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Ehyeh Asher-Ehyeh

Ehyeh Asher-Ehyeh

By: Alexander Klein*

In this week's portion we read (Ex. 3:13-16):

Moses said to G-d, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?"  And G-d said to Moses, "Ehyeh Asher-Ehyeh."**  He continued, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.'"  And G-d said further to Moses, "Thus shall you speak to the Israelites:  the Lord, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob, has sent me to you:

This shall be My name forever,

This My appellation for all eternity.

Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them:  the Lord, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has appeared to me and said, 'I have taken note of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt.'"

This passage raises several questions:

  1. According to the narrative preceding this passage, Moses received orders from the Lord to bring the Israelites tiding of the Lord delivering them from bondage to Egypt.  What led Moses to surmise that the Israelites might ask him for the name of the Lord?  This is a rather theological question, inappropriate to the spiritual level of the people at the time of their bondage in Egypt.  Indeed, further on in the narrative no reference is made to any such question.
  2. What is meant by the name Ehyeh Asher-Ehyeh?[1]
  3. The Lord ostensibly answers redundantly:  at first He says the name E A-E, and immediately thereafter emends it to Ehyeh alone, and finally uses the name:  "The Lord, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob."

We shall attempt to answer these questions with the aid of classical and modern exegesis.

As for the first question, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that "it was clear to Moses that his mission was two-fold.  One mission was to Pharaoh, to deliver the people, and the other – his primary and inestimably more difficult mission – was to the Israelites:  to prepare them … to become the Lord's people."  Immediately after the exodus, the Israelites were to receive the Torah.  That being the case, Moses was faced with a mission no less important than the people's physical redemption from bondage to Egypt:  preparing them to receive the Torah by teaching them the basic principles of Israelite theology.  These principles are learned by knowing the names of the Holy One, blessed be He, as expressing the way the Lord acts in the world, as we are told in homiletic literature (Exodus Rabbah 3):  "I am called according to My deeds."  Moreover, the names of the Holy One, blessed be He, also are indicative as it were of the essence of the Lord himself (as we shall see below).[2]

The meaning of the name E A-E is obscure.  Any attempt at a literal explanation of this expression runs up against serious difficulties.  Targum Jonathan, for example, does not translate the words, rather it interprets them, and the classic Aramaic translations do not successfully arrive at a translation that suits the plain sense of the text.[3]  Below we shall present the various interpretations given this mysterious name, dividing them into several categories as follows:


1)  Historical interpretation

According to the Sages (and following them, Rashi) the meaning of this name is that the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers the people of Israel from all their woes, both in the present and the future:  "The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses:  Go tell them, the Israelites:  I was with you during this bondage, and I shall be with you during the bondage to other kingdoms" (Berakhot 9b).  Thus this name can be explained as follows:  I, the Lord, shall deliver you from this bondage, and similarly I shall deliver you in the future from any adversity that befalls you.  It is as if the Lord were presenting Himself here as none other than the Redeemer of the people of Israel.

2)  Theological interpretation

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the name E A-E as follows:

All other creatures are none other than what they must be…but He can say…I shall be that which I wish to be.  Thus expression is given to G-d's personal, absolute and free essence…The future becomes an object totally dependent on the will of G-d, free of any other dependence.

In other words, this name expresses the absolute freedom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in running the world, in contrast to the pagan way of thinking in Egyptian culture.  This freedom of the Lord paves the way for free choice by human beings, which is another principle of Israelite theology.

According to Martin Buber, the Lord was clarifying to Moses two principles expressing the unsurpassable difference between Israelite faith and Egyptian paganism:  1. The Lord is always present, taking note of the people of Israel.  2.  Were it not so, human beings would have no way of influencing Him to make Him be present.  We quote Buber:

Behind it stands the implied reply to those influenced by the magical practices of Egypt, those infected by technical magic:  it is superfluous for you to wish to invoke me; in accordance with my character I again and again stand by those whom I befriend; and I would have you know indeed that I befriend you.

This is followed in the second part by:  "That I shall be present", or "As which I shall be present".  Yhvh indeed states that he will always be present, but…refuses to restrict himself to definite forms of manifestation; how could the people even venture to conjure and limit him!  If the first part of the statement states:  "I do not need to be conjured for I am always with you", the second adds:  "but it is impossible to conjure me".

… In the revelation at the Burning Bush religion is demagicized.[4]


3)  Philosophical Interpretation

Targum Jonathan explains that this statement expresses the everlastingness of the Holy One, blessed be He:  "I am He that I was and that I shall be."[5]  This is also the interpretation given by R. Saadiah Gaon and Moses Mendelsohn, based on the midrash (Exodus Rabbah 3):  "G-d said to Moses:  'Tell them that I am now what I always was and always will be'; for this reason is the word ehyeh written three times."  In Guide for the Perplexed (1.63), Maimonides explains the name as follows:

The first noun which is to be described is ehyeh:  the second, by which the first is described, is likewise ehyeh, the identical word, as if to show that the object which is to be described and the attribute by which it is described are in this case necessarily identical.  This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that G-d exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term:  or, in other words He is "the existing Being which is the existing Being," that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Maimonides seeks to elucidate here that G-d said to Moses:  I do not exist as something contingent, rather as necessary.  This is so since my Being is my Self and is not one among many of my attributes; therefore my Being and my Self are one and the same, as is expressed by E A-E.[6]

Maimonides elaborates on this idea at the beginning of his Mishneh Torah, as follows:

The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence.  All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being.

If one would imagine that He does not exist, no other being could possibly exist.

