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When referring to God?

Does Hebrew have any word that exclusively means god or gods?

says that Elohim does not always mean God. It can be judges and angels.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_%28deity%29

says that El means God. I wonder if it always mean god because it seems to mean power too.

Actually what's the difference between El/Elim and Eloah/Elohim anyway? Why one is used more than the other.

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2 Answers 2

The Vilna Gaon on his commentary to the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrei (pg. 168 in Ishei Yisrael) says that the name א-ל refers to Hashem's existence as beyond and outside the world, a level to which we cannot relate:

אל נאמר על אין סוף שמתפשט בלא צמצום

אלו-הים, on the other hand, the Nefesh HaChaim (Shaar 3 Ch. 11) writes, refers to Hashem as the Power that controls and runs this world, which is the aspect of our relationship with Hashem:

זהו ענין ופי' של שם אלקים בעל הכחות כולם. אבל עכ"ז לפי פירושו וענינו של זה השם משמע שיש במציאות גם עולמו' וכחות מחודשים מרצונו הפשוט יתברך שצמצם כבודו והניח מקום כביכול למציאות כחות ועולמות.

It follows that the latter would be used more than the former, as the former refers to an aspect that has no relationship or involvement with this world and existence, whereas the latter is an aspect that is present and perceived in this world.

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On the differences between El, Elohim, (l'havdil) elil, and elilim, what helped me to understand it was Reuven Hammer's commentary on I Chronicles 16:25-26:

כִּי גָדוֹל יְהוָה וּמְהֻלָּל, מְאֹד
.וְנוֹרָא הוּא עַל-כָּל-אֱלֹהִים
כִּי כָּל-אֱלֹהֵי הָעַמִּים, אֱלִילִים
.וַיי שָׁמַיִם עָשָׂה

Ki gadol Hashem um'huleil m'od
v'noreh hu al-kol elohim
Ki kol elohai ha'amim elilim,
va'Hashem shamayim asah.

Great is Hashem and worth of praise,
to be revered beyond all gods.
For all the pagan gods are mere idols,
but Hashem created the heavens.

Rabbi Hammer writes:

  • עַל-כָּל-אֱלֹהִים (beyond all gods) - Those that are worshiped as gods but do not exist.

  • אֱלִילִים ,וַיי (idols, but Hashem) - Although similar to the word אֱלֹ (el), God, אֱלִילִ (elil) has the opposite meaning: something unreal that is worshiped as if it were a god. When reciting this line, one pauses after elilim ("idols") before saying va'Hashem ("but Hashem"), to make certain that Hashem is not being identified as one of the idols.

To try to answer the rest of your question, "El" appears relatively rarely in Tanach. You can find it with Abraham in the name El Shaddai, presumably because he did not know the name Hashem (you know which name I mean without me spelling it) as that was not revealed until the time of Moses.

It is far more common to find "Elohim" which can be used as one of God's proper names (very often) or as a concept of "gods" (as in the excerpt above). I suspect that because of these two usages of "Elohim" (even not counting its usage as judges and rulers) and because we also have the proper name Hashem, means the the Tanach only rarely uses the shorter name "El".

It also might be noteworthy that "El" was a name that was used by the Canaanites for the highest god in their pantheon. That would be a reason that the prophets prefer to stay away from that term. Similarly, while one could theoretically call God "Baal" (master), we do not because that is a polytheistic Canaanite usage that the prophets worked hard for hundreds of years to get us away from.

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As I think about this more, I am somewhat dissatisfied with my answer because I really should have tied "Elim" into this also. In some phrases they seem interchangeable (b'nai elim (Psalm 29) vs. b'nai elohim Job 38:7). Is there a distinction here in connotation, or as I suspect, does gods/powers/beings/judges apply to both equally. Likewise, if Mi Chamocha had elohim instead of elim, wouldn't the meaning be the same? I know every letter is supposed to matter but ... –  Mike Mar 5 at 9:35
    
Shoot, times up for editing the comment. There is a distinction in connotation that YEZ explained. So roughly for translation gods/powers/beings/judges apply to both, but if Mi Chamocha had elohim instead of elim, the meaning would be more like "Who is like Hashem with powers in this world" as opposed to "Who is like Hashem among any powers in the universe." –  Mike Mar 5 at 9:53

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