal ruling (a psak halachah) some good number of years ago from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Rabbi Riskin was for a number of years the presiding rabbi of New York’s famed Lincoln Square Synagogue. He has since made his home in Efrat in Israel, but remains strongly connected with North American Orthodox Jewry. And Rabbi Riskin opined that “A-do-mai” was perfectly permissible for these purposes, as a means of modifying the holy version of this name of God in rehearsal and concert.

So there we have it. An elegant solution that is musical and formally in line with Jewish law. I am sure lots of people will have their reasons for disagreeing with that observation, but I think the “-mai” for “-nai” exchange would considerably improve any choir’s overall singing.

 Daniel Tunkel 

Article originally appeared on The UK's Leading Mixed Voice Jewish Choir under the musical direction of Benjamin Wolf (
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