If one would imagine that none of the entities aside from Him exist, He alone would continue to exist, and the nullification of their [existence] would not nullify His existence, because all the [other] entities require Him and He, blessed be He, does not require them…Therefore, the truth of His [being] does not resemble the truth of any of their [beings].[7]

In other words, the existence of the Lord is a necessary condition for the existence of the entire world, but His existence is in no way conditional on the world's existence, thus His Being alone is verily True.

According to Herman Cohen, the name E A-E signifies that only G-d has Being, or more correctly put:  G-d is Being.  According to Cohen, the oneness that characterizes G-d does not mean simple numerical oneness, rather absolute Oneness.  Since G-d's quality of Being is different from all other being, it is the True Being in respect of which the quality of being of nature and of humankind is but an illusory shadow.  G-d is Being, whereas the world is "existence that is becoming."[8]  He is "constant and immutably Present,"[9] "where no other Being may lay claim to this combination of Being-Present with Itself."[10]  For "Reality is attested by the senses, by sensory perception.  Whereas intellect, as opposed to the sensory perceptions that give Reality its substance, reveals the non-sensory Being, raises the non-sensory to the level of Being, gives it prominence as Being."[11]

As for the third question, Rashi interprets the course of things thus (Ex. 3:14):  "E A-E – I shall be with them in this adversity as I shall be with them in their bondage to other kingdoms.  Whereupon Moses said: Lord of the Universe, why mention other adversities?  They have enough with the present adversity.  To which the Lord answered:  Well put.  Thus you shall say…"  According to Rashi, the first Ehyeh relates to the present act of redemption, taking them out of Egypt, whereas the second Ehyeh relates to delivering the people of Israel from all future adversities.  In order not to frighten the people as they were leaving Egypt, it was preferable in the eyes of the Lord and of Moses to conceal that which awaited them in the far distant future.  Further on the Lord instructs the people of Israel not to pronounce the name Ehyeh (closely allied with the name Y-H-W-H), rather to address Him solely as Lord.  Rashbam explains this matter in similar fashion, using the code AlefTav-BetShin:

This My appellation – the reference to G-d in the second verse uses the language of Kingship.  In this regard, the angels are mentioned, but not by name.  That which is written I shall, G-d willing, interpret through AlefTav BetShin TzadePeh"Tav DaledPehGimel"Tav ZainHehYod"Peh TavTzadehMem"Tzadeh PehTavTet"Peh DaledPehGimelMem"Yod TavPehAlef"Peh MemTzadehMem"Tzadeh MemTzadePeh"Tzadeh PehMem"Peh ShinYodDaledPeh"Yod MemPeh"Kof LamedYod"Peh Lamed"Mem Yod"Tzadeh TzadehPeh"Tzadeh KafTavKof"Yod. This plumbs the depths of the plain sense of these passages, but it is not to be revealed except to the humble.  (Here is the decoding:  He calls Himself Ehyeh and we call Him Y-H-W-H, writing vav instead of yod, as in the verse:  "For what does a man get [Heb. hoveh, instead of hayah] for all the toiling and worrying he does under the sun?" (Eccles. 2:22).)

According to Luzzato, the Lord did not intend to say that His name was E A-E, rather simply Ehyeh, as follows from the continuation of the verse.  That which we read at the beginning of the verse is by way of explanation:  "My name is Ehyeh because I shall be with you in order to deliver you."  But My true name is:  "the Lord, G-d of your fathers…," a name which expresses the constant presence of the Lord throughout the generations.

Were the Israelites indeed capable of recognizing the Lord?  Is it possible, according to the plain sense of the text, to instill in the name E A-E philosophical intent such as the difference between being "necessary" or "contingent", or between "Being" and "Reality"?  This is highly unlikely.  Nevertheless, the biblical narrative is not simply the chronicle of the Jewish people, rather primarily the word of the Lord as directed to the Jewish people in every generation, so that it can always be taken in the most current sense, as has been said in the midrash:  "With which I charge you this day – that they not be as an ancient diotagma (written edict of the king) that no one remembers, rather as a new diotagma that all rush to read" (Sifre Deuteronomy 6, par. 33).

Translated by Rachel Rowen



* Dr. Alexander Klein teaches in the Department of Mathematics.

** "I am that I am" or "I will be that which I will be."

[1] According to Tur and Beit Yosef (Yoreh De`ah 276), this is one of the names that may not be obliterated, therefore henceforth I shall use the abbreviation E A-E.

[2] Further on, the story focuses primarily on deliverance of the Israelites from bondage to Egypt and does deal with the second aspect of Moses' mission.  This, however, does not mean that the second aspect did not exist until the Theophany at Mount Sinai.  Cf. the explanation by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

[3] Regarding the German translation, Ich bin wer ich bin, Hermann Cohen notes:  "This translation is hardly understandable, and perhaps altogether unfounded."  Dat ha-Tevunah Mi-Mekorot ha-Yahadut, Hebrew translation by Tzvi Vislevsky, Jerusalem 1971, p. 78.

[4] Martin Buber, Moses, Harper & Brothers: New York 1958, p. 52-53.

[5] According to Keter Jonathan.

[6] Luzzato also explains the expression thus:  "The existing Being which is the existing Being, that is, whose existence is necessary."

[7] Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 1:1-4.

[8] Cf. S. H. Bergman, Herman Cohen in Shimon Federbusch (ed.), Hokhmat Yisrael be-Ma`arav Eiropa, Israel 1959, p. 286-287.

[9] Herman Cohen, ibid. (note 3), p. 78.

[10] Ibid., p. 79.

[11] Ibid., p. 80.  Also cf. par. 89 in Hegel's Encyclopedia.


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Last modified: 03/01/2017