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Online Edition: September 2008

Vol. XIV, No. 6

The Unpronounceable Tetragrammaton is -- unpronounceable

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Shortly after the confirmation of the English Order of Mass, on June 29, an interesting letter, “The Name of God”, was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship. It concerned the translation and pronunciation of the name of God as revealed in the Old Testament — the Hebrew YHVH.

From Old Testament times, the “tetragrammaton” (referring to its four letters) had been held “unpronounceable” out of reverence for the majesty and greatness of God. Historically, the Divine Name has been rendered Adonai in Hebrew, Kyrios in Greek, Dominus in Latin.

Liturgiam authenticam (41c) states: “in accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above-mentioned Septuagint version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning”.

The CDW letter explains: “Notwithstanding such a clear norm, in recent years the practice has crept in of pronouncing the God of Israel’s proper name, known as the holy or divine tetragrammaton, written with four consonants of the Hebrew alphabet.… The practice of vocalizing it is met with both in the reading of biblical texts taken from the Lectionary as well as in prayers and hymns, and it occurs in diverse written and spoken forms, such as, for example, ‘Yahweh’:, ‘Yahwé’, ‘Jahweh’, ‘Jahwé’, ‘Jove’, ‘Yehovah’, etc. It is therefore our intention, with the present Letter, to set out some essential facts which lie behind the above-mentioned norm and to establish some directives to be observed in this matter”.

Here are the directives:

1) In liturgical celebrations, in songs and prayers the name of God in the form of the tetragrammaton YHWH is neither to be used or pronounced.

2) For the translation of the biblical text in modern languages, destined for the liturgical usage of the Church, [Liturgiam authenticam 41] is to be followed…

3) In translating, in the liturgical context, texts in which are present one after the other, either the Hebrew Adonai or the tetragrammaton YHVH, Adonai is to be translated “Lord” and the form “God” is to be used for the tetragrammaton YHVH [as in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate].

In his accompanying letter to the US bishops, BCDW chairman Bishop Arthur Serratelli pointed out that while this will not affect the actual Missal texts, “there may be some impact on the use of particular pieces of liturgical music in our country, as well as in the composition of variable texts such as the General Intercessions for the celebration of the Mass and the other sacraments”.

Bishop Serratelli also noted that the CDW directive affords “an opportunity to offer catechesis for the faithful as an encouragement to sow reverence for the Name of God in daily life, emphasizing the power of language as an act of devotion and worship”.

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