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Parshat VaYetze: What’s in a Name? by Yaakov Bieler

November 9, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

It appears that, according to the Bible, the connotations and associations of the name that either a parent or God Himself bestows upon a particular child or adult, could play a major role in the individual’s personality development and sense of self.   Names that are positive and optimistic be readily understood to signify the hopes that the name givers have for the futures of the name recipients , e.g., Chava (3:20),[1] Noach (5:29),[2] Avraham (17:5),[3] Yaakov/Yisrael  (32:29) Moshe[4] and Eliezer (18:4).  Moreover, who is to say that such names do not serve to some extent as self-fulfilling prophecies in the sense that these individuals, once they become aware of their names, try to live up to what is implied by what they are called?

Names Relate to the State of Mind of the Parent, not the Future of the Child

            Once the correlation between a biblical name and the life of the individual carrying the name can be demonstrated, it is curious to reflect upon certain names that Biblical figures give their children, and the possible adverse effects that these names might have had on those who were fated to bear them. It is as if these particular parents, rather than concentrating on the hopes and dreams that they had for their new-born children, considered their offspring mere extensions of themselves, and therefore little more than platforms by which to commemorate past triumphs and/or painful experiences, regardless of what such names and the stories that underlie them might ultimately do to the psyches of their children.  

Trends from the Primordial Naming of Children

Sometimes a name, because it brims with the pride and arrogance of the parent, could be held accountable, at least in part, for the child’s subsequent indiscretions and improper behavior.  Chava’s contribution to Kayin’s excessive self-esteem, i.e., her giving him a name that means according to the Tora (4:1) “’Kaniti’ (I have brought into existence) a man together with God”, could have possibly contributed to Kayin’s subsequent intolerance of his younger brother’s major spiritual achievement, which in turn led to fratricide.[5] Within the same immediate context, the Bible does not even attempt to provide a rationale for the choice of the name “Hevel”—it is as if once she has her first child, any subsequent one is hardly of any consequence.[6] And as for what such a name might do to its bearer, the basic translation of the word, i.e., vapor, steam, nothingness (4:2), would logically have had the opposite effect of a “Kayin” type of name. On the one hand, carrying the name “Hevel” could inspire continual humility and a sense of sobering mortality on the part of the person answering to such a name. But at the same time, someone saddled with this type of name may be adversely affected by its implications of nothingness, worthlessness, and lack of substance, always feeling inadequate and defeated. What sort of parent would potentially handicap his/her child so perversely?

A Parent’s Pain is Memorialized in the Name of His/Her Child

Whereas the name Hevel does not have to call to mind negativity per se, but rather is problematic due to the vacuum of feeling and expectation that is implied, there are instances where the explanations provided by the Tora for certain names contain at least allusions to negative experiences, if not outright references to painful moments in the parent’s life.

 Yishmael (and God Heard) is an inspiring sentiment that anyone might wish would be affirmed continually as he confronts the challenges of life. Yet when the specific context of this name is read carefully (16:11), the angel says to Hagar that Yishmael shall be the name of her child because “Ki Shama HaShem El ANYECH” (because God Heard YOUR AFFLICTION). While it is certainly important to posit when one finds himself in dire straits, that prayers will then be Heard, will the fact that Yishmael’s mother found herself in such a situation, and the circumstances surrounding how this came to pass—she was driven to run away by the mean-spiritedness of her mistress (16:6)—have an adverse effect on her son, when he learns about the events that precipitated his naming?[7] I suppose that Hagar could have withheld such details from Yishmael. But did she? And as a result of learning about these matters, wouldn’t his resentment of Sara and her progeny thereby increase?[8] Could this in some way have even been the very intent of this process?

Should a Child’s Name Recall Their Dubious Origins?

The older of Lot’s two daughters names her child in a manner that makes it virtually impossible to cover up her father’s incestuous role in the child’s conception. (19:37) “…and she called him Moav, he is the progenitor of Moav until this day.”[9] Could this fact been lost upon the child? How would it affect him and his descendents? What could the mother have been thinking?

Parents in Exile & The Challenges of their Difficult Condition

Although Yosef’s fortunes turn around, and he finds himself as Egypt’s viceroy, married to royalty and the father of two children, the names that he gives these children indicate that he hasn’t forgotten the series of events that preceded this more positive stage of his life. While the name that he gives his second son, similar to the example of Yishmael, invokes the negative past in contrast to the more positive present, (41:52) “And the name of the second he called Efraim, for God had caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction,”[10] no such subtlety underlies the meaning of the name of his first son. (41:51) “And Yosef called the name of the firstborn Menashe, for God, said he, Has Made me Forget all my toil and all my father’s house.” Wouldn’t Menashe be expected to inquire why he was named “Forgetting”? And when he would learn about the sordid history of how his uncles had treated his father, what was he to think? What was Yosef’s motivation for doing this? If Yosef wanted to assure that he remembers what transpired as he was growing up, why does his son have to be made a party to this?

