The Ineffable Name

By Bernard E. Jones

This paper originally appeared as Section 13 on pp. 148-155 of the “Freemasons’ Book of the Royal Arch.”

The Ineffable Name, the name that may not be uttered, is a subject of such great magnitude that the most that can here be done is to give some idea of the meanings attached to the Ineffable Name by the early peoples, by the Jews, to whom it meant so much, and by the Royal Arch mason, in whose traditional history and ritual it has so eminent a place.

Among the ancient peoples what we should regard as the mere name of an individual carried with it the idea of a separate entity, but let it not be thought that this idea is entirely pre-Christian; “Hallowed be thy Name, says the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer which a Jewish writer, Nathan Ausubel, has hailed as the “ supreme expression of Christian faith,” a prayer “obviously derived from Jewish religious writings, even using some of the same figures of speech.”

The Scriptures record that it was to Moses that God first revealed His Holy Name, and that to a descendant of David was given the divine command to “build an house for my name.” The Royal Arch mason is reminded in the ritual that only in the Holy of Holies within the Temple was that sacred name pronounced, and then but once a year and by the High Priest.

The teaching of the Old Testament is that the “name” is itself the quintessence of God, the essential part, the purest and most perfect form. From the beginnings of Royal Arch masonry the Ineffable Name has been set in its high place and ever associated with the Word. In 1778 the first Grand Chapter has this to say in its laws concerning it:

The Word … is not to be understood as a watch-word only, after the manner of those annexed to the several degrees of the Craft, but also Theologically, as a term, thereby to convey to the mind some idea of the great Being who is the sole author of our existence.

The early peoples, including the Hebrews, regarded the name of a deity as his manifestation, but far from all of the names so regarded were of beneficent powers. There were many that were evil. Milton, in Paradise Lost, speaks of “the dreaded name of Demogorgon,” the infernal power, the mere mention of whose name the ancient peoples believed brought death and disaster. Lucan’s Pharsalia (Nicholas Rowe’s translation) asks:

Must I call your master to my aid, At whose dread name the trembling furies quake, Hell stands abashed, and earth’s foundations shake?

The Jews in the period following their return from Babylonian exile had such a strong belief in the power of a name that they adopted two family names, says an enlightening article in the Jewish Encyclopedia, one civil or for civic affairs, the other a more sacred name, for use in the synagogue and in Hebrew documents. Much later the name equations became doublets – that is, the two names were used together as one. At one time, says the above authority, it was not thought that Jews of the same name should live in the same town or permit their children to marry into each other’s families, difficulty being sometimes avoided by changing a name! Among elementary peoples there was often a fear of disclosing a man’s name, the idea behind this fear being identified with the practice of disguising an uncomplimentary name, as, for example, among the Greeks, who altered their early name of Axeinos (“inhospitable”) for the Black Sea to Euxine, which has the opposite meaning. The Greeks, on second thoughts, decided to call the Furies not Erinyes, their apt name, but Eumenides, the good-tempered ones.

Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, of the first century of the Christian era, asks:

What is the reason that it is forbidden to mention, inquire after, or name the chief tutelary and guardian deity of Rome, whether male or female, which prohibition they confirm with a superstitious tradition, reporting that Valerius Suranus perished miserably for expressing that name? …

Plutarch added that the “Romans reckoned they had their God in most safe and secure custody, he being inexpressible and unknown.”

Then, coming again to the Jews, we may well quote the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Friedlander’s translation of 1881 entitled The Guide for the Perplexed):

This sacred name [the name of God] … which was not pronounced except in the sanctuary by the appointed priests, when they gave the sacerdotal blessing, and by the high priest on the Day of Atonement, undoubtedly denotes something which is peculiar to God …. It is possible that in the Hebrew language, of which we have now but a slight knowledge, the Tetragrammaton, in the way in which it was pronounced, conveyed the meaning of ‘absolute existence.’ … The majesty of the name and the great dread of uttering it, are connected with the fact that it denotes God Himself, without including in its meaning any names of the things created by Him.

