The proper pronunciation of G-d’s name is a source of much debate and contention among religious and academic scholars. Several versions are in use today: Yahweh, Yehovah, Yehowah, Yehuah, Yuwah, Yihweh, Yoah, etc… The reason for this debate is the lack of vowels in ancient Hebrew letters. The vowel “pointing” system in use today was developed by Masoretes, such as Aharon ben Asher, a Karaite scholar who lived during the 10th Century. It is thought that by that time the proper pronunciation had been lost.
In the Torah, we are given the consonant letters Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, (יהוה). These consonants, however, could be pronounced with a number of different vowel combinations. The purpose of this article is to explore these letters and try to establish the correct pronunciation. A couple of introductory Hebrew rules will be valuable to the reader in this pursuit:
- Hebrew words are usually pronounced with an emphasis on the final syllable especially where there are three or fewer syllables. The word Adonai (lord), for example, which is commonly used in lieu of the name, is often mispronounced adOnai, when it should be pronounced adonAI.
- Each consonant must relate to a vowel of some form or another, even a silent one; a vowel must either precede or proceed from each consonant letter. While there are occasional exceptions to this rule they are largely due to the loss of knowledge not to grammatical rules.
The Siloam Inscription in Ancient Hebrew
The presence of the vav as a vowel in modern copies of the scriptures is likely the result of various scribes “correcting” the copies to adjust them to newer rules of Hebrew grammar and spelling. This was not done to tamper with the scriptures, but rather to make them more accessible to Hebrew readers in modern times. These scribes had no way of knowing that the more ancient copies of the scriptures would be lost and we would be left with their corrections and no way to discern them from the original.
The second controversy surrounding the vav arises from whether it originally was a “v” or a “w.” Many scholars and religious thinkers point to the fact that there is no “v” sound present in the languages comprising the Western Semitic Family (Arabic, as an example). They argue that the vav and vet (the two “v” consonants in Hebrew) came to be pronounced as they currently are when the Jews lived in ancient Persia. In Persian, and likewise in modern Farsi, the “w” sound is pronounced as a “v” (much like German), so the Jews may have picked up this way of pronouncing these consonants.
However, proponents of the waw overlook several possibilities: It is possible that some or all of these ancient languages had a “v” sound that ceased to be pronounced that way at some point in history. Our modern assumptions regarding the pronunciation of some of their letters may be incorrect. Many academics reject the biblical narrative that holds that the ancient Hebrews? Habirus actually originated in Sumer, now southern Iraq. In this region there were several languages that had or may have had a “v” sound including the Elamites, predecessors of the Persians. Academic scholars often reject much of the Torah’s content as mere legends made up by later Israelites in the Kingdoms of Yisrael and Yehudah (Israel and Judah) in the Ninth Century BCE or after the Babylonian Exile circa the Fifth or Fourth Centuries BCE. As a result they do not consider the possibility that the vav may have been pronounced as a “v” and not as a “w” throughout the biblical age.
The vav/waw controversy may never be completely resolved, but my opinion on the matter is that the Jewish people would not consciously have allowed such a significant change to occur. At the time of Ezra and Nehemia the Jews were eager to reestablish the old traditions as if the Babylonian Exile had never taken place. I am, therefore, distinctly in the vav camp; but again neither I, nor anyone else can offer definitive proof that the vav has always been a vav and has never been a waw. As archeologists like to joke, we will never truly know until we find Avraham’s tape recorder.
Now the investigation turns to the pronunciation of the vowels themselves. The first syllable of the name given us by the Masoretes is Ye’. The vowel here is the sh’va, which is often silent, except where it is the first syllable of a word, or when the consonant letter carries a dagesh (a small dot that can effect the letter’s pronunciation). In many Hebrew words the sh’va is used at the beginning to allow for an easier emphasis on the final syllable. Hebrew also has many prefixes that change meaning based upon the vowel attached to the prefix letter. For example, Be’malon means “at a hotel,” and ba’malon means “at THE hotel;” the distinction is subtle but linguistically significant.
As another example: B’ReiSHiYT בראשית (“in the Beginning” and the original Hebrew name of the book of Genesis) starts with a sh’va; it is pronounced: b’reiSHEET, essentially comprising of 2 and a half syllables; where the root reish-sheen רש means “first,” the prefix bet ב means “in” or “at” and the suffix yod-tov ית_ indicates “of” (a mechanical translation is literally “at the first of” or “at the start of”). This example is a good demonstration of the typical Hebrew practice of building a word out of a base root with the addition of prefixes and suffixes to apply the root concept to various specific ideas or things. How might this system apply to the name?
