I’m confused about the name of G-d “Elokim”. For starters, I’m not sure what it means. Also, why do religious Jewish people pronounce it the way I wrote it and not the way it’s written in Hebrew with an “h”? Is it a holy name? And if so, why do I seem to remember it being used in other, non-holy contexts (if that’s right)?
This name of G-d is based on the Hebrew word “el” which means simply “power” or “strength”. An example of this usage is in the description of Lavan’s pursuing and confronting Jacob during his return to the Land of Israel. Lavan says, “Yesh b’el yadi - It is in my power to do you harm, but the G-d of your father addressed me last night [in a dream] saying, ‘Beware of speaking with Jacob either bad or good’” (Gen 31:29). Rashi and Onkelus both explain “el” to mean power or strength.
The name “Elokim”, then, in reference to G-d, connotes His complete mastership and control over everything. It is the name of G-d which most closely corresponds with what might be referred to in English as “The Omnipotent”. Therefore, this is the name of G-d used throughout the Torah’s description of Creation. In all cases of ‘G-d created’, ‘G-d said’, ‘G-d saw’, ‘G-d called’ etc., the word for G-d is “Elokim”. (Interestingly, the four letter Name which connotes G-d’s actual interaction with Creation, is used only later during the description of His creating Mankind.)
The reason why this name is often pronounced and written “Elokim” with a “k” sound instead of a “h” sound in place of the Hebrew letter “hey” is out of deference to a name of G-d, and to avoid the possibility of “taking G-d’s name in vain”. It should be clarified that when actually reading full verses containing the names of G-d, as during the public Torah reading, they must be pronounced properly. However, in the context of learning or quoting only parts of verses, the custom is to avoid pronouncing the various names, and even more when referring to G-d in normal conversation. Hence the convention of saying “Elokim” for this case, or “Hashem” (The Name) for the Tetragrammaton.
Despite the fact that this word is holy when used as a name of G-d, you are right about it being used in mundane contexts as well. There are several examples. Note that in these cases, the convention of changing the pronunciation is not applied (in addition, using a lower case “e” at the beginning is also appropriate). On the contrary, doing so would imply holiness instead of mudane.
The Ten Commandments state, “I am the L-rd, your G-d….You may have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:2,3). The Hebrew word used for other or foreign gods is “elohim”. The reason for this should be obvious: foreign worship is humanity’s mistake of ascribing Divinity to the myriads of powers in Creation. If “Elokim” expresses G-d’s power over all forces, “elohim” expresses man’s giving these forces Divine power. This dichotomy is poignantly illustrated by the fact that “Elokim” – alef, lamed, hey, yud, mem (1,30,5,10,40=86) – has the gematria numerical equivalent as “Nature”/HaTeva” – hey, tet, bet, ayin (5,9,2,70=86). G-d’s power over Creation is masked within what appears to be the power of Creation itself. It is our job to see “Elokim” in Creation; not the Creation as “elohim”.
Another instance of non-Divine usage of “elohim” is in the following: “And it came to pass when Mankind began to increase upon the earth and daughters were born to them, that the sons of ‘elohim’ saw that the daughters of man were good and they took for themselves wives from whoever they chose” (Gen. 6:1-3). Rashi offers two possible meanings here of “elohim”. One understanding of this verse would have “elohim” mean “rulers”, referring to their power of rule over others. However, based on the implication in the verse that the “elohim” were not “man”, the Midrash explains this refers to certain angels who, in spiritual form, self-righteously recalled before G-d the shortcomings of man, but when later congealed into physical forms of great stature, they came to abuse their superlative powers to ravage Mankind.
A third usage of this term refers to judges. For example, if on account of poverty or theft a Jewish man was indentured to work for a Jewish master, then chose to stay in servitude despite being given the opportunity to be released, he was to be brought before the “elohim” – judges – who would order that the man’s ear be pierced symbolically stating, “G-d says the Children of Israel are My servants; and this one chooses to be a servant of a servant!” (Ex. 21:6).
However, regarding this last usage, the commentaries suggest a relationship with “Elokim”. Namely, the Torah court of judges is called by the word for G-d since it carries out G-d’s laws on earth (Ibn Ezra). Alternatively, because G-d’s Presence and influence rests upon the judges (Ramban). This is based on the Sages’ explanation of the verse “in the midst of judges (elohim) G-d will judge” (Psalms 82:1).