In some ancient religions the idea of power was commonly associated with certain names – power, in some cases, over a person arising from the fact that his name was known. A power, awful and tremendous, is associated with the dread name of the Deity. Hebrew legend is full of instances where the mysterious and Ineffable Name is used either by itself or with other names to invoke magical powers against adversaries and evil spirits and for healing purposes.

The knowledge of the pronunciation of the Ineffable Name was confined, among the Jews, to certain wise men, and in medieval days a “Master of the Name” among the Jews was one who knew the sacred vowels of the word Jehovah, which knowledge was thought to invest him with magical powers.

Two texts, one from the Old and the other from the New Testament, give considerable support to the idea of power and importance being represented by names: “ The Name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it, and is safe” (Proverbs xviii, 10); “At the Name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians ii, 10).

The Jews had many opportunities in their early history of imbibing from the pagan nations around them ideas which, when developed and idealized, played a serious part in their religion and philosophy. The forefathers of the Hebrew tribes are believed to have come from Ur Casdirn (Ur of the Chaldees), in Mesopotamia, and to have brought with them religious ideas and customs borrowed from the surrounding peoples. Preserved in the Louvre, Paris, is an inscription (dating back to, very roughly, 2000 years B.C.) putting into the mouth of a Babylonian sovereign these words: “The god Enzu [Moon God and Lord of Knowledge], whose name man uttereth not.” Israel, in the course of becoming a nation, learned in its Egyptian bondage beliefs which became grafted into its culture, for Egypt had many, many divinities and many names for them. The modern Jewish writer Nathan Ausubel has said that the influence of the Hittite and Babylonian-Assyrian religions and civilizations (to which the Jews were subject in their later exiles) was perhaps even greater than that of the Egyptian, owing to the kinship of the Hebrew and Assyrian languages. The peculiar genius of the Jewish people allowed of their adapting these external ideas in such a way as finally to weave them into the very texture of their faith in the one true God. We quote from what the Jew regards as the most holy portion of his Liturgy of the Day of Atonement:

And when the priests and the people that stood in the court [of the Temple] heard the glorious and awful Name pronounced out of the mouth of the High Priest, in holiness and purity, they knelt and prostrated themselves and made acknowledgment, falling on their faces and saying, Blessed be his glorious, sovereign Name for ever and ever.”

Definition and Meaning

‘Ineffable’ is from the Latin, and means something that is unutterable, that cannot or may not be spoken out, this definition well illustrating the Jewish attitude to the Divine Name. Milton refers to the Son of God as “ineffable, serene.” The “Incommunicable Name” is a frequent term for the Name of the Deity (as in the Apocrypha) – that is, a name that cannot be communicated to or shared with another, and it is usual to go back to Exodus vi, 2 and 3, for the earliest light upon its proper meaning:

And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them.

In Judges xiii, 18, the Angel of the Lord puts this question to Manoah: “Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?” And in Amos vi, 10, we have this direct injunction: “Hold thy tongue: for we may not make mention of the name of the Lord.” Other significant passages are to be found in the New Testament and in the Apocryphal books as well as in Josephus. The Talmud, answering the question “Who of the Israelites shall have future life and who shall not?” says, “Even he who thinks the Name of God with its true letters forfeits his future life.”

The Royal Arch ritual gives the impression that the pronunciation of the Sacred Name had been prohibited back into the farthest days, but actually it does not seem to be known when that prohibition first took effect, and there are scholars who believe that it is not earlier than the building of the Second Temple. Support is lent to this belief by a masonic writer, Bertram B. Benas, himself a learned Jew, who contributed to the Transactions of the Merseyside Association for Masonic Research, vol. xxii, a remarkable paper under the title of “The Divine Appellation,” one of the sources of information to which the present writer has freely gone and which he gratefully acknowledges. Benas says that “since the destruction of the Temple, the Ineffable Name is never pronounced by an observant son of Israel, awaiting until time or circumstance should restore the true Temple established by King Solomon.”

