The Talmud considers a case where a person is about to eat large pieces of bread as well as a smaller loaf, querying whether it is preferable to make the blessing over a large slice or over an entire loaf (B. Berachot 39b).
Given that the person will eat both pieces, the question at hand is one of priority in blessings: Is largeness a superior feature or wholeness? Opposing opinions are offered, with the Talmud opining that a God-fearing person should accommodate both positions by placing the slice under the loaf and holding them together while reciting the blessing.
The passage continues relating how when this suggestion was recounted before Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak, he asked the speaker for his name. The speaker replied, "Shalman." Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak was quick to homiletically explain the moniker: "You are shalom (peace, harmony) and your teaching is harmonious, for you have established peace among the disciples." How should we understand such "midrash" of names? The Talmud offers another 30 such expositions of names of sages that are connected to a Torah teaching they taught. It would seem that that we have here a witty pun created deftly on the spur of the moment.
Other commentators offer a deeper insight into such nimble homilies (Maharal, 16th century, central Europe). A name is not merely a tag used for identification; a name contains within the essence of its bearer. The character of the soul is encapsulated in the name, and the owner's destiny and role are contained within this label.
In this vein, our sages recount events that led to Adam giving names to all the creatures (Bereshit Rabba 17:4). When the Almighty declared to the ministering angels that the divine intent was to create humans, the angels scornfully asked: "This human, what is its nature?" God replied: "The human's wisdom is greater than yours!" To prove this assertion, animals and fowl were brought before the ministering angels: "This one, what is its name?" inquired the Almighty. Alas, the angels were unable to answer.
The creatures were then brought before the human: "This one, what is its name?" inquired the Almighty once again.
Without hesitation an answer was offered in the holy tongue: "This is a shor [ox]; this is a hamor [donkey]; this is a sus [horse]; this is a gamal [camel]." These names were descriptions of the core nature of the animal, not tags defined by collective agreement. This is indicated in the biblical depiction: "And God the Lord formed each beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the human to see what he would call them. And whatever the human called every living creature that was its name" (Genesis 2:19).
Given that the human named every living creature, our sages continue the account: "And you, what is your name?" asked God.
"It is appropriate for me to be called Adam, for I have been created from the adama [earth]." Thus Adam selected the very name that he had been assigned by the Almighty in the Bible.
"And what about Me," inquired the Almighty, "What is My name?" "It is appropriate for You to be called A-donai, for You are adon [master] for all your creations." Thus Adam wisely discerned the nature of each creature - including himself and even the Almighty - designated each with an appellation that encapsulated its essence.
Countless times in the Talmud, our sages offer homiletic explanations for names of biblical personalities. In our tractate, the sages provide a number of examples where names afford a glimpse of future accomplishments (Berachot 7b). Thus the name Ruth contains a hint that she would merit King David as her descendant: the very David who would satiate - in Hebrew riva, a cognate of Ruth - the Almighty with songs and praises.
The kabbalists go further: This mystical naming capacity is not something reserved for our biblical heroes and talmudic sages. Every mother and father is graced with a flash of divine inspiration when they grant a name to their newborn child. This new name is no mere moniker; it is an abstract of the young child's qualities, capacities or character. Even though this name appears to be given in this physical world, it is the Almighty who puts the name into the mouths of the parents and this name corresponds to the newborn's holy soul (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, 16th century, Jerusalem-Cairo-Safed). According to this, giving a name is a religiously momentous occasion of divine communication.
This explains the practice of changing a sick person's name, for a name change effectively changes the destiny of its beholder. Indeed, our sages tell us that a name change is a tool for shredding an evil decree against a person (B. Rosh Hashana 16b).
Elsewhere the Talmud recounts a journey of three sages - Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose (B. Yoma 83b). Rabbi Meir, unlike his colleagues, would examine the name of the owner of the lodgings where they intended to stay. When they reached a certain place, they asked the host for his name and he replied: "Kidor." Rabbi Meir quietly cited a biblical verse: for they are a generation - in Hebrew ki dor - of upheavals, children in whom I have no trust (Deuteronomy 32:20), and surmised that the owner was wicked. This suspicion was proven correct when the owner denied that Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yose had entrusted their purses of money in his hands.
Given the significance of the name, we can understand the disapproval of nicknames: A pet name is a wanton change of a person's essence. In fact giving a person a nickname or calling another by such a name is listed among the seemingly insignificant sins that our sages censure, saying that one who regularly transgresses will not have a share in the world to come unless repentance is achieved (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo).
Thus our names are more than mere monikers, they are precious windows into our souls and our destinies; they encapsulate the tasks we must undertake in this world.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.