The Meaning of God's New Name: From Kel Shakkai to YHVH | Aleph Beta

God's New Name

The Meaning Of Kel Shakkai

Beth Lesch


If God is “one” – and that seems to be a pretty fundamental precept of Judaism – then why does God have so many different names? The standard answer is: because God has different "aspects" of His being, and each name emphasizes a different aspect.

Our Sages tell us (in Bereishit Rabbah 33:3) that YHVH ("Hashem") describes God's attribute of mercy, whereas Elokim describes God's attribute of strict justice. Those are the two most common names of God that we encounter in the Torah.

But there are some other, less common names whose meaning seems more evasive. Like Kel Shakkai (literally translated as "El Shaddai," but the convention is to say and write "Kel Shakkai," out of respect for the holiness of God's name).

The name Kel Shakkai only comes up a scant handful of times in the entire Torah. It is most mysterious indeed. And perhaps most mysterious of all, God opens up Parshat Va'era with the following comment to Moses: "I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Kel Shakkai, but with my name YHVH, I wasn't made known to them" (Exodus 6:2-3).

What is the meaning of this? What is the "essence" of the name Kel Shakkai? Why did God reveal that name to our forefathers? Why did He conceal from them the name YHVH?

Watch Rabbi Fohrman's analysis of God's name Shakkai: ''Finding God In Science.''

Read Beth Lesch's blog for a deeper discussion of the meaning of "God is my Shepherd."

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Hi, I’m Beth Lesch. This is Parshat Va’era. You are watching Aleph Beta.

If God is “one” – and that seems to be a pretty fundamental precept of Judaism – then why does God have so many different names?

Why Does God Have So Many Different Names?

Look at the start of Parshat Va’era: the Israelites are in slavery in Egypt, and God comes to Moshe and says:

אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

“I am YHVH. [God’s name here is spelled YHVH, but we don’t know how to pronounce it, so I’m just going to say, YHVH. Anyway, I am YHVH.] And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as ‘El Shaddai,’ but with my name ‘YHVH’ I wasn’t made known to them. (Exodus 6:2–3)

What is this supposed to mean? The God who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the same as the God who redeemed the Israelites from slavery. And that’s the very same God that I was praying to, just this morning.

So why is God making such a big deal about, “this one knew YHVH,” “this one knew Kel Shakkai”...? One God, right?

Now, you might be thinking: maybe the forefathers literally didn’t know that YHVH was one of God’s names. Maybe God only ever introduced Himself to them as Kel Shakkai. It’s all just semantics.

Except there’s a problem with that reading. We have the forefathers on record saying the name YHVH. For example:

Avraham says:

I have lifted up my hand to YHVH (Gen. 14:22)

Yitzchak says:

And I will bless you before YHVH (Gen. 27:7)

Yaakov says:

YHVH made it happen quickly for me (Gen. 27:20)

God's Different Names and Their Meanings in the Bible

They knew the name. Evidently, when God says that the forefathers didn’t know YHVH, He was speaking figuratively. He was saying: “There are different aspects of My being.

The Kel Shakkai aspect of My being, the forefathers knew it well. But the YHVH aspect of My being? Yeah, they knew the name, but they never really experienced it.” One God; many aspects.

Which leads us to the obvious question: What are these different aspects of God’s being? What is the YHVH aspect of God? What is the Kel Shakkai aspect of God?

Rabbi Fohrman has his own really thought-provoking take on the meaning of Kel Shakkai; the link is in the description below (Finding God In Science). But I think I found something that sheds new light on this old question – and the way that I got there is by reading the name Kel Shakkai, in context.

The Meaning of Kel Shakkai (El Shaddai)

You see, here in Va’era, God says that He “appeared” to the forefathers as Kel Shakkai. That’s not just a poetic turn of phrase. It actually happened.

God is assuming that we know our Bible; He’s referring us back to a specific verse from the Book of Genesis:

וַיֵּרָ֨א יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ אֲנִי־אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י

And YHVH appeared to Abram, and He said: “I am Kel Shakkai.” (Gen. 17:1)

Indeed, that’s the first time that the name Kel Shakkai ever appears in the entire Torah. I want to continue to look at that verse with you because when we do, I think that we’ll find something surprising: that God is telling us, flat out, how we’re supposed to relate to Kel Shakkai.

