What’s in a Name?
by Rabbi Gad Krebs
Rabbi Gad Krebs is an alumnus of Yeshivat Hamivtar having received his semicha from Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg zt’’l. He has been the Rabbi of Kehillat Masada Synagogue in Sydney, Australia for 13 years.
When it comes to naming children, the Jewish tradition has followed one of two main strands in determining name selection.
Some name their newborn after someone; deceased for Ashkenazim and even alive for Sephardim. The custom serves to promulgate the memory of the relative, and hopefully instil within the child the positive character and traits of their relative.
In a similar vein, some choose the names borne by giants of Jewish history, whose contribution to the Torah, the Jewish people and the world, warrant them to serve as the role model for the infant.
The second common practice is to turn the name into a blessing. The name becomes a conjugation of words – combinations of nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives – that combine to become a word rooted in the parental hopes and expectations for the child. This model finds significant support throughout the Tanach, most notably in our parsha.
Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The Lord has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’”
She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also;” so she named him Simeon.
Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore, he was named Levi.
Leah, on seeing the sons that she had birthed, prayed that her husband would finally give her the attention she so desperately desired.
Rachel followed a similar pattern: “So she named him Joseph, which is to say, ‘May the Lord add another son for me.’”
That being said, when we take a broad look at names of people and places in Tanach, one cannot ascertain whether the original formulation of those names followed a similar logic as described above or perhaps they are actually adjectives, describing the person or place post-facto.
And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.” (Bereishit 5:29)
Rashi explains “He will ease from off us (ינחמנו) the toil of our hands. For until Noah came people had no agricultural instruments and he prepared such for them. …”
This verse couldn’t have been stated at Noah’s birth, for it is only after his invention of agricultural instruments that his name was warranted. We must conclude that either Noah’s original name, unknown to us, was replaced when he invented the plough; or alternatively the name Noah was a conscious prophecy of what he would one day accomplish.
“And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel” (Genesis 14:1). Rav and Shmuel, one said: Nimrod was his name. And why was his name called Amraphel? As he said [amar] and cast [hippil] our father Abraham into the fiery furnace. And one said: Amraphel was his name. And why was his name called Nimrod? Because he caused the entire world to rebel [himrid] against God during his reign.” (Eruvim 53a)
The name Nimrod or Amraphel, each according to his interpretation, is a description of the man’s deeds and personality. It was either a nickname that stuck post facto or alternatively his name became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Rabbi Yochanan said, Why was her name Ruth? Because David came forth from her and he serenaded (שריוהו) Hashem with song and praise.” (Baba Batra 14b)
So was her name Ruth or did she become known as Ruth?
The same is true with regard to places.
Amalek came and fought with Israel at Refidim. (Shemot 17:8)
It was called Refidim because Bnei Yisrael were raf yadayim (loose) in asking if Hashem was amongst them. (See Ba’al Haturim, Kli Yakar)
The most obvious and striking example would have to be Moshe. What did Aharon and Miriam call him? Considering that Pharoah’s daughter gave him the name, did they use his birth name (Tov, Avidgdor, Yered etc.) or did they follow the Biblical convention?
The tag with which we might have identified certain people and places at their time, and the names that are used in Tanach, are not necessarily the same. Every name in Tanach, those of heroes and villains, people and places, are very possibly only descriptive qualities of their characters.
For what use is a name if it doesn’t tell me something about the person who bears it?
What might I have actually called these people had I lived amongst them? Well, that isn’t clear at all.