El Shaddai - God and Mountains




     This might come as a surprise to anyone I’ve spoken with about my enjoyment of bungee jumping, but… I am actually afraid of heights. I haven’t let that fear stop me from bungee jumping, or hiking up what Israel calls mountains, or walking on ramparts - but there is always a moment, just as I’m about to begin, that I think to myself: why and how have I done this again? That thought arrives just as I become overwhelmed with an emotion I can only call unpleasantly religious. I do not mean that I feel unsafe and start asking God to save me. I think, at that point, God might be inclined to point out that I did this to myself. I’m referring to an emotion that perhaps you’ll recognise, too: an acute awareness of the grandeur of all things, filtered through a sense of dread and awe, all while being far too present in the moment. Unpleasantly religious. 

        That is the feeling I associate with moments in the Torah and in our theological metaphors that involve heights, especially mountains. To have the Israelites at the foot of a trembling mountain, looking up and up and up at the wonderful and terrible heights of it. That sense, the sense that the greatness of God is so far beyond our comprehension, is what Jewish tradition calls yirat Hashem, fear of God. It is not the kind of simple fear we might have of things like falling, or even what we touch on in the Rebuke, a fear of punishment - but rather a sense of uneasy awe when we contemplate the universe which we inhabit. 

This is how we usually understand one of our most famous names for God: El Shaddai, commonly translated as God Almighty or Almighty God. We arrive at this translation through mountainous terrain. “Shaddai” is a word shrouded in uncertainty, but one popular etymology is through the Akkadian šadû, or “mountain”, leading us to “God of Mountains”. And what does it mean to be a God of Mountains? Well, that is a God that inspires that uneasy awe. Almighty God. A term that looks so simple in the English and is so mysterious in the Hebrew. 

But despite the mystery of how we are supposed to understand this word, Shaddai, it is a word we have a particularly physical connection with. If you have laid tefillin before, you have wrapped yourself up in the word SHADDAI. When we strap those boxes containing Torah sections to ourselves, we use the physical boxes and straps to spell out this strange name of God. The head tefillin has a shin etched onto it. We create a dalet with the straps at the base of our neck. Then at the forearm, the edge of a strap becomes a yud. And again, we wind the tefillin straps on our hands to fashion Shaddai. Likewise, on the mezuzot on our doorposts, containing parchments of Torah text, we traditionally write Shaddai on the klaf, on the parchment, and often put at least a shin on the case. 

And if that is not weird enough, there is a teaching in our tradition that the human body itself spells the name Shaddai. The midrash in Tanchumah (Tzav 14) says that the letter shin can be found in the nose; the letter dalet can be found on the hand; and the letter yud… well, I’ll need to redact that one since there are children present. But let’s just say the rabbis were picturing the male body. 

        I find it endlessly fascinating that we have such a physical relationship with this name, this name which somehow just cannot be captured properly in translation, this name which has been lost somewhere in the thousands of years of our history. 

        But thus far, I have only given you one option for understanding it: El Shaddai meaning God Almighty, arrived at through a sense of mountainous wonder. 

        What I would like to do, in these next few minutes together, is excavate the name Shaddai.

        The next piece of evidence to consider about El Shaddai is that it first appears in fertility blessings. The name El Shaddai is almost exclusive to the Book of Genesis. Our first encounter with the name is when the Divine blesses Abraham’s fertility, and the trend continues; God is El Shaddai when referring to blessings of childbearing. In Genesis 49:25, it even potentially shows its hand as to why. In a verse which has already called God Shaddai, the text finishes: בִּרְכֹ֥ת שָׁדַ֖יִם וָרָֽחַם. Birkhot, blessings, of shaddayim and racham - breasts and womb. It is, after all, a fertility blessing. El Shaddai, then, may have originated from God of Fertility, linked linguistically to the act of nurturing infants. It’s not unthinkable for such a hidden etymology to exist; El Rachamim is another common way to refer to the Divine, usually translated to Merciful God, using the other noun from that blessing: racham, or rechem, womb. El Rachamim, then, is the God of Wombs - and therefore, the God who acts as Mother, with tenderness for Her young. 

        So through this one term for God, El Shaddai, we are able to view the Divine as the mighty, awe-inspiring God to be feared - or as the Mother who nurtures us as Her offspring. They are very stark theological metaphors when places alongside one another.

        This third option is not historical etymology, but rather rabbinic wordplay. When the rabbis of the Talmud were discussing how the Creation of the Universe actually came to be - in a text similar to the one Sadie interpreted for us earlier about the miracles of the end of the Week of Creation - Reish Lakish pulls apart the word Shaddai. She- as a prefix could be “that” or “who”, leaving us with dai - a word we might recognise from the Passover Seder. Dai means “enough”. Reish Lakish says (Chagigah 12a): when God told Avraham, I am El Shaddai, what God meant was: אֲנִי הוּא שֶׁאָמַרְתִּי לָעוֹלָם דַּי - I am the one who said to the world: enough. God is Creator, but according to Reish Lakish, God is the One who sets order in the universe. Who stops the seas at their boundaries and keeps matter from crashing in all together. God is the force constantly working against the chaos. 

        It is a fascinating re-etymologising of the word. But what I find so enjoyable about it is that it could be a reversal of what we say at Passover when we sing “dayyeinu”. Dayyeinu, we say - it would have been enough for us. Whatever crumb of freedom the Holy One was willing to give us would have been enough for us, and yet God kept giving and giving. El Shaddai as the God Who Said “Enough”, then, becomes a kind of answer; that we are being told: this is enough. Perhaps as a response to anxiety, God says: relax, I’m here; this is enough and I’m not going anywhere. Or even as a direct response to the freedom we celebrate in the song dayyeinu: yes, this, what I (God) have given you is enough - the rest is up to you. 

        We could continue in any of those ways of understanding Shaddai, or reach further out for yet more explanations. It turns out, there’s more depth to each word of our tradition than any of us could recognise from a view of the surface. But what I want to impress here, what I am endlessly intrigued by, is that the models for our relationship are so much more rich and varied than we might be led to imagine. However it is we need to meet these questions… Whether what we need to hear is about the dread and awe of the power beyond our comprehension, or nurturing maternal love, or the direct response in the words yes, that’s enough - it is not only true that it already exists somewhere in our scriptures and history, waiting to be stumbled upon… but all those things might even be found in the same word. 


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