aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude ד: N-Grammata

The shortest effective Name of God is the Tetragrammaton. This was the Name recorded in the Bible, the one the High Priests of Israel would speak in the Temple of Solomon. The rabbis said it was so holy that God would smite any impure person who said it. Some of them went on wild flights of raptures about the holiness of this Name, said it was the Shem haMephorash, the holiest Name of all.

In these more enlightened times, we know better. We call it the Mortal Name, and it just so happens to be a Name whose power is to kill the speaker. As the shortest Name, it kept working long after the flow of divine light into the universe had dropped to a trickle; there were records of men dying by speaking the Mortal Name as late as Jesus’ time. If the kabbalists had just said “Yup, Names do lots of things, this one kills whoever says it,” then there would have been no problem, but this was back when Rabbi Shimon was working on the Zohar and the kabbalists were still underground, sometimes literally. So instead everybody assumed a Name powerful enough that God smote anyone who said it must have been very important, and people kept trying to say it to prove their holiness and kept dying.

They worked out this whole horrible system. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, place his hands upon the Ark of the Covenant, and speak the Tetragrammaton. The theory was that if the holiest person went into the holiest place on the holiest day and touched the holiest thing, maybe that would be enough holiness to speak the Tetragrammaton and live to tell about it. Did it work? The Bible is silent on the subject, but Rabbi Klass of Brooklyn points out that during the 420 years of the Second Temple, there were three hundred different High Priests, even though each High Priest was supposed to serve for life. Clearly, High Priests of Israel had the sorts of life expectancies usually associated with black guys in horror movies. Also, some medieval manuscripts mention that the High Priest would have a rope tied around his leg at the time, to make it easier for his flock to drag his body out after he died.

The Jews naturally got a little bit spooked about the Tetragrammaton after a few centuries of this sort of thing, and the rabbis decreed that any time you needed to use the Tetragrammaton, you should instead substitute the totally different word “A—-i”. And then when you were going to say “A—-i” you should substitute that with “HaShem”, so as to stay two semantic steps away from the Tetragrammaton at all times. If they could have, they would have demanded that “HaShem” be replaced with something else too, except that “HaShem” literally just meant “the Name” and so was already maximally vague.

It is a well-known fact among kabbalists that Christians are really dumb. At some point in the AD era, the Christians decided that something something Jesus died for our sins something something made us pure, and they decided to show their deep communion with God by just speaking the Tetragrammaton willy-nilly at random points in their services. Luckily for them by this point Uriel had pretty well finished blocking the divine light, and their services caused nothing worse than facepalms from any Jews who happened to overhear. Then the sky cracked. There very well could have been this huge catastrophe the Sunday afterwards when every Christian church suddenly went up in flames. But the Tetragrammaton is famously difficult to pronounce, and the true pronunciation, which turned out to sound sort of like “JA-HO-RAH”, came as a total surprise to everyone, wasn’t in anybody’s liturgy, and actually doesn’t even quite correspond to the Hebrew letters involved. Thus was the entire Christian religion saved by its inability to pronounce a four-letter word.

If you don’t insist on magic powers for your Names, there are ones even shorter than this. The Digrammaton is aleph-lamed, or “El”. To a Californian like me, that always made places like El Segundo and El Cerrito seem a bit creepy. It wasn’t the same sort of primal horror as sticking the Tetragrammaton in the middle of something, but no kabbalist I know has ever voluntarily eaten at El Pollo Loco either.

After thinking about it a while, I’m cool with the Spanish using “El” as an article. There’s something very article-like (articular? articulate?) about God. You have your nouns – ie, everything in creation – and God isn’t a part of them, but without God they don’t fit together, they don’t make sense. The article is what instantiates vague concepts: “pollo loco” is a dream, something out of Briah, “el pollo loco” is more in Yetzirah, an object, a created being.

Ana and I had a long discussion about the Digrammaton once. Jesus calls himself the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end. It makes sense. The Hebrew equivalent would be aleph and tav. But the Digrammaton is aleph and lamed. Lamed is the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Aleph-lamed, beginning and middle. “I am the alpha and the lambda, the beginning and the middle” doesn’t have the same ring to it. What’s up?

And Ana tried to tie this into her own theory of music vs. silence vs. unsong. There was good. There was neutral. And there was evil. Not just ones and zeroes, but ones and zeroes and negative ones. God took credit for the good. He even took credit for the neutral. But He didn’t take credit for the bad. That was on us. Draw a line from best to worst, and God is everything from beginning to middle. I protested, said that God had created evil along with everything else, that it was on Him, that He couldn’t just change His Name and hope to avoid detection. Ana didn’t have an answer then. Later, when she heard all of this explained in more detail, she realized it was the key to the whole mystery, that anyone who understood the Digrammaton would understand the Shem haMephorash too, and everything else beside. But that was still long in the future.

There is even a Monogrammaton. The sages took the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and decided that exactly one of them was a Name of God. That letter is “he”. It’s the fifth letter, and it makes an hhhhhh sound like English H. The sages say that the breath makes a hhhhhhhh sound, which I guess it sort of does. Breath is the animating spirit of human existence, God is the animating spirit of the world. It sort of checks out.

“He” is pronounced like “hey” or “hay”. “Hey” is a word we call to get someone’s attention. Attention is consciousness, the highest level of thought, corresponding to the sephirah Keter. When we shout “Hey!” at someone, we are speaking a holy Name of God, invoking the Monogrammaton to call forth the Divine within them. “Hay” is a thing that cows eat. Cows eat hay and we eat cows. We never touch hay, but it is indirectly sustaining us. It is the ontological ground, the secret that gives us life although we know it not.

