What’s in a Name?

A name is a very powerful thing in Jewish tradition.

Babies, babies, babies! It seems like I’m learning of a new birth or pregnancy daily. I love hearing these couples’ good news, celebrating with them, witnessing the love and excitement, hope and anticipation of discovering who these new souls will become and what their future accomplishments will be. Each new baby brings new opportunities, new possibilities, new joys.

One way we express our dreams for our children is in the names we choose for them. A name is a very powerful thing in Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion reminds us of this when God speaks to Moses and says, “I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by the name Adonai I was not known to them (Exodus 6:2-3).”

These verses allude to the power of this name for God. The Rabbis taught that this Hebrew spelling of God’s name is ineffable and most powerful. We say Adonai, but we know the Hebrew letters (yod, hay, vav, hey) are not actually pronounced this way. We have lost the knowledge to pronounce this name correctly and, our tradition teaches, we should not even try to say it. If we say it correctly, the name is believed to hold great power. Our sages believed the reason for God revealing this name to Moses was so he could use it to invoke the miracles that would ultimately result in the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt, a tool that was not bestowed upon his predecessors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We learn the significance of other names in the Torah, as well. Moses was given his name because it describes how he was found in a basket in the river. The patriarch Jacob was given his name to foretell how he would usurp the birthright of his older brother, Esau. Each name has meaning.

This is why Hebrew names are often given to Jewish babies. It is an opportunity to bestow upon our children a blessing. Oftentimes we choose to name a child after a loved one who is or is not living (depending on whether you adhere to Sephardic or Ashkenazic tradition). By doing so, we hope the baby will embody the qualities we admire in our loved one. But, this is just the first name we receive.

Our sages taught, “In life, you discover that people are called by three names: One is the name your parents call you; one is the name others call you, and one is the name you acquire for yourself. The best one is the one you acquire for yourself (Tanchuma, Vayak’heil 1).”

While we have hopes and dreams for our children, as our parents did for us, this teaching is a reminder that what is most important is our personal actions and treatment of others. The more good we do, the more we bless others with our actions, will lead us to earn that third name.

May we live up to the names our parents give us. May we be respected by the names others call us. And, may our deeds leave behind a legacy for which our name will endure as a blessing.

Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash


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