World of the Sages: What's in a name?

Biblical names are often accompanied by an explanation that reflects the recipients' appearance or deeds, or more significantly, their essence or destiny.

baby moses 88 (photo credit: )
baby moses 88
(photo credit: )
Our tradition sees names as more than mere functional labels, bestowed in order to call or refer to people. Biblical names are often accompanied by an explanation that reflects the recipients' appearance or deeds, or more significantly, their essence or destiny. Thus Esau, who was born with a full head of hair, was given a name indicating his physical appearance (Genesis 25:25 and commentators). Moses's name reflected how the daughter of Pharaoh drew him from the Nile (Exodus 2:10). More meaningful are biblical names that include an element of foreshadowing. Noah's birth was accompanied by the aspiration that the newborn would provide comfort "from our work and from the toil of our hands, because of the ground which God cursed" (Genesis 5:29). With this background we can understand the import of biblical name changes (B. Berachot 12b-13a and parallels). The first biblical hero to have his name changed is the father of our nation - Avraham - formally known as Avram. Our sages explain that originally his name denoted that he was the av (father) of his native country, Aram. His new title reflected the future of his progeny, as he was to become an av of many nations. The Talmud proposes that the name Avraham designates our forefather as the av of the entire world, perhaps reflecting the monotheism that Avraham bequeathed to society. In a similar vein, the matriarch Sara was originally known as Sarai (my princess), but altered to signal her greater role as a leader of humanity. What happens to a defunct name - is it abolished entirely or merely relegated to secondary status? In the case of Avraham, the biblical verse indicates that his previous name was superseded, as God directed: "Your name shall no longer be called Avram, and your name shall be Avraham" (Genesis 17:5). According to one sage this verse teaches a positive commandment to use the name Avraham instead of the former Avram. Another sage concludes that there is a prohibition on using the old name. Indeed, once Avraham was granted his new name, scripture does not employ his previous moniker. The Talmud dismisses a verse that makes reference to Avraham's previous name - "You are God, the Lord who chose Avram" (Nehemiah 9:7) - explaining that the author is recounting what happened in days of old, rather than referring to our patriarch by his previous name. Interestingly, almost all codifiers, enumerators of commandments and commentators make no mention of the restriction on Avram usage (cf. Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland). One commentator explains that normative law does not accept this stricture, rather it follows the verse "Avram who is Avraham" (I Chronicles 1:27), which preserves the former name (Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 18th century, Poland-Prague). The stance against employing "Avram" is somewhat tempered when it comes to the use of "Sarai." In this case, our sages conclude that only Avraham was prohibited from using his wife's former name. Notwithstanding, as a general rule, new names supplant former monikers. A notable exception is Ya'acov, who is promised a new name following his struggle against a mysterious assailant (Genesis 32:28). Indeed this pledge is realized, as God later directs: "Your name shall no longer be called Ya'acov, but Yisrael shall be your name" (Genesis 35:10). The language of God's instruction to Ya'acov and His directive to Avraham are strikingly similar: "Your name shall no longer be called…" Yet Ya'acov's name change is never entirely complete; in numerous biblical passages his old moniker is used. Even God continued to call Ya'acov by his former name: "And God said to Yisrael, in a vision of the night, and he said: 'Ya'acov, Ya'acov…'" (Genesis 46:2). Thus the sages conclude that Ya'acov's original name was not entirely uprooted; it merely became secondary to his new name. Given this data, it is unclear why Ya'acov's name change is not complete. Following the biblical paradigm, where a name is more than a mere moniker, we can suggest a greater significance to Ya'acov's partial name change. Ya'acov's name initially denoted the tight grip he had on Esau's ekev (heel) as the twins emerged from Rivka's womb (Genesis 25:26). Later, Esau sees a different significance in his brother's name. As Ya'acov cunningly acquires the birthright and later the blessings from Yitzhak, Esau cries out: "Is he not rightly named Ya'acov, for he has tricked me - va'ya'akveni - these two times" (Genesis 27:36), using the Hebrew word with the same root as his brother's name. After he flees the wrath of his brother, Ya'acov is outmaneuvered by his father-in-law, Laban, as he wakes after his wedding with an unexpected bride (Genesis 29:25). His years spent with Laban are marked by dubious business arrangements and cunning plans, as both Ya'acov and his father-in-law seek the upper hand. Later in his life, Ya'acov is tricked by his sons, who present the blood-stained colored coat of his beloved Joseph. As the brothers design, Ya'acov reaches his own tragic conclusion: "A horrible beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces" (Genesis 37:33). Finally, towards the end of his life, Ya'acov is forced to endure the maneuverings of Joseph, who conspires to bring the family to Egypt. Ya'acov's scheming as he jostles with his brother, his wheeling-dealing with Laban and the troubles he bears at the hands of his children can be contrasted with the name he is granted - Yisrael, which contains both God's name and the word yashar, upright. Ya'acov's destiny is to be a paradigm of honesty - "Grant truth to Ya'acov" (Micah 7:20). Alas, the journey to this ideal is fraught with machinations which must be surmounted. This may reflect the voyage of our people as we seek our destiny on the world stage. Our challenge as a nation remains overcoming wily characteristics associated with the name Ya'acov and striving to be a people distinguished by uprightness and morality before God. Indeed, the prophet foretells of the pride of Ya'acov being restored as the pride of Yisrael (Nahum 2:3). Perhaps this ideal is within arm's reach of our generation, as a glimmer of hope may be gleaned from the name chosen for our modern state: Yisrael. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.