But “he” is spelled as “he”. A long time ago, Ana said the Holy Explicit Name of God was “Juan”, because “God is Juan and His Name is Juan.” We both laughed it off, but later I was looking through my trusty King James Version and started noticing things. Psalm 95:7, “He is our God”. Psalm 100:3, “It is He that hath made us.” Job 37:23, “He is excellent in power and in judgment.” All of these have an overt English meaning. But they are, in their own way, invoking the Monogrammaton.

And “he” corresponds to the English letter H. H is for hydrogen, the very beginning of the periodic table, the building block out of which everything else is made. H is the fundamental unit of matter in the universe. H, the saying goes, is a colorless odorless gas which, given enough time, tends to turn into people. How would that make sense unless H was God, the organizing and ordering principle of the Cosmos, He who creates all things?

And then there was my crazy great-uncle. Invented a bomb that could destroy the world, the deadliest and most terrifying object any human being has ever produced – and slapped an H in front of the name. I still wonder, every so often, if he was a hidden kabbalist. It takes a certain amount of obsessiveness to be as reckless as he was. That’s how I picture him, actually, studying Torah by night, figuring out new ways to annhilate cities by day. What sort of religion must such a man have? What kind of relationship with God? What soteriology? What theodicy? All I have to guide me is that one old book, the only thing my father gave me:

H has become a most troublesome letter
It means something bigger, if not something better.

What are we to say to that?

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127 Responses to Interlude ד: N-Grammata

  1. meyerkev248 says:

    So I have to ask.

    What exactly WAS killing off all those priests? That’s “bad bits of Roman Empire”-levels of succession crisis and uh… those tended not to be stable for 420 years.

  2. Tulip says:

    Typo thread.

    A—-i has an em-dash in place of the first three hyphens, I suspect due to some type of unwanted autoreplace effect rather than deliberate kabbalism (although, looking at it from that angle, there *is* something very fitting about the Tetragrammaton’s substitute nonetheless being rendered as four characters when typed in the appropriate program).

  3. 75th says:

    This chapter has pushed me to register my tentative prediction that, if there is a “Final Exam” type situation in Unsong, it will be for us to use the rules given in the book to construct the Shem haMephorash at the moment when the hero must Sing it to save the world.

  4. Sniffnoy says:

    Huh. I am surprised to find that the pattern of “Chapter n has an interlude after it iff n-1 is a square” continues to hold.

    • Sophie says:

      So we’ll get fewer and fewer interludes over time?

      • pku says:

        That’s also to be expected – the interludes provide backstory, which gets less necessary over the story (unless we have a case of convergent plotlines, which doesn’t seem to be the case here).

    • Zadex says:

      How does that still apply if the third chapter doesn’t have an interlude?

      • Tayacan says:

        2 is not a square.

        According to this theory, the chapters that should have interludes are 1, 2, 5, 10, 17, 26, 37… Idk how long the story will be.

    • Occam's Laser says:

      I agree that this would be a surprising pattern. My best guess (after the clues in chapter 9) is that there will be 22 interludes (number of letters, which designate the interludes) and 72 chapters (length of the Shem haMephorash). Scott has said he already knows how many chapters Unsong will have, so there is some kind of constraint there—not that I can think of any patterns that would fit.

      • Guy says:

        72 chapters on the above formula gives 8 interludes. Adding in cubes gives an extra three, and 16 is the only valid tesseract. I can’t think of any sequence that gives 22 values before hitting 72. We might wind up with 11, actually, because this story is about figuring out the names of God and according to this very interlude God takes credit only for the first half of the hebrew alphabet (I am the alpha and the lambda, the beginning and the middle!). This means we should expect interludes after chapters 17, 26, 28, 37, 50, and 65. The above paragraph is an excellent bit of analysis I just realized is pointless because there is no interlude after chapter 9.

        Other “plausible” formula, based on numbers relating to the chapters:

        Between each interlude, there are 1, 3, and 5 chapters. These are the first three non-zero Jacobsthal numbers. Strange because there is an implied missing interlude (the sequence has two 1’s in it). Implies interludes after chapters 21 and 42, for a total of six. Not a particularly interesting number.

        The chapters after each interlude are 2, 3, 6, and 11. These are the 5th through 9th Wedderburn-Etherington numbers, which count the number of Otter Trees as described in the wikipedia article (among other things). This gives interludes after chapters 22 and 45. This is interesting for its connection to computation*; note that this story hinges on the ensoulment of at least one computer and that Aaron’s initials are AST, which also stands for Abstract Syntax Tree. An AST is the core data structure created and operated on by a compiler or interpreter in converting human-written code from one form to another.

        *Specifically, Otter Trees show how non-idempotent, non-associative but commutative operations may be grouped.

  5. Sniffnoy says:

    …Why is the ninth letter of the (English) alphabet being stripped from all comments? Something seems wrong here.

  6. Sniffnoy says:

    Also: Now I’m wondering why Llull didn’t find the Mortal Name first of all and kill itself. Presumably either: 1. The program explicitly excludes that Name to exclude this possibility or 2. There’s a lower bound on lengths considered, below which everything truly *has* been brute-forced and so there’s no need to check them.

    • Lorxus says:

      My guess is that it’s the second one. I’d assume that enough time has passed for people to have checked a *lot* of namespace.

      Irrelevantly, second on being confused as to the having-been-stripped-outness of the 9th letter.

    • bassicallyboss says:

      Probably both. We know UNSONG found Ithaca in the previous chapter, though, and Aaron suspected it was by brute-forcing until they found the first Name that Llull yields, the Moon-Finding one. If they brute-forced that far, they probably did everything up to it, too.

    • stavro375 says:

      …or maybe it HAS found the Mortal Name, it DID kill itself, and that’s why it stopped working.

      • wot says:

        Llull is working. The Soul-Giving Name is not.

        • 27chaos says:

          Maybe all humans have the same soul, or come from the same soul, and each Soul-Giving name only works once but you can then replicate from it.

