What’s in a name?

Why did Jacob change ‘Ben-Oni’ to ‘Binyamin’?

Rachel's Tomb Gallery 1 (photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
Rachel's Tomb Gallery 1
(photo credit: American Colony-Jerusalem-Photo Dept.)
In the great play Romeo and Juliet, one of the most memorable lines is declared by Juliet Capulet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Juliet tells Romeo that a name is a meaningless convention; the one she loves happens to be called a Montague. While Shakespeare can take the liberty of saying that a family name can be disassociated from the individual, the Bible gives credence to a person’s name, and it often represents the essence of his character.
On her way to Efrata, our biblical matriarch Rachel gives birth to a son (Genesis 35:16-19). She calls him “Ben- Oni,” but Jacob names him “Binyamin” (or in English, “Benjamin”).
The other eleven sons were named by either Leah or Rachel, and Jacob never interfered with the child-naming. Why does our biblical forefather all of a sudden make a name-switch? The word “oni” stems from the root “on.” It appears in both Deuteronomy (26:14) and Hosea (9:4), where it denotes grief or mourning.
Thus, many translations render Ben- Oni as “son of my sorrow.” It is indeed a depressing name, a constant reminder that he was the cause of his mother’s death.
It would seem to make sense that Jacob does not want his son growing up with this psychological baggage, and so he opts for a more positive name.
However, there are places where “on” is interpreted as “power” (e.g., Hosea 12:9, Isaiah 40:26 and 40:29). In fact, when Jacob blesses Reuben, he calls him “reishit oni,” my first strength (Genesis 49:3).
Is Rachel using the word “on” in the sense of affliction or power? If we pay attention to the context of the verse, it seems that “power” would be the better translation.
Rachel’s midwife assures her that despite the difficult delivery, she is giving birth to a son. According to Jewish tradition, she received the prophecy that there would be 12 tribes of Israel from Jacob’s four wives. All she wanted was to be the agent of God to complete the circle of twelve.
So it makes perfect sense that Rachel would be using “on” in the sense of power, since the family is now completed. But the question, then, remains: Why would Jacob change the name? Binyamin is usually translated as “son of my right hand.” However, there is a problem with this interpretation, since the word “hand” (yad) does not appear in the Hebrew “Binyamin”; it is only inferred.
The word “yamin” means south, as in Psalms 89:13: “The north and the south (yamin), Thou hast created them.” Jacob appears to be switching Benjamin’s name so that it denotes a geographic location, “son of the south,” for he is the only child to be born in the Land of Israel.
When the tribe of Benjamin receives its land portion in Israel, the territory borders on Joseph’s to the north and on Judah’s to the south. The name “Benjamin” is a derivative of yemini, as in 1 Samuel 9:1&4, where it denotes the people living to the south of the Ephraimite highland. This is another scriptural source for the interpretation that Binyamin means “son of the south.”
Prior to the birth of Benjamin, Jacob receives a new name – Israel – along with the promise of inheriting the Land of Israel. For Jacob, the covenantal promise becomes a stark reality with the birth of the twelfth son, the only child born in the Land itself.
He also sees that true national power can only be fulfilled in the Land.
Benjamin’s name would serve as this constant reminder.
In light of the biblical paradigm, naming a child is a most profound spiritual moment. It is a statement of the baby’s character and path in life.
The very act of naming was the first task of the first human being, and he did so by understanding a creature’s living soul (Genesis 2:19).
King David wrote in Psalms (147:4): “He counts the numbers of the stars; He gives a name to each of them.” If God takes the time to name stars, how much more do we have to be careful in naming our children. Each child has a unique role and light in the world.
What’s in a name? One’s very essence!
David Nekrutman is the executive director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat. Comments should be directed to info@cjcuc.com