Moshe, when Tziporra bears a son, similarly incorporates within the son’s name his personal sense of exile and alienation: (Shemot 2:22) “And he called his name Gershom, because he said, ‘I was a sojourner in a foreign land.’”[11] Of course, this is an empirical fact rather than a sensibility; nevertheless, it would appear to not be the sort of name that will allow this boy to be inspired or feel positive about his identity. Did Moshe assume that his family would be remaining in Midyan, and he therefore wished for his son to always recall his origins, thereby never feeling too comfortable in his current surroundings?[12]

Leah and her Uncomfortable Domestic Situation

In this week’s Parasha, Leah gives several of her children names that directly emanate from her personal anguish.  Judging by her comments and actions in Beraishit 27:32 ff., Leah is extremely troubled by the nature of her relationship with her husband Yaakov. While Lavan, her father, justifies his misleading his son-in-law and exchanging Leah for her younger sister Rachel, by invoking local custom that insists that the older daughter marry before her younger sibling (29:26), one wonders whether or not Leah was a willing participant in this deception.             Furthermore, even if we assume that the prospect of marrying Yaakov appealed to her,[13]  would she have gone through with the plan had she known about the type of emotional coldness that lay in store for her?[14]  The Tora goes out of its way to first emphasize that Yaakov loved Rachel more than Leah (29:30), immediately followed by a verse delineating how God saw the situation, i.e., that Leah was for all intents and purposes hated by her husband (29:31). The names of the seven children that she bears serve as a chronicle of her hopes and frustrations regarding whether Yaakov will ever reciprocate the love that she feels for him: (29:32) “…and she called his name Reuven, for she said, ‘Surely the Lord Has Looked upon my affliction, and therefore my husband will love me.” (29:33) “…and she said, “Because the Lord Has Heard that I was hated, He Has therefore Given me this son also,’ and she called his name Shimon.” (20:34) “…and she said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me because I have born him three sons,’ therefore was his name called Levi.”[15] (29:35) “…and she said, ‘Now I praise the Lord,’ therefore she called his name Yehuda…”[16]  (30:18) “And Leah said, ‘God Has Given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband,’ and she called his name Yissachar.” (30:20) “And Leah said, ‘And God Has Endowed me with a good dowry; now will my husband dwell with me because I have born him six sons,’ and she called his name Zevulun.” (30:21) “…and called her name Dina.”[17]

The text clearly indicates that Leah’s children were exceedingly protective of their mother, and resentful of the children born to Rachel, particularly Yosef.[18] The question that arises in terms of the namings is to what degree was the rivalry and ultimate hatred further fueled by their mother’s overt disclosure of her resentment (of her sister, as well as her treatment at the hands of her husband) by explaining the meaning of their respective names?

“Insider” vs. “Outsider” Meanings for the Names of Leah’s children

Beraishit Rabba 71:3 records a Rabbinic approach to the problematic discussed above.

“…Those of whom could be said that their names are beautiful as are their actions, are the tribes (the sons of Yaakov). Reuven—see a son that stands out from among all of the sons; Shimon—he listens to the Voice of his Father in Heaven. R. Yose bar Chanina said: The names of the tribes are not ill-fitting for them, but rather are perfectly appropriate for them.”

It would appear that the Midrash assumes that what was offered for popular consumption as well as perhaps what was told to the sons themselves, were alternate interpretations for the names that would be inspirational and positive, in stark contrast to the bitter sentiments recorded in the Tora that originally inspired Leah to give these particular names to her children.

The Names of Leah’s children are Merely a Symptom

But even if we accept the Midrash’s premise that Leah never disclosed to her children her actual reasons for naming them as she did, the attitudes and emotions that she possessed regarding how she was being treated by Yaakov must have been conveyed either explicitly or implicitly to her progeny. Should we blame her for involving her children in a matter that was the exclusive domain of their parents? Is Yaakov to blame for making Leah feel this way? Then again it was never his intent to marry Leah in the first place. But still in all, once he accepted Lavan’s demand that he marry the older daughter, shouldn’t/couldn’t he have tried to make Leah feel accepted rather than an outcast? Why have children with Leah if Yaakov was so indifferent to her and her feelings? We even note how Yaakov’s preference for Rachel and her progeny does not cease with Rachel’s death![19]

An Intriguing Counterexample to the Biblical Trend

            Rachel tragically dies giving birth to her second son while the family is returning to Canaan (35:17). While she imparts a name to the child during her last moments—“Ben-Oni”, which according to at least RaShI means “the son of my travail”—Yaakov renames the boy “Binyamin” (the son of my right hand/might) (35:18). What was the father thinking when he substituted one name for the other? Was he concerned regarding the effect that Rachel’s name might have on her son? Was he worried that each time he would invoke Binyamin’s name, the recollection of the boy’s mother’s death would flood back to him? Whatever the reader might hypothesize with regard to this case, the father obviously did not wish the negative connotation of the boy’s original name to remain.