          • Deiseach says:

            I don’t know the Jewish angle on that, but from the Christian side, no, that’s heresy (which means it is wrong factually, not just “oh you just call it that because you don’t agree with our interpretation”).

            Human souls are created individually; they are not all one soul, or derived from some ur-soul or God-stuff, or merge back after death into the universal cosmic Atman. So the Soul-Giving Name is the one unique name that ensouls a living being, and if it works once, it works all the time (or should do).

            That is Aaron’s problem: why is it not working? By the logic of Names, since it worked for Sarah, it should equally work for Bill’s Apple.

            (That’s another reason I’m suspicious of Ana as UNSONG undercover agent; she warned Aaron she didn’t think the Vital Name would work a second time, and surprise surprise it didn’t when he tried it again, and she came out with “Yes, I thought God would intervene directly so it couldn’t work”. Yeah, right! If Uriel has been blocking the Divine Light and direct intervention by God has not happened since, then isn’t it more believable to think she used some kind of UNSONG blocking tactic – maybe a Name they know to keep other Names from working for a short period, or make a human think he’s saying a Name correctly when he’s really not, or the like – on Bill’s machine and called in the arrest squad when Aaron left the house?)

    • Jack V says:

      Didn’t we hear that if you say a name for the first time, you sort of get a sense of what it does, but it doesn’t go off?

    • gavriel ben yaakov says:

      The mortal name probably wouldn’t work on it either way, given that it likely kills the body, not the spirit. Llull nor Sarah have a body that the mortal name could exploit.

      • pku says:

        You can kill a computer, e.g. with a big magnet or a hammer.

      • Deiseach says:

        Sarah is the hardware, the actual PC itself. Llull is the programme running on Sarah. If you think “computers don’t have a body that the mortal name could exploit”, then try pulling out the hard drive and seeing if it will still work for you 🙂

        (I may or may not have had a similar experience with an mp3 player accidentally dropped down the loo; when they warn you “This device is not waterproof”, they really mean it!)

  7. GCBill says:

    Book 1 checks out Kabbalistically. 10 chapters, four interludes, and ends in “Egypt.”

    An incomplete theory on the interludes: There are technically four covenants in Genesis. God makes the first one with Noah, and later a three-part covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The first interlude where Uriel says “sorry, I messed up” represents the Noahic one (where God promises not to wipe everyone out again). One part of the Abrahamic covenant establishes the priesthood, which are supposedly descended from Aaron. However, I’m not sure which of the remaining three interludes represent which parts. The slaying of the grouper in Chapter 9 represents the sacrificial offering that traditionally seals a covenant.

  8. Sniffnoy says:

    So, in this interlude the meaning of the name “El” — אל — is discussed. The beginning and the middle. But God is frequently equated with Truth. And Truth in Hebrew is “Emet” — אמת — the beginning, the middle, and the end.

    …OK, it doesn’t quite work, because mem isn’t *quite* the middle (neither is lamed, really, but what can you do), but it’s still interesting. Does this suggest that God is not Truth, because Truth, unlike God, includes the bad as well as the good and the neutral? I mean, it has to, surely; there is bad in the world. But, you know, you mustn’t go suggesting that Thamiel might be as powerful as God, for God is One — Pirindiel was quite insistent on that…

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Oy, I should have realized the problem would affect even the tags… if I’d just thought to italicize with capital ‘I’s instead, the formatting would have come out right…

    • pku says:

      “el” represents aleph through lamed, as god represents the good and the neutral. This means that the letters representing evil are mem through tav, or “מת”, which translates as “dead”. This represents both that death is evil and that we are mortal (since god leaves the “mortality” part of the alphabet to us).

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Huh, I only just now noticed that Reb Wiki has something to say about the “emet” business:

      Tav is the last letter of the Hebrew word emet, which means ‘truth’. The midrash explains that emet is made up of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, mem, and tav: אמת). Sheqer (falsehood), on the other hand, is made up of the 19th, 20th, and 21st (and penultimate) letters.

      Which midrash, it doesn’t say.

  9. Lorxus says:

    This is really neat and I am really enjoying this but right now all I can think of is that this gives an entirely new meaning to equivalence between “four-letter-word” and “curse”.

  10. LHC says:

    This is the safest room in the game. Only Jahorah can kill you.

  11. This is all starting to remind me of reading timecube/illuminati style conspiracy theorist stuff online. Except in this world there really are hidden patterns and conspiracies, but that doesn’t make treating all possible patterns as equally valid any smarter. – This is clearly a flaw in the protagonist, So how do the less crazy characters differentiate between real and fake patterns?

    • The Warren Peace NFL Report says:

      I’m only an agnostic n00b with a single [real world] comparative religions class under my belt from ten years ago, but I figured that the point of Kabbalah is that all patterns and coincidences are indeed equally valid and important. Someone correct me if I’m wrong because this seems to be a fundamental part of the story.

      What do I know about anything though–all I remember from that religion class is that religious people tend to get very upset with you if you point out that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are basically the same religion, differentiated only by a couple of minor disagreements over relatively small details…

  12. Sniffnoy says:

    Now that you bring up H for hydrogen, well, the periodic table is ripe for numerology and other associations. Unfortunately I can’t find much that works here. H for hydrogen; He for helium. There’s your Digrammaton, right next to your Monogrammaton! Tetragrammaton is more of a problem. It’s not clear what the significance of yttrium or vanadium (or should that be tungsten?) might be. Although vanadium is 23 — just one past the end of the Hebrew alphabet. (Also, it’s 23 like in “Illuminatus!”.) Meanwhile, T, while not an elemental symbol, is often used for tritium. But in what sense is tritium “the end” of anything? I guess it is used in H-bombs… and of course it’s worth noting that on the periodic table, “Ta” is followed immediately by “W”, and that this sequence immediately follows 72. The Holy Name, followed by the end? Meanwhile, the important number 4 is beryllium — to Be. Iron, the end of stellar fusion, is 26 — the end of the English alphabet. The highest currently known element is 118, the sum of 108 and 10; it remains nameless at the moment. Its symbol reflects this, Uuo, which lacks any consonants. In Hebrew one might perhaps right this as ווו — which spells out 666, the number of the beast. Of course, the same could have been said for Uuu back in the day, which would make the correspondence to vav-vav-vav a bit neater. But “Uuo” could also be read as “Uh-oh” — a warning, you see. Meanwhile, while L is not an element, La does fall quite near the middle of the periodic table.