How to Relate to Kel Shakkai

So what did God say to Abraham there? How did God instruct him to relate to Kel Shakkai?

אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים

I am Kel Shakkai, God says. Walk before Me and be perfect. (Genesis 17:1)

So how are you supposed to relate to Kel Shakkai? You walk before Him. But what does it mean to walk before God?

Interestingly, the Torah has described people as walking with God before – both Chanoch and Noach, in the Book of Genesis, were mithalech et HaElokim, they walked with God – but until Abraham, no one has yet walked in front of God.

So what’s the difference between walking with God and walking before God? And what does it have to do with this particular divine name, Kel Shakkai?

Now, I can certainly sit here and speculate about what it might mean to walk before God. But I think we can do better than speculation. You see, there’s a curious moment, at the end of the Book of Genesis, in which Jacob seems to tell us, plainly, what it means to walk before God.

A Clue to What Kel Shakkai Means in the Bible

Listen to what Jacob says when he’s lying on his deathbed, just before he blesses Ephraim and Menashe:

הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק הָאֱלֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי מֵעוֹדִי עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה…

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked (there’s that ‘Walking before God’ bit again), the God who has been my shepherd for my whole life until today (Gen. 48:15)

Did you notice that Jacob just described God in two different ways? I want to suggest that Jacob is actually setting up a sort of equation for us:

The God before whom my forefathers walked…

Who’s that?

The God who has been my shepherd.

According to the Midrash, this, indeed, is how the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yochanan, seems to have read the verse: that to “walk before God,” means to play the sheep to God’s shepherd.

Now, to say that “God is your shepherd and you are His sheep” sounds like a very religious thing to say, but… can we nail it down any more specifically than that? What is it like to be a sheep shepherded by God?

Kel Shakkai, Our Shepherd

And here’s where it gets really cool.

I got in touch with a friend of mine who is an animal scientist. She gave me a primer on sheep behavior, and I walked away with a really startling theory about what this metaphor, this central religious metaphor – God is my shepherd – about what it might mean.

First of all, Jacob – and Rabbi Yochanan, for that matter – were spot on about the analogy. Sheep really do “walk in front of” their shepherd. If the shepherd tried to stand in front of his sheep and say: “Sheep! Go!” – the sheep would just look at him, amused. Sheep only follow other sheep.

So that puts the shepherd in a bit of a pickle. You see, a shepherd doesn’t want to let the sheep decide where to go. Sure, their instincts are usually good, but not always. Sheep could get themselves into all kinds of danger.

The shepherd’s gotta guide them. So he does it from behind. When a shepherd stands just behind the flock, do you know what happens? The sheep at the very back of the flock is able to perceive the shepherd, just barely, through his peripheral vision, and the sheep’s instincts tell him: “It’s time to move.”

So he moves, and he gently bumps into the sheep in front of him, who gently bumps into the sheep in front of him... and before you know it, the whole flock has changed course. The shepherd is leading, but from behind.

How cool is that? The sheep, it seems, don’t even realize that they’re being guided by the shepherd. From their perspective, they just feel the pressure of the sheep behind them.But the shepherd is there the whole time. He’s watching them. He’s guiding them. He’s protecting them – from predators, from poisonous plants – and if he’s good at his job, they’ll never even know that he was protecting them.

So if we’re right about this sheep metaphor, that the shepherd leads, subtly, from behind… And if we’re right about that Jacob verse – that “walking before God” means that God is your shepherd – then maybe we’re in a position to understand what, exactly, the Almighty meant when He told Avraham: “Walk before Me.” Maybe He was saying something like this:

Avraham, I’ve made all of these grand promises to you: about your birthing a nation, about inheriting a homeland. But here’s the thing: these are long-term promises. You might not realize this yet but… you’re not going to see them fulfilled in your lifetime.

And because you don’t see those promises coming true, Avraham, you may feel as if I’m not there with you. That I’m absent from your life.

