The other night I watched “A Serious Man” (2009) by the Coen brothers.  I did not really like the film but it did offer an informative cynical peek into American Judaism through Jewish eyes.   I just want to share a Hebrew word I heard repeatedly during the movie but had never heard before.  This illustrates my ignorance of Judaism.  I had to pause the movie to look it up.  Had you heard of it?

ha-Shem (קידוש)

In Hebrew “ha-Shem” means “The Name” and is what a Jew uses to refer to God.  The Torah strictly forbids Jews to use the four-letter name of God – YHWH (יהוה). “ha-Shem” is used in casual conversation about God whereas in rituals (prayers, readings, blessings), other names for God are used like Adonai, El, Elohim etc…  But in the movie, the word ha-Shem was used constantly by characters puzzled over what God was trying to teach them through the bizarre events in their lives.  “ha-Shem” was their intimate word for God.

SourceJewish Encyclopedia

See other “Word!” posts, here.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “ha-Shem

  1. “A Serious Man” is one of my all time favorite films. If you rented the DVD you should have checked out the special features. The Coen brothers go through the film picking out all the Jewish words giving their definition. What did you think about the introduction scene with the dybbuk?

  2. CRL

    I was ignorant of the phrase as well; ironic, as most people at school think I am Jewish.

  3. @ Eruesso
    Unfortunately I missed the specials.
    I loved the scene with the dybbuk — maybe that set up my disappointment. I had hoped the rest of the film would explore that. But it is left very puzzling in its connection. Is he dead or not. Is Schrodinger’s cat dead or not. That is as far as I got.

    Also, I work in medicine and deal with a great deal of neurotic lives — I don’t enjoy seeing unredeemed neurotic lives on TV.

    Glad you liked it. But I did learn form the Jewishness of it all.

    Are you Italian, or Greek — why are you mistaken for Jewish?

  4. CRL

    Why am I mistaken for Jewish? Because nearly all white people at my school are. Even the blond ones, like me.

  5. The movie and the writer/directors are from my Neighborhood in Minneapolis so I’m excited to see it nonetheless.

  6. Yeah, I’ve heard of the word. There’s also the G-d and L-rd thing, which extends the prohibition into English, which I think is silly.

    But yeah, some people will always replace words like that. For instance, most blessings would start (with the proper substitutions) “Barukh atah HaShem, elokeinu melekh ha-olam…” (the second is elokeinu, which should have an h, not a k).

  7. Laura Cooper

    Wow—I thought it was common knowledge; I don’t know why it should be, though.

    Thryn, what are you talking about? “Ha-Shem” isn’t used in blessings; it’s generally “Adonai”, which is the substitution for YHVH. I don’t think the substitution is silly at all; it’s a sign of respect, in the case that you accidentally throw the paper away that you wrote it on (I guess that’s the kind of thing that sounds totally stupid to most people, but those are the same kind of people who make up a “Draw Muhammed Day”…so mean).

  8. Ian

    I’m really glad it wasn’t just me. I *love* the Coen brothers’ movies, but I was left a bit cold by this. Sure their intricate dialog is still very much evident, but I failed to really feel for the characters. Maybe it is a cultural thing. Maybe it was watching it on a 4 inch screen 8 miles in the air…

    I first came across Hashem in a contemporary Jewish commentary series a few years ago. Although Hashemaim (heavens) is one of the first words you learn in Hebrew.

  9. Ian

    [sorry the end of that didn’t make sense] – I meant Hashemaim is a common Hebrew word for heavens, so I assumed that Hashem was ‘heaven’ singular – missing the congate word that it is actually derived from. [did I mention my Hebrew is rusty?] Still it makes perfect sense if they are saying ‘heaven’ each time too.

  10. Ian

    [and to really round of my idiocy today I remembered that heavens is hashAmaim, not hashEmaim. So I really have no excuse, other than it being 20 years since my last Hebrew class].

  11. Steve Wiggins

    As an occupational hazard I’d known about this circumlocution. The word “shem” gives pretty heavy symbolic use in Judaism — it can mean “memorial” as well, as in the expression “yad wa-shem,” literally “hand and name” (from Isaiah 65.5).

  12. loved this movie! it makes sense to me, as Job is my fav. book and this was a riff on that. ha-Shem is also my fav. name for God, aside from the multiple meanings for those infamous four letters.

  13. @ Steve and Ian
    Thanks for more on the Hebrew !

  14. Ian

    (Don’t thank me, I got it all wrong😉

  15. societyvs

    I knew about the term – but I read a lot of Jewish books and articles.

    I still want to see this movie, huge Coen’s brothers fan.

  16. Such Is Life

    I used to call on Hashem.

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