    …I think I’m just going to stop here for now…

    • DanielLC says:

      > There’s your Digrammaton, right next to your Monogrammaton!

      No, that’s the name of the Monogrammaton. The Digrammaton was El.

      • Jacob says:

        But of course “él” is the Spanish word for “he” (which un/coincidentally sounds like the Hebrew word for “she”)

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Oh, right. “He” is still a single letter. Well… there’s an English spelling for the letter, right next to the English equivalent of the letter, anyway…

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      Hebrew numbers don’t use place value; you *add* the value of characters. vav-vav-vav = 18.

  13. Is there a Trigrammaton?

  14. madaco says:

    Isn’t there the idea that the Tetragrammaton is related to different forms of the verb “to be” ? (Upon looking this up I find that Wikipedia considers this to be the most likely base for the name. (‘It is connected to the passage in Exodus 3:14 in which God gives his name as אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh), where the verb, translated most basically as “I am that I am”, or “I shall be what I shall be”, “I shall be what I am”[10] or […]’ – Wikipedia))

    (Also, I hear/read that Jesus’s name was (indirectly?) derived from the Tetragrammaton. (wikipedia says it translates to ” is salvation”.) And also a number of other names are derived from it.)

    • Could the Tetragrammaton be translated as “Existence exists”?

      • Samuel says:

        It’s possible that the Tetragrammaton is derived from (or is connected to another way, perhaps by allusion) a form of the Hebrew verb “to be” meaning “he causes to exist”. I’m not sure what I think about the likelihood of this suggestion, but the Tetragrammaton and certain forms of the verb “to be” do indeed look remarkably similar, both with yods and hes in various formulations, and also possibly with vavs as well in more ancient Hebrew.

    • Rachael says:

      ‘ I hear/read that Jesus’s name was (indirectly?) derived from the Tetragrammaton”

      Via French. “I AM” – “Je suis” 🙂

      • The Warren Peace NFL Report says:

        Is this serious, or a joke? I’m leaning towards joke, since I can’t imagine the French language coexisting with said middle Easterners, but I honestly can’t tell around here.

    • madaco says:

      Whoops, didn’t realize it would interpret that as a tag and remove it.

      I meant to say that Wikipedia says it translates to “[the name] is salvation”, but I used angle brackets instead of square brackets, so that part got removed.

    • Samuel says:

      You hear/read correctly. Jesus is the Latin rendering (via Greek) of Yeshua, which is a variant of the earlier name Yehoshua (which gives us Joshua), sort of meaning “HaShem is salvation”. I say sort of, because it seems to work by word plays rather than direct connection. So salvation in Hebrew is yeshuah (I would type in Hebrew letters but the computer I’m currently using won’t allow it), and the first two syllables of “Yehoshua”, spliced onto “yeshuah”, are derived from the Tetragrammaton.

      Any Hebrew derived word/name containing a particle like those first two syllables is in all likelihood referring to the Tetragrammaton. So we have the final two syllables of Yeshayahu (Isaiah), the final syllable of Hallelujah (the “j” indicating a yod in the same way as a “y” does in the others), the first syllable of Yo’el (Joel), the final two syllables in Eliyahu (Elijah), etc. And those last two (which, incidentally, mean essentially the same thing) also contain another almost ubiquitous particle in Hebrew names, “el”, which of course refers to that other name for God.

  15. El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing says:

    H rotated +/- 90 degrees in the plane becomes I, the Roman numeral for 1. Rotated +/- 90 degrees orthogonal to the plane (with a vertical axis of symmetry) becomes |, the serif-less tally mark thought to be the origin of the Roman numeral.

  16. Jack V says:

    “Uriel had pretty well finished blocking the divine light”

    I’m voraciously following these little hints about Angelic history. Did we know that before? Do we know why? He blocked it with a dome that was eventually broken in the space race?

    There are other angels about, and Satan, presumably they came to Earth after the dome broke in some way which didn’t involve as much political upheaval as you might think.

    But whenever I read a book with interesting worldbuilding, I want to scream, talk about the afterlife, does it exist, what’s God like, etc etc. Not in a bad way, I just find it really interesting.

    • R Flaum says:

      I’m getting more and more suspicious that Uriel is up to no good; “blocking off the divine light” isn’t really the kind of thing you’d expect an angel to want to do.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I mean, we already have his seemingly-blasphemous admission in Chapter 9:


        Doesn’t necessarily mean he’s up to no good, but it certainly means something is up.

        • Deiseach says:

          Uriel may not mean badly, but whenever angelic intelligences start thinking “That’s not the way I’d do it”, then you run into problems.

          Were the problems really problems, or just what Uriel thought was a problem? Uriel might have thought, for example, “Well, allowing humans to make up their own minds if God exists or not is a real bug; I’ll just re-program that part so they all have an absolute sense of the reality of God and cannot deny it”.

          And then instead of belief in One God and One God only, you get everything from panentheism to pantheism to polytheism proper to “I know God exists but He’s not the boss of me” and “God is only what collective Humanity can be if we all merge our consciousness” and the like 🙂

      • Jack V says:

        I don’t know, I don’t see any particular reason to doubt the “the universe was a bit of a bodge job” theory.

