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On Not Saying Angelic Names

April 3, 2013

As is well known, observant Jews avoid saying the Tetragrammaton (it was spoken by priests in the Second Temple during certain liturgical ceremonies).  This point has been taken up by other religious traditions; thus for example, in speaking of Biblical texts translated in the Catholic liturgy, the Vatican 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam (41) writes:

in accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above-mentioned “Septuagint” version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning.

A less widely observed custom is avoiding pronouncing the names of angels (although, many Chassidic Jews and Haredi Jews in particular observe this custom). Eli Mansour’s Daily Halacha column today addresses the point, and he addresses the custom to the great 16th century kabbalist Isaac Luria (the Arizal) (“the father of contemporary kabbalah”) who argues for the minhag (custom) to Exodus 23:13  (“make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.”)

I have put Mansour’s discussion in blue and annotated it in red to address some names which may not be immediately obvious:

Avoiding Saying the Names of Angels and the Full Name of Satan

Rav Haim Vital (1543-1620) writes that his teacher, the Arizal (Rav Yishak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572), made a point of never verbalizing the names of the angels, even over the course of study. For example, Rav Haim writes, the Arizal would refer to the “Sar Hapenim” [Me-ta-t-r-o-n] (angel that serves as “minister of interior”) as “Mem Tet,” rather than verbalize the entire name. The reason for this practice is that when an angel hears his name mentioned, he thinks that he is being summoned, and he becomes anxious. When he then finds out that his anxiety was for naught, he might become resentful of the person who made him nervous, and cause him harm, Heaven forbid.

This does not, however, apply to angels whose names are commonly used here on earth, such as Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Azriel, and Malkiel.

The Arizal was especially adamant that one should never verbalize the complete name of the Satan [Sa-ma-e-l]. [Recall that Judaism has a rather different attitude towards the Satan than Christianity – mainstream Jewish belief is that the Satan is an angelic “prosecutor” who serves God, not a rebellious independent demi-god].  He would refer to the Satan by saying the letters “Samech Mem,” rather than articulating his name. Rav Haim Vital writes that on one occasion he was speaking to somebody at nighttime and mentioned Satan’s name, and the next morning, when he went to the Arizal’s home, the Arizal looked at his forehead and said, “At night you transgressed the prohibition of ‘Ve’shem Elohim Aherim Lo Tazkiru’ (‘Do not mention the name of other gods’ – Shemot [Exodus] 23:13).” The Arizal admonished Rav Haim in very harsh terms never to mention the name, especially at nighttime, when the Satan has power which could be reinforced by the mention of his name, such that he can succeed in causing the person to sin, Heaven forbid. Likewise, one should refrain from verbalizing the complete name of Satan’s “wife” [L-i-l-i-th], who should be referred to as simply, “Li,” rather than with her complete name.

This applies to all languages. As such, one should refrain from saying the word “D-e-v-i-l,” or the parallel Spanish term [D-i-a-b-l-o], especially during the nighttime hours, as this could arouse and empower Satan.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2013 8:57 pm

    I love this:

    The reason for this practice is that when an angel hears his name mentioned, he thinks that he is being summoned, and he becomes anxious. When he then finds out that his anxiety was for naught, he might become resentful of the person who made him nervous, and cause him harm, Heaven forbid.

    How does the justification by Ex 23:13 interact with the understanding of Jewish monotheism over time?

  2. April 3, 2013 9:09 pm

    The word elokim in Biblical Hebrew can refer both to God or to plural angels — in particular members of the Divine Council. Note that in Psalm 82:1, for example, the word is used in this sense. (NRSV translation: God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgement).

    There are references to the Divine Council in various places in the Hebrew Bible, e.g., Genesis 1:26 (“Let us create man …”), Job 1:6, Job 2:1.

    Luria may have assumed that Baal, for example, was not a real god, and in any case, the word “baal” appears in the Hebrew Bible (which was read aloud) and thus Exodus 23:13 must have referred to angels, and not “false gods” (which by Luria’s thought, would not be gods at all).

  3. April 4, 2013 1:55 pm

    the Arizal looked at his forehead and said, “At night you transgressed the prohibition of ‘Ve’shem Elohim Aherim Lo Tazkiru’ (‘Do not mention the name of other gods’ – Shemot [Exodus] 23:13).”

    The word elokim in Biblical Hebrew can refer both to God or to plural angels — in particular members of the Divine Council. Note that in Psalm 82:1, for example, the word is used in this sense.

    Doesn’t the last clause of Shemot (Exodus) 23:21 most explicitly address this ambiguity?

