Shem

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009
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Shem, name, is a central idea in Judaism and crops up widely in common Jewish expressions. A shem tov, a good name, is the highest of spiritual crowns or attainments according to Ethics of the Fathers, 4:17.Ecclesiastes puns that a shem tov is better than good oil (shemen tov).

The founder of Chasidism, Israel Ben Eliezer (1698-1760) was know as the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name. This appellation was also used of mystical rabbis before him and refers to mastery of the powers inherent in Gods Ineffable Name.

In religious circles, God is often called Hashem, meaning The Name. Since God is unknowable, we cannot say anything specific to refer to Him. (Even calling Him Him is taking a liberty.)

We cannot pronounce the names of God because of their great holiness, hence we simply say The Name. Baruch Hashem, meaning Blessed be the Name, is an answer to the question How are you? It gives no specific information about ones situation, but conveys religious gratitude for whatever the situation is.

Lishma, meaning for the sake of the Name, is another important variant. To do something lishma means for the right reason, that is out of a sincere desire to do the right thing, rather than with an eye on wealth, honour or prestige.

Good actions, even though performed not lishma, are still better than nothing; the Talmud says, A person should anyway learn Torah and do mitzvot not lishma, for out of not lishma, lishma will come(Pesachim 50 b).

    Last updated: 12:31pm, March 6 2009