Concluding Question about Jewish Destiny

Do these seemingly irrational and insensitive namings further confirm the hypothesis presented in “Free Agents or Automatons?”  From the perspective of the overall direction of Jewish history – where the family will have to endure exile before they are redeemed, given the Tora and brought to Israel – it is necessary for the Yaakov’s children to feel hostilely towards one another, the names serving to sharpen their sibling rivalry, ultimately leading to Yosef’s being sold and all that follows that action? Or are these names simply reflections of interrelationships that are hurtful, and rather than offering them for emulation, the Tora is informing us by anecdotal example that these types of family dynamics should be avoided in every possible way. Or can both of these concepts simultaneously coexist? What do you think?


[1] “And Adam called his wife’s name Chava; because she was the mother of all living”—while Adam may have been the first human being of the species, Chava by bearing Kayin and Hevel, in effect was the mother of all of their descendents, in the spirit of the comment in Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5.    

[2] “And he called his name Noah, saying: ‘This same shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which cometh from the ground which the Lord hath Cursed’”—on the one hand, there is a Rabbinic tradition that Noach invented agricultural implements that made working the land much easier (see RaShI on 5:29.) Naturally, the longer term implication of the name was that Noach would allow God to be “Comforted”, as it were, from having to totally wipe out His Original Creation, and instead begin again via Noach and his family. “Noach” provides an interesting alternative interpretation to the verb in 6:6.

[3] “Neither shall thy name any more be called Avram, but thy name shall be Avraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I Made thee”—Avraham should view himself and be viewed as a role model for a multitude of nations. See the recent essay on Parashat Chaye Sara at http://text.rcarabbis.org/avraham-father-of-multitudes-by-yaakov-bieler/  

[4] “And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’”  (Shemot 2:10.)  See commentaries like Chizkuni—“Just as I drew him out, so he will draw out others, i.e., he will draw out Israel from Egypt.”

[5] See http://text.rcarabbis.org/parashat-breishit-the-challenge-of-free-will-from-one-firstborn-to-another-by-yaakov-bieler/

[6] Such a perspective is even more acutely remarkable according to MaLBIM’s interpretation, whereby he suggests that Kayin and Hevel were possibly twins. The disproportion between the two names, i.e., Kayin is an important, worthy individual in contrast to the unimportance of Hevel, appears then to parallel the names of the twins Eisav (he is “made”, hairy, mature) and Yaakov (the holder-on-to-the-heel of his brother.) Eisav’s name is obvious to and therefore given by all—(25:25 “VaYikru [pl.] Shemo Eisav”)—as opposed to Yaakov’s name that is bestowed by a single male, most likely Yitzchak—(25:26 “VaYikra [sing.] Shemo Yaakov”.) Besides the fact that Eisav brought venison to his father (25:28), could another factor in his preference for this child have been his being born before his brother?

[7] Naturally, it could be claimed that in many of these instances, the children are never told the exact reasons why the parent chose a particular name for them. Should we assume that these names were essentially double-entendre’s, i.e., holding one meaning for the parent, and an entirely different one for the child? From the fact that Leah’s children appear to recognize that all is not well between their father and mother, e.g., (30:14) Reuven’s bringing mandrakes to his mother; (33:1 ff.) the division of his wives and children prior to meeting Eisav, with Rachel and Yosef being placed all the way in the back in an effort to at least save them should the meeting prove hostile; (34:1) Dina’s leaving the encampment as a response to the tension  between Yaakov and Leah (the emphasis upon “Bat Leah” in the verse); (35:22) Reuven’s problematic interaction with Bilhah following Rachel’s death; (37) Yaakov’s preference for Yosef and the terrible events that this precipitated; etc., is it not likely that even if they were not explicitly told about the meanings of their names, they may have deduced what their mother had in mind each time she named one of them?

[8] See RaMBaN on 16:6.