The Tetragrammaton

The early nations had many names by which to describe the Deity. The Jews used a variety of names, some expressing His attributes in terms comprehensible to all people, as, for example, the Rock, the Merciful, the Just, and the Mighty. Other Jewish names attempted to describe the more extraordinary qualities of the Deity – the Almighty, the Eternal, the Most High; supreme over them all was and is the Ineffable Name of four letters known to the Greeks as the Tetragrammaton (tetra, four; grammatos, letter), which in the Hebrew takes the form, יהוה or יְהוָה‎

In the second form points have been added to give the pronunciation ‘Adonai’. The letters are read from right to left; in English, in the order given they read Y H V H, Yod (J or Y); He; Vau; He. The Name itself is understood to be a composite form of the Hebrew verb hoyoh, meaning ‘to be’. The meaning of the Tetragrammaton, says Bertram B. Benas,

[I]s evident, instinct, and implicit. It denotes the Divine eternity, and is the synthesis of the past, the present, and the future of the verb Hayak ‘to be.’ … It is aptly expressed in the phrase:

He is what He was,
Was what He is and
Ever shall remain both what He was and what He is
From everlasting to everlasting.

The marginal references to the Revised Version of the Bible give five related meanings:

I am that I am.
I am because I am.
I am who I am.
I will be that I will be.
I will be.

The Tetragrammaton is an attempt to signify God in His immutable and eternal existence, the Being Who is self-existent and gives existence to others. It associates all three tenses – past, future, and present – and is the name to which allusion is made in Exodus iii, 13-15:

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou s unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.

The Hebrew words Ehyeh asher ehyeh translated in the above as I AM THAT I AM are also forms of the same root word from which Y H V H is derived.

The ban against the utterance of the Ineffable Name applies not merely in ordinary conversation but also when the Name appears in Sacred Writ or in the Liturgy. When the Name appears by itself, the Jews use a substitute word Adonai (the Lord). When Y H V H appears in conjunction with the actual word Adonai the word Elohim (God) is read in place of the Tetragrammaton. Thus there are two substitute words used in place of the Ineffable Name. In reading the Liturgy or Holy Writ the Jews may pronounce these substitute words without any sense of sin, but – elsewhere the words are never uttered lightly or unnecessarily. Indeed, if the name of God is to be spoken or invoked in ordinary conversation the word Hashem (the Name) is used.

In earlier days the omission of vowel points led to frequent doubts as to the proper pronunciation of certain words, especially where the meanings may seriously vary with the vowel sounds.

Certain Jewish scholars, the Massoretes, for the particular purpose of keeping inviolate the interpretation of parts of the Scripture, introduced a system of vowels and accents at a somewhat late date; their marks are known as the Massoretic points and consist of a system of dots, dashes, and other symbols which perform the function of vowels and indicate how words should be pronounced and which syllables should be stressed. Thus against the letters of the Tetragrammaton they inserted the vowels of the substituted word ‘Adonai’, so producing the word YA/HO/VA/HI, and this, in the course of time, was transliterated by Luther, who, being German, substituted a J for the Hebrew Y (in German the J has the sound of the English Y). The English translators of the Bible adopted Luther’s spelling except for the final I, thus giving a word closely resembling ‘Jehovah.’ For the pronunciation Adonai, the Vau of the Tetragrammaton is pointed as in the second example on opposite page.

Non-Jews derive the pronunciation JE-HO-VAH from the ‘vowel-points’ that are usually appended to the four Hebrew YHVH, a comparatively modern introduction, say of the period between the fourth and the ninth century A.D.

The exact pronunciation of JHVH is not known. It appears that the actual word ‘Jehovah’ was introduced in 1520 by Galatinus, but scholars regard it as incorrect; however, it is the Biblical word, although it occurs in the Bible but a few times. One of the most significant texts containing the name is Psalm lxxxiii, 18: “That men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth.”

An abbreviation, ‘Jah,’ is used frequently, especially as part of proper names and in the phrase-word, song, or exclamation ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Alleluia, meaning “Praise ye the Lord.” Warrants and certificates issued by the First Grand Chapter in the pre-1813 period often bore the words: “In the name of the Grand Architect of the Universe, ALMIGHTY JAH.”

