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D'var Torah: Vayechi

The sidra opens with a statement of Jacob’s age, and moves quickly to Jacob’s final days. He tells Joseph,

El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me... and said to me, “I will make you fruitful and numerous, making of you a community of peoples.” (Gen. 48:3–4)

This is only the fifth time (of nine) in the Torah that God is called “El Shaddai” (or Shaddai) The first is when God appears to 99-year-old Abram and tells him,

I am El Shaddai; walk before Me, and be blameless, and I will grant My covenant between Me and you and will multiply you very greatly. (17:1–2)

Then when Isaac sends Jacob to Paddan-aram, he tells Jacob,

And may El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and multiply. (28:3)

Upon Jacob’s sons’ destruction of Shechem, Jacob moved his family to Luz (Gen. 35:6). He renamed it Beth-El, and God appeared to him, reaffirmed that his name was now to be Israel, and told him,

I am El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation, an assembly of nations shall stem from you, and kings shall come forth from your loins. (35:11)

Note the usage attached here to the divine name El Shaddai. In each case, this name is linked with the concept of “being fruitful.” (The Hebrew uses different wording in these places but the concept is identical in all cases.) How does the name “El Shaddai” equate to God? Looking to the following chapter, in Jacob’s blessings, we find the name yet again, and here we finally have a hint of its meaning. In Jacob’s blessing of Joseph, Jacob says,

But taut was his bow, his arms ever-moving [or supple], through the hands of the Champion of Jacob [‘abbir ya’kob], through the name of the Shepherd, and Israel’s rock. From the God of your fathers, may He aid you. Shaddai, may he bless you—blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of breasts and womb. (49:24–25)

Note that the translation of Jacob’s blessings is at best difficult, since the words used and the imagery employed are obscure and point to a very early composition; this is some of the oldest text in the Tanakh. For example, the phrase “‘abbir ya’kob” can also be translated as the “Bull of Jacob,” which is an epithet commonly ascribed to El in the Ugaritic tablets (from the thirteenth to twelfth centuries BCE) in a context that also mentions El Shaddai. Another measure of the antiquity and non-Hebrew nature of the name is two occurrences of Shaddai in Numbers, where it’s used by Balaam in his final statement to Balak, and its many uses in Job, another cross-cultural text.

The next time we encounter “El Shaddai” is when God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush.

I am YHVH; and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by My name YHVH I did not reveal myself to them. (Ex. 6:2–3)

This brief comment has engendered an enormous amount of commentary since a plain reading of Genesis shows that God is widely referred to as YHVH. Let’s consider Rashi’s comments on Ex. 6:2–3 where he takes up the problem of how God is named:

I am the Lord: Who am faithful to recompense... And I appeared: to the patriarchs, by the name of El Shaddai: I made certain promises to them and in all of these I said to them, “I am El Shaddai.” But by my name YHVH was I not known to them. It is not written here that I did not make known to them, but that I was not known to them, in the sense that I was not recognized by them in terms of My attribute of keeping My word, by reason of which My name is called YHVH, indicating that I am certain to substantiate My promises, for I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime].

In this explanation, Rashi tells us that the change in God’s name from El Shaddai to YHVH indicates a change in behavior, that is, from a God who makes promises to a God who fulfills them, and not as the introduction of a new name for God.

Benno Jacob1 elaborates on Rashi’s idea, pointing out that when Jacob made his statement to Joseph in Gen. 48:3, Jacob was referring to the nature of God’s revelation to him when he departed BeerSheva for Haran, despite the fact that the text never used the name El Shaddai during that revelation. Instead the text states “And YHVH was standing beside him and He said, ‘I am YHVH’” (Gen. 28:13). Benno Jacob explains that the patriarchs knew the name YHVH as God who “says and promises,” but they had not yet experienced its realization as God who “does and fulfills.”2 The patriarchs clearly knew El Shaddai as God who promises many offspring and much land, while many other later verses outside Genesis that use the Tetragrammaton for God’s name combine the ideas of statement/promise and action/fulfillment, such as Num. 14:35:

“I the Lord have spoken: Thus will I do.”

The verses of Jacob’s blessing mentioned above (Gen. 49:24–25) can give us some ideas about the possible origin of “El Shaddai.” “El” was a common word used throughout the ancient middle east; its meaning is, simply, “god,” and also was the name of the Canaanite chief god. It is the root of “Elohim” meaning “gods” and other “el” constructions (El Elyon, El Olam, El Echad, etc.) and Elohim became used as another form of God’s name, mainly in northern texts which were under greater Canaanite influence than were southern texts. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica,

The word Shaddai (sh.d.y)... is commonly rendered “the Almighty.” The Hebrew root “shadad,” from which it has been supposed to be derived, means, however, “to overpower,” “to treat with violence,” “to lay waste.” This would give Shaddai the meaning “devastator,” or “destroyer,” which can hardly be right. It is possible, however, that the original significance was that of “overmastering” or “overpowering strength,” and that this meaning persists in the divine name. Another interesting suggestion is that it may be connected with the Assyrian “shadu” (mountain), an epithet sometimes attached to the names of Assyrian deities. It is conjectured also that the pointing of sh.d.y may be due to an improbable rabbinical explanation of the word as sh.y.d.y (“He who is sufficient”), and that the word originally may have been without the doubling of the middle letter. According to Ex. 6:2–3, this is the name by which God was known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Exploring some of these possible origins, the Assyrian “shadu” looks promising. This has led some to think that “El Shaddai” refers to a “god of the mountain.” However, the Hebrew word for the female breast is “shad.” In addition, the word “dai” implies “sufficiency.” Gods were intimately associated with, among many other things, fertility, and images of fertility gods illustrate ample breasts. Comparing the image of mountains to female breasts is not such a great stretch. Considering the imagery of Jacob’s blessing, “blessings of breasts and womb,” in terms of fertility, progeny, and nurturing offspring, a strong argument might be made that “El Shaddai” might be translated not as “God Almighty” as is the custom, but as “God the All-Bountiful.” Seems that’s what the Patriarchs thought, too.

Shabbat shalom.

January 2015


1. Benno Jacob, rabbi, educator. Breslau, Germany, 1862 – London, England, 1945
2. Discussed in Benno Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Hoboken: KTAV, 1992, pp. 144ff.

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