[9] RaShI: This one who was immodest made clear that the child was her father’s…

[10] Did Yosef convey to Efraim not only the emphasis upon being fruitful, but also the fact that Egypt was at least initially, the land of his “affliction”? Would this precipitate questions about Yosef’s background and what led up to his living in Egypt? And if so, how detailed and accurate would Yosef be in his recounting of events? According to some commentators, Yosef never filled in his father Yaakov on what occurred; is the same true regarding his children, particularly in light of their names?

[11] The explanation of the name appears to be especially significant since it is repeated again when the son is mentioned within the context of Yitro reuniting the family in Shemot 18:3.

[12] In contrast to Yosef, whose first son Efraim’s name appears to be more positive than his second son’s Menashe, Moshe follows the opposite pattern, with Gershom preceding Eliezer (see Shemot 18:3-4.) It would be logical to assume in light of the circumcision incident (4:24-6) that Eliezer was born and received his name after God Appeared to Moshe at the burning bush, ordering him to take the Jews out of Egypt (3:2 ff.) The first-person nature of the name, (“the God of my father was my help and Saved me from the sword of Pharoah”) appears to allude to the reason why Moshe had to go into exile from Egypt to Midian (2:15), i.e., the threat of execution as a result of his killing the Egyptian taskmaster (2:11-2). But in light of the mission that Moshe has now been Given, “Eliezer” might also include a foreshadowing of Moshe’s future interventions on behalf of the Jewish people, in the sense that just as HaShem Saved me in the past from Pharoah, He will Do the same for my brethren.

[13] RaShI quotes the Midrash on 29:17 that Leah’s eyes were “soft”, i.e., teary-eyed, as a result of her crying over thinking that she would have to marry Eisav, Yaakov’s older brother. This could imply that she was likely to do everything in her power to marry Yaakov so that she could avoid becoming Eisav’s wife. However, there is nothing in the Biblical text itself that discloses her state of mind or the nature of her dreams and hopes at the actual time of her wedding.

[14]According to the Midrash, quoted by RaShI on Beraishit 35:22, the ultimate ignominy takes place upon the death of Rachel, when Yaakov moves into the tent of Rachel’s handmaiden, Bilhah, rather than placing his permanent bed in Leah’s abode. The Midrash is attempting to suggest a catalyst for the reference in the text to Reuven’s indiscretion in terms of actively interfering in some way with his father’s conjugal arrangements (35:22), and the consequent rebuke that Yaakov directs at Reuven, waiting to deliver it just before he dies (49:4). If Reuven felt so strongly that he had to protect his mother’s interests, this certainly indicates that Leah’s feelings had not been assuaged, even at this relatively late point in the story of Yaakov’s life.

[15] An alternate reading of this verse would contend that it wasn’t Leah who gave Levi his name, but rather that the name was proclaimed from Above, by an angel (see Tora Shleima, citations 109-110, pp. 1180-1.) This would be in keeping with Levi’s role as the progenitor of Kohanim and Levi’im who engage in representing both the Jewish people and God in the Divine Service—“Shluchai DiDan Oh Shluchai D’Shmaya”—see Nedarim 35b.

[16] While of all the names, Yehuda’s appears to be the most positive, the subtle implication of “HaPa’am” (Now) suggests a desperate plea for the future as well as significant upset over the past concerning how she has been treated. 

[17] Although for this last child, the Tora does not explain what Leah was thinking when she arrived at the name—RaShI suggests that there was an elaborate process by which the sex of the child was switched from a boy to a girl in order that Rachel would be able to contribute two boys, and thereby be no less of a contributor to the formation of the Jewish people than would be Bilhah and Zilpah, the two handmaidens—it is relatively straightforward to assume that God’s Judgement has something to do with Leah’s realization that she will never be truly reconciled with Yaakov. Dina’s naming then becomes a form of Tzidduk HaDin (declaring as righteous and just a difficult aspect of human existence.) It is possible that this is in recompense for her having agreed to trick her husband and cooperate with her father Lavan’s plan to substitute her for Rachel.

[18]While the biblical text does not reflect any specific hostility towards Binyamin, according to Beraishit Rabba 92:8, the brothers beat Binyamin when Yosef’s cup is discovered in his sack (44:12),  and scream at him, “Thief, son of a thief,” referring to Rachel’s having earlier stolen Lavan’s idols before Yaakov and the rest of the family flee from Padan Aram (31:19 ff.) While Yehuda eventually offers to become Yosef’s slave in place of Binyamin (44:33), this appears to be motivated more by the adverse affect that Binyamin’s absence would have on Yaakov (44:31) as well as the fact that Yehuda had personally guaranteed Binyamin’s safe return to Canaan (44:32), rather than a particularly warm feeling towards Rachel’s second son.  

[19] See 37:3 as well as footnote 14

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