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Reflections on Reverence

I love when my kids get to the age that they’re old enough to start learning some basic prayers and to recite the blessings before eating. It’s an awesome privilege. But it’s a challenge. After all, you’re teaching a child the joy of communicating directly with G-d on a personal level—You’re telling him that he can talk to G-d and G-d will listen.

Your child looks you right in the eye; he seems to be absorbing what you’re saying and you see his mind clicking… thinking, “Ah, so I can ask G-d for another pack of basketball cards, and that watermelon bubble gum.” You realize then that you must be careful to also instill in your child the reverence that he must show and feel because, after all — he is talking to G-d! 

A great amount of repetition is necessary to teach my little people to learn to recite the holy words, and I melt as they echo me charmingly in their halting, lisping little voices. They are so eager to welcome G-d into their lives and I envy them their attitude of ready intimacy with their Maker. It’s a constant search for balance between the familiar and the holy. I never would want them to mistake respect for aloofness.

G-d is never remote. He doesn’t demand the reverence—we need to show it. In the Books of the Torah and in the Jewish Book of Prayer, G-d’s true name is written out in Hebrew. But when we mention G-d’s name in a conversation, or refer to a verse in the Bible which has G-d’s name, we say the word aloud as the word “Hashem”, which literally means “The Name”. The reverence that we are taught to feel for G-d—and even for the uttering of His holy name — lends a welcome distance of sorts, which encourages the feeling that He is above us, omniscient and sublime.

When writing G-d’s name in Hebrew we use the letter “Heh”, an abbreviation for the word Hashem. This led to a custom that some Jews practice, whereby the veneration even extends itself to writing G-d’s name in English. In deference to this reverence the middle letter “o” is omitted and replaced with a dash. This exacting attention to detail is a wonderfully effective way of preempting any air of disrespect while using G-d’s name. We only allow ourselves to say G-d’s name in full if the situation promises to be a suitable one: In an environment of prayer, when we are directly addressing G-d… In a context of Bible study when we know we won’t be interrupted…During the reading of the Torah Portion of the Week in synagogue when there is both silence and the proper atmosphere of regard.

Educating children also gives us the license to use G-d’s real name so they can learn correctly. As my kids would get more comfortable with the prayers and blessings I would prompt them gently and leave a space for them to say G-d’s name on their own. Interestingly, the children sensed this care to not use His name in vain and would work on themselves to say His name with extra sweet solemnity. Our Torah Scrolls and our Holy Books are treated with the same reverence as G-d’s name.

When the Holy Ark is opened, the congregation stands and remains standing until the Torah is placed on the platform for the Torah reading. We are careful to place our Bibles and Prayer Books on tables or bookshelves, and never on the floor or anywhere they may get dirty or frayed. Great care is taken to not denigrate the spirituality of these volumes that contain G-d’s holy name and His divine words. May His name be blessed.

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities

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