Among the titles or descriptions of the Deity are some which “are not fenced around with bars of prohibition, protective of the real Name itself,” remarks Bertram B. Benas, although they are not to be used carelessly or lightly; among them is the word ‘Lord,’ which has been generated in English translations and may itself be translated fairly accurately as ‘the Eternal.’

The fathers of all the tribes akin to the Hebrews had from time immemorial. used the word Elohim as meaning ‘God,’ says Dr A. S. Aglen, and he offers the explanation that the nomad Semites had originally, no doubt imagined the word to be surrounded, penetrated, governed, by myriads of active beings, each of whom was an Eloh, but had no distinct name. In the Bible Elohim, a plural word, is treated as a singular. Elohim came to mean ‘God,’ the supreme Master of the Universe; throughout the Old Testament it is the word generally rendered as ‘God,’ but other designations were in use, including El (meaning ‘strong’) and Shaddai (meaning ‘almighty’) and Elyon (meaning ‘most high’). (In one explanation of the Tetragrammaton it is the vowels of Elohim that have been inserted to produce the word ‘Jehovah.’)

In some forms of the appellation for God, such as El, the plural form Elim can be applied to pagan deities, whereas by the Tetragrammaton is meant only the G.A.O.T.U.

An appellation of particular interest to the Freemason is the word ‘Shaddai,’ already mentioned, which carries with it a great sense of reverence and which the Jews may pronounce freely. It has the significance of the ‘All Sufficient,’ He Whose being is in and from Himself and Who gives to others their being.

Still another omnific (all-creating) word is familiar to the Royal Arch mason. It has been stated that this word was originally of two syllables, but as from the revision of the ritual in 1835 it has been of three syllables and embraces three languages, in which connection J. Heron Lepper states that in the year 1595 “the name of God in three languages was held to have not only a deep religious significance, but was also used as a means of recognition between men of the same way of thought.”

It has already been pointed out that there is considerable doubt as to whether ‘Jehovah’ is the true pronunciation of the intended appellation, and at one time it was thought that the recovery of the true word awaited the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Obviously, in attempting the difficult task of deciding upon the spelling, interpretation, etc., of ancient words and phrases of Hebrew and related origin it is extremely easy to fall into error, however slight, and it is not therefore surprising to learn that scholars advance the possibility that the accuracy of certain words imparted to the Royal Arch mason is not beyond criticism.

The Christian Significance of the Tetragrammaton

It is impossible to concede that the Tetragrammaton could originally have had Christian significance, but we know that the name ‘Jehovah,’ borrowed from the Old Testament, is commonly used as an appellation for Christ, and that Jesus, the personal name of Christ and a common name in His day, included, as did many other Hebrew names, a form of the name of God (Jah). Fanatical Jews of the Middle Ages attributed the wonderful works of Christ to the potency of the Incommunicable Name, which He was accused of abstracting from the Temple and wearing about Him. It is well known, of course, that the Ineffable Name early acquired Christian import, and we may well suppose that in many early Royal Arch ceremonies this was the one insisted upon. The Tetragrammaton contained within a triangle is often displayed in chapters (the Church used this device in the sixteenth century) and is not unknown as an apron ornament.

Thomas Godwyn’s book (see an earlier reference) attempts, none convincingly, to show that the Tetragrammaton, although containing four letters, had but three sorts of letters; in it J (Jod or Yod) represented the Father, V (Vau) the Third Person in the Trinity Which proceedeth from the Father and the Son, and H (He) the Son of God.

“Four Hieroglyphics”

A ritual of the eighteenth century asks how the Sacred Name should “be depicted in our Lodges,” and supplies the answer:

By four different Hieroglyphics –

the first an equilateral triangle;
the second a circle;
the third a geometrical square;
the fourth a double cube.

The full text of the “Freemasons’ Book of the Royal Arch” may be found at:

Freemasons’ Book of the Royal Arch