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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