As Tom McCullough and Beth Glazier-McDonald note in the accompanying article, the silver amulet they describe contains several theophoric elements representing the ineffable name of the Israelite God, usually written in scholarly literature as Yahweh and referred to as the Tetragrammaton, for the four Hebrew letters of which it is comprised, YHWH. These theophoric elements in the amulet are YAH, YH, YHW and, they add, perhaps YYY and YY (see translation in the last sidebar to this article). In this context, these theophoric elements are abbreviations of the divine name. If this name is too holy to be pronounced—as it was (and is); the high priest uttered it only once a year, in the Holy of Holies of the Temple on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement1—it was also too sacred to be written in full. Hence, the abbreviations.

Even in prayers and in scriptural recitations, the divine name remains unpronounced. Instead, the word Adonai (Lord) is substituted for the four consonants with which Yahweh is spelled. But among observant Jews, even Adonai is considered too sacred to be used outside of prayer. When not praying, observant Jews refer to ha-Shem, “the Name,” rather than Adonai.

Similarly, in Hebrew prayer books to this day, the divine name is frequently abbreviated simply by two Y’s (or yods, as this letter is called in Hebrew). In prayer, the two yods are automatically pronounced Adonai by worshipers.

The two yods on the silver amulet appear to be the earliest documented use of this abbreviation! In the Talmud, three different abbreviations of the divine name are used: The first letter (Y),2 the last letter (H) and the first and last letters together (YH)—all common ways of abbreviating words at the time.3 The latter abbreviation also appears in the silver amulet.

But the standard abbreviation used today in Hebrew prayerbooks and other ritual publications is two YY’s, which does not appear in the Talmud.

No one seems to have asked how this abbreviation came about (at least since 1931, and he was wrong).4

It now seems that it was first used in a magical context. From one to at least seven Y’s were used as abbreviations for the divine name in Aramaic magic incantation bowls from Mesopotamia. None of the hundreds of these magic incantation bowls was stratigraphically excavated, however, so their date is somewhat conjectural. They probably date a century or so later than our late-fourth/early-fifth century amulet. And none of these bowls comes from Palestine, the source of our amulet.5

So far, I have not found, even with the help of my expert sources, another double yod in the amulets that have come from Palestine. The amulet from Sepphoris seems to be the first.

Unless someone can provide us with information to the contrary, it appears that this silver amulet from Sepphoris contains the earliest attestation of the common abbreviation for the divine name used in Jewish texts to this day. Apparently, the source of this abbreviation was in magical formulas. But we have no idea how it came to be almost universally adopted in Jewish texts.6