      • Fj says:

        We’ve been told that after the sphere cracked [and the divine light started seeping in again, allowing Names to work again], Hell and Devil became things again too.

    • Jack V says:

      What I really like about unsong is that it really commits to the idea, the world isn’t “just like every other urban fantasy, but the magic works with names instead of mana/books/vampires/genies/etc”, the whole world is different in all sorts of ways.

  17. Betawolf says:

    So the Monogrammaton plus the Digrammaton is H + EL, or HEL, or Hell.

    If EL truly means the good and the neutral, and H is consciousness, then this indicates that putting consciousness before the good and the neutral leads to eternal torment.

    Thus kabbalistically, human thought is the root of all torment, as expressed dramatically by the pinnacle of science leading to the release of the Devil.

  18. Deiseach says:

    Luckily for them by this point Uriel had pretty well finished blocking the divine light, and their services caused nothing worse than facepalms from any Jews who happened to overhear.

    I was sitting here going “But when was the last time I heard someone mentioning “Jehovah” at Mass?”

    And then I remembered the trend in the 80s for hymns mentioning “Yahweh”.

    Thanks, Uriel! 🙂

    • pku says:

      Though the way it’s commonly pronounced by english speakers, that’s also pretty far from the correct pronunciation.

  19. Mike Stay says:

    The word “and” in Hebrew is the prefix vav, so aleph-vav-tav is “first and last”. Aleph is the bull (the modern capital A is an upside-down bull’s head) and thus figuratively “mighty”. Vav is a hook, connecting two things together. Tav is a mark; modern tav looks nothing like the modern roman letter “t”, but in ancient Hebrew, derived from Phoenecian, it did: it was an X, X marks the spot, the four cardinal directions at the origin, the mark an illiterate person would sign to a contract or covenant.

    Aleph-vav-tav is `owt, “sign, token”. The first use is in Genesis, describing the sun, moon, and stars, which were given for signs and for seasons, and mark the passage of time. The stars are the seed of Abraham, the covenant people. “Some hold that the stars generally do control the fate of people and nations, but Abraham and his descendants were elevated by their covenant with God, and thus achieve free will.” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 44:12, Yal., Jer. 285).

    In Ezekiel 9, Ezekiel sees a vision in which the high priest and six soldiers goes out of the temple placing a mark in the forehead (the countenance) of the righteous, those who sigh and cry for the wickedness done in Israel; anyone who doesn’t receive the mark gets killed. “Let not your eye *spare*, neither have ye pity: Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any one upon whom is the mark.” You either cut a deal with God or you’re cut off; those are the two edges of the sword, “quick and powerful, unto the dividing asunder of joints and marrow, soul and spirit, and is a *discerner* of the thoughts and intents of the heart”. Malachi wrote that those who make the covenant get their names written in the book of life. “And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man *spareth* his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and *discern* between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.” The mark of the beast is the counterfeit version.

    Aleph-vav-tav is also an acronym for urim v-thummim, “lights and perfections”. Abraham started in Ur and ended up a perfect man. Urim = `avrym, probably corruption of `arrym = curses since vav is similar in shape to resh, so “curses and innocence” i.e. one bit of revealed information. Midrashim and Babylonian texts connect these stones to Noah’s “window” / tzohar and Alexander’s pyrophilus that granted the ability to travel safely under water(=chaos).

    The next occurrences of `owt are in chapters 9 and 17, where the word is translated as “token” in the phrase “token of the covenant”. The rainbow is the token of the covenant between God and Noah, and circumcision is the token of the Abrahamic covenant.

    Another occurrance of `owt is in Exodus 3:12-14, when God gives Moses a token to convince the Israelites of his divine mission. The token is God’s name, I AM THAT I AM. Later occurrences of `owt in Exodus are the miraculous signs given to Pharaoh (4:8, etc.). Finally, the blood of the Paschal Lamb on the lintel is called `owt. In Exodus 12:13, God says, “And the blood shall be to you for a token (`owt) upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.”

    In the Law of Moses, God commanded the Israelites to keep Passover. Part of the ceremony is described in Exodus 13:8-9. “And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the LORD did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. And it shall be for a sign (`owt) unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the LORD’s law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt.” Via phylacteries and mezuzot the word of God is written on their forehead, and stands in place of the blood of the Lamb at the entrance to their houses.

    `Owt is used again when God commands the people to keep the sabbath day holy: “Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign (`owt) between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.”

    In Numbers chpater 16, some of the people accuse Moses of nepotism because he chose his own brother to become the high priest, and his own tribe to be the priestly class. Moses commanded each man to offer incense in his own censer, and said, “If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the LORD hath not sent me. But if the LORD make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down quick into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the LORD. And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground clave asunder that was under them… And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.” (Num 16:29-31,35)

    In order to remind the people of that event and prevent any future disputes about the subject, God commanded Moses to take one rod form each of the twelve princes of the tribes of Israel, and leave them overnight in the tabernacle. Aaron’s rod was taken for the tribe of Levi. “And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.” (Num 17:8) The almond tree, then, is a symbol of the true priesthood.

    During the Feast of Tabernacles, everyone makes little shelters outdoors and sleeps outside. The shelters have space left in the roof so that you can see the stars. Originally, the courts of the temple were illuminated by four huge golden candelabra, the menorahs. These were carved to look like almond trees, and the cups for holding the lamps were carved as almond blossoms (see Ex 25:31-40). This is likely what Jesus was referring to when he said, “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

    Perhaps the most famous scripture among Christians in which it appears is Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign (`owt); Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

    Aleph-vav-tav corresponds, of course, to the Greek “alpha and omega”. Omega is the symbol used for the first transfinite ordinal, while aleph is the symbol used for the first transfinite cardinal. Borges’ story “The Aleph” describes a point where an observer can see all of time and space, the end from the beginning. Turing had a great deal to say about oracles revealing uncomputable information. Chaitin’s Omega number is pure information; given an oracle to the bits of an Omega number, one can solve any finitely refutable problem, including all the Clay Math challenges.

