Pesachim 117

What's in a name?

Each of us has a name

given by God

and given by our parents

Each of us has a name

given by our stature and our smile

and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name

given by the mountains

and given by our walls

One of the best known compositions by the Israeli poet Zelda, “Each of Us Has a Name” calls our attention to the many literal and metaphorical names — Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu, Moishe, etc. — that define each of us and reflect who we are, how we’re seen and what we do.

On today’s daf, a conversation about Hallel (the psalms of praise recited at the seder) gives way to a discussion of names. Here’s how it happens: Rav and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi begin an argument over the meaning of the word halleluyah. Is it really two words — hallelu (“praise”) and yah (“God”) — as Rav argues? Or one word meaning “praise God with many praises,” as Rabbi Yehoshua asserts?

As is its wont, the Gemara finds a problem. Elsewhere, the Gemara notes, Rabbi Yehoshua seemed to think that halleluyah is in fact two words! So why does he now say it’s only one?

This statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi disagrees with another ruling that he himself issued, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: The Book of Psalms is said by means of ten expressions of praise: By nitzuah (glorification), niggun (tune), maskil (didactic psalm), mizmor (hymn), shir (song), ashrei (an expression of happiness), tehilla (praise), tefilla (intercession or pleading), hoda’a (confession), and halleluyah. He continues: The greatest of them all is halleluyah, as it includes God’s name and praise at one time. (None of these other words includes the name of God.) 

This second teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi collects all ten different Hebrew words for praising God found in the Book of Psalms. It is clear from his remarks that here he thinks the word halleluyah is derived from two words.

In his commentary on this passage, the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Braslov notes that these ten words each connect to a different type of psalm, and that reciting all ten types together has enormous power to affect repentance. In fact, he famously gathered a collection of ten representative psalms (one of each type) called the Tikkun Haklali and encouraged his followers to recite it daily — to this day, many people around the world do.

This isn’t the only place rabbinic texts gather up a bounty of synonyms for a significant concept, and then explore the different nuances between those synonyms. A similar enumeration, this one cataloging ten words for “happiness”, is found in Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a minor tractate of wisdom and commentary composed sometime during the second half of the first millennium C.E.:

There are ten words for happiness, and they are: sasson (joy), simcha (happiness), gila (rejoicing), rina (songfulness), ditza (amusement), tzahala (exuberance), aliza (felicity), hedva (delight), tiferet (splendor), alitza (cheer).

The passage goes on to list ten names for idol worshipten names for prophets, and ten names of God, among others. This last set receives additional attention in Exodus Rabbah, which details when each of these names is appropriately invoked. For example, “Elohim” implies judgment, “Tz’va’ot” implies waging war against the wicked, and “YHVH,” God’s four letter proper name, implies mercy.

So what’s in a name? Our names are many, and ever-changing. Each different name by which we are called impacts us: how we see ourselves, how others see us, how we feel and how we are remembered.

Zelda concludes her poem as follows:

Each of us has a name

given by our celebrations

and given by our work

Each of us has a name

given by the seasons

and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name

given by the sea

and given by

our death.

Read all of Pesachim 117 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 18th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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