Symbolic Names

The name Gershom, and the word for Hebrew, Ivri, carry a message about what it means to be Jewish.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

Moses names his first born son Gershom, still a common Hebrew name. The child is born to him and his wife Zipporah in the land of Midian, towhich he fled after he murdered an Egyptian taskmaster. We do not hear of Gershom again in the epic, yet his name bears on the destiny of his father and his people. The name consists of two Hebrew words, "ger sham,"meaning "a stranger there." By bestowing it on his son, Moses stresses the complexity of his own fate: "I have been a stranger in a foreign land" (Exodus 2:22).

Not Living With Your Own

On the surface, the name conveys the discomforting fact that Moses the Egyptian found himself living among a people not his own. From a prince in Pharaoh's court, Moses plummeted to the lowly rank of a shepherd in the household of a Midian priest, reason enough to be disoriented. Yet his explanation of the name is not in the present tense but in reference to his past. Even in Egypt, in the royal palace, he felt not wholly at home. His Hebrew wet nurse, his mother, must have imbued him with an inchoate and subliminal sense of Hebrew identity. What else could have prompted him to investigate for himself the lot of Egypt's downtrodden Israelites or to side with them instantaneously? His compassion erupted from a shared wellspring of memories. So his son's name pointed to the deeper unease of being a Hebrew in Egypt.

It also adumbrated the fate of Jews in exile. Gershom Soncino was the most productive and famous member of an illustrious family of early Italian Jewish printers. In 1483-84, his uncle, Joshua Solomon Soncino had printed for the first time ever in Soncino in the Duchy of Milan, two tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. In the last decade of the 15th century and the first few of the 16th century, Gershom published a torrent of Hebrew books, including at least another 25 tractates of the Talmud, in eight different Italian cities as well as in Solonika and Constantinople. An era drenched in turmoil kept him on the move. Often in the colophon to his books, he would underscore the meaning of his name, ger sham, a mere sojourner in whatever principality gave him entry. His permanent residence was in the world of Torah, which he strove to make more accessible through the invention ofprinting.

In Egypt, Jacob's progeny were known as Hebrews. The narrative tells us that Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill any male child of a Hebrew woman (1:15-16). When confronted for disregarding the order, they claimed that "the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are more vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have givenbirth" (1:18-19).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.