    Alpha in physics is the fine structure constant, which is almost-but-not-quite 1/137; Jung famously suggested to Pauli that 137 is the gematria for the word “kabbalah”. Expanding the fine structure constant as a continued fraction, we find that the terms are [0, 137, 27, 1, 3, 1, 1, 18, …].
    27 = ch-y-d-h “riddle, mystery”, from ch-v-d properly “something twisted, involved”, whence “subtlety, fraud”
    1,3,1,1 = Gen 3:1, first word = v-ha-nachash “And the serpent”. Of course, the gematria for n-ch-sh = m-sh-y-ch, i.e. “messiah”.
    18 = ch-v-d as above, also ch-tet-aleph “to fail or miss; to sin; to forfeit; fault, sin; punishment, penalty; sinner, a guilty one”, ch-y “alive; living; fresh; running (water); life; a living one”, y-g-h to vex, cause to grieve, and y-d-d to cast lots (as with the urim and thummim).

  20. gavriel ben yaakov says:

    Okay, I’m still confused about one thing. I thought discovering a name for the first time causes one to have a divine revelation regarding its purpose, but did not cause it to activate. Why didn’t the first person who said the mortal name just warn everyone that saying it would kill them?

    • Decius says:

      Epicest Troll Ever.

      He DID say that it would kill them if they were impure.

      • Deiseach says:

        And not even the heavens are pure in His sight; Job 25: 5-6 ” 5 Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in his sight. 6 How much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm?”

        As to why they would then go ahead and say it anyway, look at the story of Moses, Exodus 2: 11-14

        11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.

        12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.

        13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?

        14 And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.

        “Who made thee a prince and a judge over us?” is pretty much “You’re not the boss of me!” and I rather imagine the same attitude was at work; “Oh, you think you’re so great and the rest of us are nothing but mud! Well, guess what, Mr Smarty-Pants, I am too going to say this Name and you can’t stop me!” 🙂

  21. Eli Nelken says:

    The ‘kodesh hakodashim’ in the second temple was empty – the kohen gadol couldn’t pose his hands on the ark of the covenant because it didn’t exist anymore.

  22. Yan says:

    Surprised that you didn’t mention that the Hebrew letter He also happens to be a definite article, like El.

  23. Sniffnoy says:

    If the Mortal Name’s pronunciation doesn’t actually match the Tetragrammaton, doesn’t that potentially screw up a lot of the premise of the story, if Name’s pronunciations don’t have to actually match their spelling? Or what’s up with that?

  24. David Oster says:

    I was taught in Hebrew school that Biblical Hebrew has a word for was, “היה”, and a word for will be:”יהיה”, but it lacked a word for the present tense of the verb “to be.”

    But if the verb followed the typical pattern of other verbs, then the present tense of the verb “to be”would be “יהוה” – That is, that “God” is identical to “existence”, and that fact is built into the very structure of the language.

    • pku says:

      I don’t think so: For example, “ate” is אכל, “will eat” is יאכל, and “is eating” is אוכל. Extending that, the present tense of “to be” should be “הויה” (hoye). Which has the same letters, but that’s about it.

      • Samuel says:

        And also, whilst in Modern Hebrew the present tense is fully spelled out with the holem vav (AFAIK), in Biblical Hebrew it isn’t. So the present participle (there isn’t really a present tense in Biblical Hebrew, it’s just indicated with particples) would be spelled without the vav, and so would’t correspond to the Tetragrammaton. Unfortunately, because it’s a very neat connection.

  25. Deiseach says:

    In the vein of “Nothing is ever a coincidence”, I saw this and have to share it with you all 🙂

    Why the Apollo mission in UNSONG was destined to fail from the start:

    Mr. Boone attempts to use the Bible to build his case that a rocket to the moon would not sit well with God in Heaven. He begins by claiming there are “three heavens,” drawing this conclusion from some verse fragments (particularly 2 Cor 12:2) and rabbinical writings. The susses out the three heavens thus: 1. The realm of gravity, 2. The sun, moon, and stars, and 3. The abode of God. He finds further evidence of this in the Bible’s frequent references to “the heavens” (plural), not simply “heaven.” Of course, if he was familiar with Hebrew, he would know that the word here (shamayim) is a dual form (i.e., two, not three) and that this form doesn’t necessarily mean anything about number (for example, the word mayim, which just means water, is also a dual form).

    But let’s pretend there are “three heavens” as delineated by the author. So what? Well, according to Edward Boone (I don’t know why, but I just love that name), we’re okay to go up into the first heaven (still within the realm of gravity), but not into the second or third. The biblical evidence is supposedly Genesis 1:26-28, which limits man’s dominion to the water, the air, and the earth. Also offered as evidence is Psalm 115:16, which reads, “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.”

    Man is thus in danger, from Boone’s point of view, of trespassing in forbidden territory. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but the author seems to think that going into space gets us that much closer to God’s abode in heave (Psalm 11:4), but without going through the proper channels—some kind of cosmic-spiritual loophole. Therefore, we’re in danger of following the path of Satan. To quote The Bible and Rockets to the Moon, “Every time a Sputnik or Explorer circles this globe with its ‘beep beep,’ it is . . . declaring that judgment is soon to visit . . . the whole WORLD.” (Emphasis original)

    This desire to ignore God’s “No Trespassing” sign and thrust our way into his sacred backyard is anything but new, though. No, Boone sees this as the same prideful, man-centered spirit that led to the rebellion and disobedience present in the building of the Tower of Babel. In making this case, he selectively buys into certain Targums (Jewish interpretive translations) and makes bizarre leaps to try and paint a striking similarity between the Tower of Babel’s construction—in direct defiance of God—and those evil rockets to the moon, also in direct defiance of God.

