One of the Ten Commandments is the commandment against taking God’s name lightly:
לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת־שֵׁם־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה ה’ אֵת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא – Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold guiltless the one that takes His name in vain. (20:7)
This law encourages people to treat God’s name with reverence and respect, affirming that abusing God’s name shows a lack of humility and gratitude and is a way of disdaining the Creator’s power and authority. Practically speaking, observant Jews today do not pronounce God’s name as written and are careful in treating any document containing God’s written name, using substitutes instead, like Creator, Hashem, Lord, or God.
But what does it mean to take God’s name in vain?
Some people believe it to mean cursing. Others think it means casually swearing, like “I swear to God” or “God damn it.” Refraining from coarse and foul language is a good idea and a worthy struggle, but that doesn’t capture the essence of this law.
To be sure, swearing, in the old-fashioned sense, is partly covered. In any matter of doubt, a person would hold a religious article and swear in God’s name; the willingness to take an oath in God’s name with the implied invitation of punishment if the oath-taker was lying is taken to support the truth of the statement being sworn to.
But this is not the commandment against false oaths – that would be covered by the Tenth Commandment.
To do something in vain is to do something without success or result; Rashi narrowly suggests that this law is about a pointless invocation of God’s name, like swearing that the sky is blue. Everyone knows that – that would be taking God’s name in vain.
The Ohr HaChaim suggests a broader and more profound meaning to this law. The verb of the mitzvah means to carry or to bear; the prohibition is on bearing God’s name lightly, carrying it with you in deception. It means falsely invoking God to advance your own self-interest, being false with God or others in God’s name, or, in other words, holding yourself out as more pious and righteous than you are.
On Rosh Hashana, we read the story of Chana. Chana was married to a righteous man named Elkanah, who had another wife, Penina. Penina had children, and Chana did not. When it was time to bring a sacrifice in the Sanctuary, the whole family went to Shilo and enjoyed the festivities. Penina teased Chana about where her children were, and Chana cried and refused to eat. When Elkanah saw her crying, he tried to comfort her, but Chana would not be comforted. She went to the courtyard, silently poured out her heart in prayer, and was soon blessed with a son, the legendary prophet Shmuel.
We read this story in part because it illustrates the power of prayer, but it also shows something else.
Penina’s behavior is striking in its shocking cruelty. Her only saving grace is that she had the best intentions, which is that she wanted to push Chana to the point that she’d pray and be answered. And the story bears this out – Penina is indeed the catalyst.
The Kotzker highlights how her behavior was so monstrously evil that it could only have been for the highest and most sacred purpose, or, in other words, bearing God’s name in vain.
R’ Jonathan Sacks notes how much religious extremism and violence are committed in the name of God. As the Dudaei Reuven notes, all the most terrible crimes against humanity are carried out under the cloak of truth, justice, and uprightness.
If only it were as easy as substituting an “Oh my goodness” for an “Oh my God.”
Whenever a calamity happens, the proper thing to do is introspect and repent. But there will always be a clown who says it’s because of this or that: talking in shul, hair coverings, knee coverings, the gays, or whatnot. Next time you notice, note how they deceptively invoke God’s name to establish an in-group and out-group dynamic, virtue signal, and manipulate people to advance their agenda and control others – all with the best intentions.
Don’t tell a grieving family it’s part of God’s plan. Do not say or do awful things to others and claim it’s God’s will or what God wants. That’s using God’s name in vain.
Taking God’s name seriously demands that we audit and introspect ourselves for self-righteousness and any sense of self-serving holier-than-thou superiority. It is complex and requires us to live intentionally with decency, humility, and honesty toward others and ourselves.