Meaning of the Name
Scriptural Usage of the Name
What of the name as a prefix? If used as a prefix several syllables could be included without requiring any change of the vowels because there is no concluding syllable. In the case of Yehoyakim and Yeho’ahaz we see the vowels appear as they seem to appear in the name as rendered elsewhere: the sh’va begins the word Ye’ and then the cholam “Ho” followed by whatever contracting word is to be attached. This seems to render the first two syllables as Y’Ho- as the first two proper syllables of the name.
An early Greek transliteration offers: Ioue (ee-oh-weh). This is the also a basis for the academic transliterations of the name which center on one version or another of YaH’WeH. Here the “i” sound at the beginning is a Greek attempt to mimic the Hebrew “y” sound. Ancient Greek lacks a “v” sound, as a result this offers us no help on the vav/waw question. This was an attempt by Greek speakers to copy the name into Greek so it could be pronounced by Greeks, it does not give us any definitive answers concerning the original Hebrew.
Academics hold that the final vowel is “eh.” This is one of those areas where conflict arises between those who learn a tradition from the outside and those who practice that tradition. The Torah is full of poetry and rhymes and uses of the same word root for two different meanings in poetic form, called Hebraisms. It is intended to flow like poetic verse. One section where this is certainly the case is in the Song of the Sea rendered in Shemot (Exodus) 15:1-18. The song is a poem about what YHVH did for the Israelites in preventing the Egyptians from crossing the Yom Suf (Sea of Reeds). The following is a transliteration of a section of the beginning of the song (emphasis is included from the rhythm of the song):
Shemot (Exodus) 15:1-3.
“…ashirAH l’adonAi, kiy gao gaAH, sus vayrochvo ramAH ba’yam aziy vezimrat yAHvayhi-liy li’shuAH, zeh e’liy v’anveHU, elohey aviy va’arom’menHUadonAi ish milchamAH, adonAi shemo.”
Notice a poetic pattern? The first stanza is: AH-AI-AH-AH, the second is: AH-AH-HU-HU, and the third: AI-AH-AI. As much as possible the words are arranged to end in the syllable AH. Suppose we make this vowel the final vowel in the name? How does the song sound now?
“…ashirAH l’ayhovAH, kiy gao gaAH, sus vayrochvo ramAH ba’yamaziy vezimrat yAH,
vayhi-liy li’shuAH, zeh e’liy v’anveHU, elohey avid va’arom’menHU
yehovAH ish milchamAH, yehovAH shemo.”,
It looks a little different doesn’t it? The rhymes are stronger, the rhythm more concrete.It is more satisfying. From this example, and there are more like it, I believe the rhymes strongly indicate an “ah” vowel at the end of the name. Academic scholars are simply unaware of this need for rhyme because they do not sing the Song of the Sea in Hebrew every week (on Shabbat) as Karaite Jews do. More examples:
ShemA Yisrael YehovAh Eloheinu YehovAh Echad
Baruch AttA YehovAh…
It is likely that scholars are simply over thinking it, something that happens with many very important concepts. For the ancient Hebrews there was little room for abstraction. Most frequently, the simplest explanation is the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that the name is a title tied to the verb “to be,” and we can pronounce it based upon that assertion. Moshe (Moses) recorded the name in such a way as to convey G-d’s eternality to the Israelites as quickly and easily as possible. The vowels proposed herein each fit that mold, rendering a name that combines “He will be,” “He is being,” “He was,” and the root for lord. When used as a prefix the name is YeHo, is YeHu as a stand alone word, and adjusts to YaHu as a suffix indicating a probable YeHo pronunciation.
Having examined this evidence I believe the strongest case can be made for the use of the vowels described in this article. As a result I believe the name is either: Ye’HoVaH or Ye’HoWaH. Naturally, I fall in the Ye’HoVaH camp because tradition has left us the vav as a “v,” and there is enough historical evidence from the cultures in and around ancient Sumer to substantiate the probable presence of a “v” consonant in ancient Hebrew.
For more scholarship please view this article the modern Hebrew scholar Nehemiah Gordon, or watch this video.
Tradition of Non-Pronunciation