    Both projects are all about humans patting themselves on the back for what they’ve accomplished in order make a great name for mankind. Just like no one acknowledged the One True God in building the Tower (and subsequent empire) of Babylon, no one is acknowledging God in this race to the moon.

    If only NASA had listened to Edwin Boone, then the Untied States and the rest of the world would not be in the mess they are currently in!

  26. Deiseach says:

    Link to the above post about the ignored warnings in “The Bible and Rockets to the Moon”, for those who need to know more.

  27. Prezombie says:

    What about the nongrammaton, a name consisting of exactly zero letters? I’m not even sure if the ancient Jews had a concept of zero, but I’ve always enjoyed the philosophy surrounding the concept of the empty set.

    For one thing, it would explain how God created himself, if the empty name was the name of beginning.

    • 75th says:

      If only consonants count, maybe the Creative Name is all vowels?

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I mean, you can still write that in Hebrew, it would have a positive length. It’d just be lots of alephs and vavs (and maybe ayins?), basically… maybe some other consonants in other contexts where it’s clear they’re not making consonant sounds, like a final he or yod.

        • 75th says:

          “VIS-LAIGA-RON-TEPHENOR-AST-AST-TELISA-ROK-SUPH-VOD-APANOR-HOV-KEREG-RAI-UM”. My computer shifted to a different part of namespace, and I followed.

          Thirty-six letters. A little on the long side.

          The consonant sounds in that Name are


          I don’t know Hebrew and I’m not looking at a Hebrew transliteration guide at the moment, but even by the most conservative count, “Thirty-six” is way closer to just the consonants than it is to the consonants plus the vowels.

          So are we to say that the Digrammaton and Monogrammaton are actually both one-letter Names of God, by Chapter 1’s reckoning?

          • Eli Nelken says:

            51 letters by my transliteration back to hebrew. Maybe a few of the yod and vav can be omitted, but 36 is too little.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            By my count, it’s a minimum of 38; I’m assuming you indicate all vowels with dots only unless this is impossible. So basically, count the English consonants above, except that “PH” obviously is one letter; “AST” “AST” and “UM” need an aleph or vav to start them off; and you need two yods for the two syllables with “AI”. Might be a perverse spelling, but technically valid, right?

            So yeah, I’m not sure how Scott is counting things. I hadn’t thought to actually check the counts myself. Maybe it should be ATS-ATS instead of AST-AST?

          • I think it depends on which English vowels are represented by Hebrew alephs and yuds and vavs and other silent letters.

    • Daniel says:

      The day you posted this, I was thumbing through a translation of the Zohar and was informed that the opening of Genesis really means: “In the beginning, _____ created Elohim”

  28. Lambert says:

    I wonder who is going to commit suicide at some point in the book. (Unless it’s klipoted and given to an unsuspecting person to kill them.)

  29. Nicholas Weininger says:

    See also:

    For H is a spirit and therefore he is God
    For K is King and therefore he is God
    For L is Love and therefore he is God
    For M is Music and therefore he is God

    (from Christopher Smart, “Jubilate Agno”, this particular verse having been made famous to choral singers when Benjamin Britten included it in his setting)

  30. Megafire says:

    No ‘He’/Helium connection? I am disappointed.

  31. Good Burning Plastic says:

    They worked out this whole horrible system. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, place his hands upon the Ark of the Covenant, and speak the Tetragrammaton. The theory was that if the holiest person went into the holiest place on the holiest day and touched the holiest thing, maybe that would be enough holiness to speak the Tetragrammaton and live to tell about it. Did it work? The Bible is silent on the subject, but Rabbi Klass of Brooklyn points out that during the 420 years of the Second Temple, there were three hundred different High Priests, even though each High Priest was supposed to serve for life. Clearly, High Priests of Israel had the sorts of life expectancies usually associated with black guys in horror movies. Also, some medieval manuscripts mention that the High Priest would have a rope tied around his leg at the time, to make it easier for his flock to drag his body out after he died.

    That along with this suggests that deep down inside those priests probably didn’t actually like their lives all that much.

    • The High Priests knew the Mortal Name was a Name. They might have been misinformed about its purpose, but they knew.

      Related: contrary to speculation upthread, you can kill somebody with the Mortal Name as long as they know it. You just have to trick them into saying it in a context where they’re not thinking about how it’s the Mortal Name.

      • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

        So, theoretically, you could assassinate somebody with a sufficiently clever bad pun? That’s almost as awesome as trope-powered ritual magic!

        I’m now hoping that Aaron’s efforts the resist UNSONG involve using a clever biblical whale pun to trick an agent into saying the Mortal Name.

      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        So what was it that would enable the Singers to get away with not using Pig Latin?

  32. Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

    >At some point in the AD era, the Christians decided that something something Jesus died for our sins something something made us pure, and they decided to show their deep communion with God by just speaking the Tetragrammaton willy-nilly at random points in their services. Luckily for them by this point Uriel had pretty well finished blocking the divine light, and their services caused nothing worse than facepalms from any Jews who happened to overhear. Then the sky cracked. There very well could have been this huge catastrophe the Sunday afterwards when every Christian church suddenly went up in flames.

