What's in a Jewish Name? Our Link to Destiny
By Leila Leah Bronner
What's in a name? A name is a word that announces it has tales to tell. Names have great importance to people; indeed, we know and recognize each other by name. I see names as important symbols serving as magical keys by which we understand the nature and essence of a person. As the Jews wandered from land to land, the names of people and places reveal the story of individuals and of historical events.
Although names are given by people, the sages felt that it is always the Divine which causes the name to be chosen. The rabbis thus made a study and analysis of giving names as a key to understanding the nature and task assigned to individuals and groups. This technique of analyzing names as a key to character and destiny is useful in reading stories from the Bible, from Talmud, and from Jewish literature even up to modern times. It is also often a useful key to revealing hidden significance in the names of people we meet in real life, not just metaphoric titles of characters in literature.
Several of the mothers in the book of Genesis have the honor of naming their sons and daughters. The name chosen sometimes reflects the hope for the child's future, but in some cases, when the name is followed by a speech explaining the choice of name, this usually reveals more about the name-giver than it does about the destiny of the recipient.
The naming speeches of the matriarch Leah exemplify her own attitude regarding her sons, as a means to fulfilling her desire to be d by Jacob, the husband she shared with her sister Rachel. Leah called her first-born son Reuben, for she said "Surely God had looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will me." Similar ideas are expressed regarding the next sons Shimon (God heard my voice), Levi (my husband will be attached to me), and Judah (I give praise) (Gen 29: 31-35).
Among the many examples of biblical mothers whose naming of their sons indicates their own wishes, hopes, and gratitude, the story of Hannah comes to mind. The barren Hannah prays fervently and her prayers are answered. She names her son Samuel, explaining, "I asked God for him" (1 Sam.1:20). While more mothers than fathers are recorded as naming their sons, there are several relevant instances of a father choosing a name that is self-reflective. A primary example is Moses' naming of his sons, Gershom (I was a stranger in a foreign land) (Ex. 2:22), and Eliezer (God was my help and saved me from the sword of Pharaoh) (Ex. 18:4).
Another aspect in naming biblical personages is when the name has symbolic value, and describes the personality traits of the character, and by extension, the theme of the book. Noah's wife is not named in the Bible, but the rabbis attribute to her the name Naama. They explain that she is called Naama because her deeds are pleasant (Gen. Rab. 23:3). Also, the names Naomi and Ruth, respectively, mean "sweetness" and "friendship." These names actually represent both the nature of the characters and the theme of the book - loving and giving. In fact, virtually all the names in the Book of Ruth have symbolic meanings: the sons of Naomi, Machlon and Chilion both connote "ill" and "sickly," and indeed, both die young.
The sages stressed the importance of names to carry on the Hebrew name as part of the Jewish heritage. A tension developed by Talmudic times, when many Jews lived outside of the land of Israel, and took on foreign names of the lands where they dwelled. The importance of keeping the Hebrew names of their ancestors was illustrated by the midrash stating that the children of Israel survived in Egypt, in part, because they guarded their Hebrew names. The tale might well have been a protest against the fashionable custom of taking on foreign names. This midrash urges the Jewish people of all times to continue to give their children Hebrew names. Parents were exhorted to think carefully before naming a child so as to give the child a name worthy for him or her to become a righteous person.
The sages believed that a child's name is a contributory factor for good as for evil, a key to the development, health, and success of the child so named. To illustrate their point, the story is told of a mother naming her son after Doeg, a wicked man in the Bible, and this child met a horrible death. The story demonstrates that they believed a person's name determines one's destiny (Ber. 7b).
In the Middle Ages, the mystical kabbalists taught that all creation was brought into being by the various combinations of the holy letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They maintained that every living being is sustained by virtue of its holy name. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the hassidic movement in the 18th century, explained that through one's name, the very essence of a person or thing can be discovered. The Maharal of Prague stated that when a parent names a child, it is a prophecy.
In modern times, governments mandated European forenames and family names for Jews as a way of moving them into mainstream European society. Nonetheless, many Jews held steadfastly to their Hebrew first names, at least, while taking on family last names according to their profession, in many cases. In a perverse use of the Hebrew name for Jews, during the Nazi terror the government decreed that Jews had to use a certain set of Hebrew names, Israel for all males and Sarah for all females, just as it decreed that the yellow badge be worn. In the wake of the Holocaust and the re-establishment of a Jewish State, new pride in Hebrew names appeared. Now, Jews feel secure in Israel, and the Jews in the Diaspora also feel proud to call themselves by Hebrew and Yiddish names. Today we also find a resurgence of names of biblical heroes and heroines, as well as names derived from Hebrew roots, such as Aviva (spring), Sivan (a month in spring), Eitan (strong), Lior, (my light). Parents in modern day Israel also seek out modern pleasant-sounding agricultural names of flowers and elements of nature such as Sela (rock), Galit (little wave), or Tal (dew), etc.
In conclusion, we reflect again on the questions, "What's in a name?" We see that one's name reveals secrets and sorrows, happiness and hope, desires and destiny. A human being's personal and national history is often hinted at in his or her name.