    כִּי שְׁמִי בְּקִרְבֹּֽו׃

    “for My name is in him.” – JPS

  4. April 4, 2013 5:01 pm

    Kurk, notice that in the Septuagint rendition of 23:21, there is some ambiguity in the of the phrasing, so that it the verse can be read as a messenger with God’s name upon him (rather than within him), giving a possible reading that the messenger is Moses.

  5. April 4, 2013 6:08 pm

    Very interesting, Theophrastus. Thanks for getting us looking at the Septuagint and this strange possibility.

    Everett Fox has “for my name is with him” while Robert Alter has “for My name is within him” — showing a bit of variation yet in the Englishing of the Hebrew. Alter gives a bit more in his footnote:

    The mention of the divine name is the earliest of a scattering of biblical references to a quasi-mythological notion of God’s name as a potent agency in its own right. This idea would be elaborately developed in later Jewish mysticism.

    Why would the Septuagint translator(s) have “τὸ γὰρ ὄνομά μού ἐστιν ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ” for this “angel”? Lancelot Brenton renders the Greek preposition in the LXX as on while Larry J. Perkins [for the NETS] makes it upon. Both of course use angel for τὸν ἄγγελόν, which is the Greek translation of מלאך, which has the Name “with” or “within” or “on” or “upon” him.

    This brings up the question as to when the Septuagint reading led to the notion of Moses as the messenger/angel. (Also, the Matthew Henry commentary posted here also suggests a Christian reading, a considerably late interpretation — probably of the Septuagint, no? The idea is that this somehow refers to Jesus Christ.) Your note about the Septuagint rendition gets me wondering whether the Greek changes to the Hebrew are — because of the translation language — responsible for divergences from the quasi-mythological notion developed in later Jewish mysticism. Or did these families of interpretation (about the potent Name on the one hand and on the other hand about Moses [and the about the Christ of Christians]) have respective lives of their own?

  6. April 4, 2013 8:40 pm

    Those are all good points, Kurk. I don’t know enough about the history of the interpretation of this verse to be able to say anything meaningful about whether Jewish mystical and Christological interpretation influenced each other.

    Stepping back and speaking more generally: at least one of Alter’s references seems to indirectly mention the particularly rich history of the idea of a golem as it developed in medieval Jewish thought. By the 10th century, there were widespread tales in Italy of the idea of resurrection of the dead by putting the name of God in the corpse’s mouth or on its arm; or more darkly, one could cause death by removing a parchment with the name written in mirror writing. (You can see Megillas Achimaz for some of these medieval Italian references.) The idea is developed in detail in some medieval commentaries to Sefer Yetzirah. But notice that the heritage of these ideas seem to be widely intermixed with gentile sources (e.g., Paracelsus’s homunculus.)

    The later development of golem legends of course creating ripping good yarns, including a number of accounts of the “golem of Chelm” and “golem of Prague,” and carrying directly to such classics as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Goethe’s Der Zauberlehrling (probably best remembered by us now in the Disney Fantasia version), and Karel Čapek’s R. U. R. (which itself generated an entire sub-genre of literature about robots — from Asimov’s I Robot to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

    The same intermixture of ideas of course occurs with the development of angelology, where there are clear pre-Christian Greek and Zoroastrian antecedents to later Jewish and Christian beliefs. There seems to have been active exchange of ideas between Jews and early Christians on angels as well; e.g., the references in Jude (and perhaps 1 & 2 Peter) seem to indicate at least Christian (perhaps both of Jewish and gentile origin) would have been familiar with the Book of Enoch — arguably the greatest work on angels until Milton’s Paradise Lost.

    I know that a number of researchers have tried to develop the history of these ideas. The literature is far too wide for me to give even a cursor bibliography, but some works that come to mind are Joshua Trachtenburg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition, Gideon Bohack’s Ancient Jewish Magic, Moshe Idel’s Golem and Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic, The Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, etc. A recent work that has enjoyed some favorable notice is Andrei Orlov’s Dark Mirrors: Azazel and Satanael in Early Jewish Demonology in which Orlov deploys a secret weapon: he can read Slavonic pseudepigrapha that are not well known. But I’m hardly in a position to judge the academic quality of these works — I’ve read them more as pleasure reading (because it is fun to read [or read about] folklore — even religious folklore).

    So, while belief in magical words; angels & demons; and zombies & golems may not currently enjoy wide theological embrace, they do enjoy wide literary consequence!

    So, to the extent that Alter is committed to a literary reading of the Bible, I think it is entirely appropriate that he takes not of a verse that has given us (directly or indirectly) an especially such a rich later literary bounty: from Milton to Douglas Adams!

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