    Sorry, the former history graduate student in me can’t let this go without comment. 🙂 It’s a funny bit, but it just doesn’t describe weekly Christian practice either historical or (to a lesser degree) contemporary. The free use of the Tetragrammaton by Christians is relatively modern. The New Testament follows the Septuagint practice of using “Adonai” via “Kyrie”, even if it made a quotation confusing (Acts 2:34-35). Even the Septuagint manuscripts that didn’t use kyrie instead used an unpronounceable representation of the [paleo-Hebrew form of The Name]( Most early Christian writers followed suit. Some more scholarly first millennium Christian sources share their favored pronunciation, but you don’t typically see it as a commonly-used name of God. You don’t start seeing too many “Jehovah”‘s in Christian writings until the 16th century, but even then heavy use indicates scholarliness, pretentiousness, and/or sectarianism.

    The Welsh sing “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah”, but not even they like it well enough to sing it every Sunday. You get some modern evangelicals who use the Tetragrammaton very casually, but they don’t use it in set liturgies. (That one is cheating, since most American evangelicals don’t use set liturgies in the first place.) There are Pentecostal groups that would The Name almost exclusively, but then there are quite a few Pentecostal splinters that [enjoy living dangerously](

    That said, Aaron could simply be either exaggerating for effect, or just hasn’t bothered studying that aspect of history. Even the late medieval and early modern Christian kabbalah fans (a surprisingly well-populated category) wouldn’t necessarily be Aaron’s cup of tea.

    • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

      Well, I guessed wrong on formatting tags!

    • How does “in the 16th century” contradict “at some point in the AD era”?

      • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

        I’ll grant that point. I was interpreting it as “in the early centuries AD”, but it doesn’t say that.

        It would still take extra-strong hyperbole for name-usage to spark that degree of devastation, if properly pronounced. (And yes, people being spared because almost no one guessed the correct pronunciation… priceless.) If one of the semi-traditional options were correct, it would have been minority of congregations getting struck down in a flourish of ahistorical liturgics. Smallish statistically, but there are so many congregations that it would be a steady attrition until people figured out what was going on. With the more liturgically traditionalist Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans getting downright insufferable about their good luck…

        Even the kind of usage that sparked this statement: ( came from trends that didn’t get a chance to start until roughly 1967 (the publication of the revised missal), and didn’t become a trend until the 70s.

        So, yeah, the 70’s would have seen a few trendy Catholics, hip to supposedly historically-aware liturgical reforms, narrowly avoiding The Mighty Smiting because of a gross error in historical phonetics. Add in the with semi-hippie Jesus People dodging the same bullet through sheer misguided pronunciation, along with a sprinkling of staid singers of 19th century hymns… Okay, interpreted on that scale it’s absurdist hilarity.

        • TheAncienGeek says:

          Speaking of vowels…in The White Goddess, a very strange book, Graves proclaims that the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton s a series of vowels which could not have been written in Hebrews anyway…raising the question of how he knew ..perhaps he went into a trance,his method for figuring out who the Beast of Revelation was.

    • Outis says:

      I’m surprised Deiseach didn’t bring this up too. I haven’t heard the Tetragrammaton in any Catholic liturgy I’ve ever been to.

      Regarding your last paragraph, Aaron is Scott. Scott doesn’t know much about Christianity, so neither does Aaron. Makes sense.

      There was an earlier mistake where the Pope “said mass” from the balcony, but it was since corrected. I expect more.

  33. Sniffnoy says:

    After thinking about it a while, I’m cool with the Spanish using “El” as an article. There’s something very article-like (articular? articulate?) about God. You have your nouns – ie, everything in creation – and God isn’t a part of them, but without God they don’t fit together, they don’t make sense. The article is what instantiates vague concepts: “pollo loco” is a dream, something out of Briah, “el pollo loco” is more in Yetzirah, an object, a created being.

    And of course, in Hebrew, the definite article is the letter ה. It all fits together.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      And in Arabic it’s the Digrammaton too.

    • Nadav says:

      This kabbalistic correspondence extends to other languages as well. When words are transliterated from Greek to English, the suffix ‘os’ is often omitted; such is the case with “bishop” via Anglo-Saxon biscep from the Greek word “episkopos”, and the word “deacon”, which is partially transliterated from the Greek word “diakonos”. Similarly, “theos”, a Greek word for “god”, would be rendered as “the”. The French partitive article “de” can therefore be viewed as a shorthand for Latin “deus”. The Arabic definite article is “Al”, spelled Aleph-Lamed and commonly pronounced “El”. The English indefinite article “a” does not correspond to the monogrammaton; in the Hebrew alphabet, A is cognate to Aleph, the beginning and nothingness, which as interlude ג reminds us, has long been used to signify God.

      Side note: the above paragraph implies a parallel correlation between Greece/England and Rome/France. The flourishing of classical Greece preceded the Roman Empire and greatly influenced it, but the Greek and Romans also fought each other. England and France were similarly often at war. The English indefinite article is “a”. The French definite article is “le/la/l'”, cognate to Hebrew Lamed. Thus, drawing a line from Greece to Rome, from indefinite to definite, and across the la Manche channel gives us Aleph-Lamed: EL. And of course the kabbalistic implications of crossing the channel are something to think about.

  34. Sniffnoy says:

    Later, when she heard all of this explained in more detail, she realized it was the key to the whole mystery, that anyone who understood the Digrammaton would understand the Shem haMephorash too, and everything else beside.

    Obviously, the conclusion here is that the Shem haMephorash is “El” repeated 36 times. 😛

  35. Moshe Zadka says:

    If you know Hebrew, you might enjoy this rap about the tetragrammatron:

  36. “Later, when she heard all of this explained in more detail, she realized it was the key to the whole mystery, that anyone who understood the Digrammaton would understand the Shem haMephorash too, and everything else beside.”

    I still don’t know what this means but it’s starting to look important.

    “What sort of religion must such a man have? What kind of relationship with God? What soteriology? What theodicy?”

    In what furnace was thy brain?

  37. Aran says:

    But the Tetragrammaton is famously difficult to pronounce

    For starters, you never know when you got it right.

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