Avraham, that’s because I’m behind you, just like a shepherd is behind his sheep. Of course you can’t see Me. You’re not seeing Me saving you, miraculously, from harm. You’re not seeing that I’m guiding your life. You feel like you’re at the mercy of all of these mundane influences: now there’s a famine and you’re off to Egypt, now you’re getting sucked into this war so you can save your nephew Lot – you feel like your whole life, you’re just being pushed around by the “sheep” behind you.

But you’re not. I am standing behind you, making sure that you get to where you need to go. I am your shepherd. And I need you to keep on walking, fearlessly, before Me.

Maybe “Kel Shakkai" is a shepherd – and He asks us to be His sheep.

The Meaning of God's Names: From Kel Shakkai to YHVH

Now, we’re not done yet. Because if what I’ve said is true – if that is at least one small piece of what God means when He uses the name “Kel Shakkai” – then, by contrast, what might the name “YHVH” mean?

Now we can come back to God’s opening statement in Va’era. It’s hundreds of years after the era of Avraham, the children of Israel are in slavery in Egypt, and God says to Moshe: Avraham only knew Me as Kel Shakkai. But now you are going to know me as something else: as YHVH. So what is this new aspect of God that the Almighty wishes to reveal now, to Moshe?

I’ll give you my take, but before I do, if you have a theory, hit pause and leave a comment below. Bonus points if you’ve ever actually shepherded sheep.

Now here’s my take – sort of a hunch, really – and I offer it with all due humility: if “Kel Shakkai” is the God that you walk before, the God who you can’t see, then… maybe YHVH is the God who you can see, so to speak.

Because: could you imagine a God more “visible,” as it were, than the God who bursts onto the scene in Parshat Va’era? A God who, after 400 years of radio silence, makes His presence known to His people, to Pharaoh, and to the entire world in rather unsubtle, unmistakable ways? A God who miraculously redeems Israel from slavery with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with 10 Plagues and a Split Sea to boot?

It’s a pretty far cry from God as shepherd. That God doesn’t guide from behind, asking you to “walk before” Him. He is right there, with you. You can see Him.

Avraham never knew a God like that. It’s true, Avraham saw miracles – like the birth of his baby boy when he was 100 years old – but that was nothing like the grandeur, the utter undeniability of the God of the Exodus. Abraham only knew Kel Shakkai, the God who goes behind.

It was the Israelites, beginning in Parshat Va’era, who came to know “YHVH” – the God of signs and wonders. And if you take a look at how Rashi understands these names – Ibn Ezra, Ramban – each offers his own distinctive reading, but they all contain shades of this dichotomy.

Relating to God's Names Today

So where does our generation fit into this whole scheme? Which aspect of God is manifest in our world? Do we live with the God of the Exodus, the God that you can’t deny? Or do we live with the God of the forefathers? The God who can’t be seen, who guides us from just beyond of the scope of our vision?

I think it’s a little of both. Just think about God’s promises. God promised Abraham that he would father a nation. Abraham never lived to see it – but we have.

Today, the Jewish people are a nation. The promise came true. We can see it, near as overtly as the generation of the Exodus saw God part the waters of the Sea of Reeds.

But what about some of the other promises that God made to us? That Avraham’s offspring would be too many to count? And more far-flung than that: that nations won’t lift up their swords anymore? We’re still waiting on those.

We’re holding onto those promises, realizing that we may never see them fulfilled in our lifetime – that we, like Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, will just have to keep walking, trusting that God is a step behind us.

I think we’re seeing these two valid parts to the faith equation, these two modes by which we are asked to relate to God – and a mature faith in God, it would seem, has to draw from both.

There are times when we get to walk with God: when we feel that we can experience God’s presence so clearly and closely, that we can see God’s hand in our lives, when we can bask in that intimacy and that clarity.

But there are also times when God says: I’m going to hang back. I need you to go on ahead. Do you think you could do that? When God asks that of us, it can feel lonely.

But God isn’t abandoning us. He’s playing the shepherd, inhabiting the relationship that He first enjoyed with His beloved Abraham. He’s guiding us from behind.

I promised you links – and here they are. Are you interested to learn more about the meaning of God’s names? The Sages of the Talmud tell us what they think “Kel Shakkai” means, and Rabbi Fohrman explores it in a fascinating video, “Finding God In Science.” Click the link in the description below.

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