What are names? Nothing but inconvenient labels according to one famous English poet! “What’s in a name?” he complains. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!”
NAME IS ESSENCE
The Torah takes a diametrically opposite approach, telling us that names are not mere labels, but descriptors of essence and determinants of fate. As the Gemara (Berachos 7b) states, “How do we know that a name causes [an effect on its recipient]? Said Rabbi Elazar, because the verse states, ‘Go and see the wonders of Hashem who has wrought destruction (shamos) on the land’ (Tehillim 46:9). Do not read shamos but shemos (names).”
Similarly the Torah (Bereishis 2:27) tells us at the very start, “Hashem Gd created Adam dust from the earth (ho’Adamoh),” indicating that the name, Adam, is connected with Adamoh from which he was formed.
At this juncture, the Maharal (Tiferes Yisroel, Chapter 3) interjects: “Now you can ask, were not the other creatures [formed] from the earth that [only] man should specifi cally be called Adam because he was created from the earth?”
His answer is a profound insight into man’s purpose:
“However, man’s character is especially comparable to the earth since the earth’s special characteristic is that of potential; through it, all that comes from it springs into reality, such as plants, trees, and everything else. Earth has the potential for all this. This, too, is the characteristic of man. He is a potential whose perfection [exists only when that potential] comes into reality. Therefore his name is fitting for him as he is a partner to the earth whose uniqueness is to transform potentiality to reality…”
The Sfas Emes (Parshas Vayeishev 5650) expresses a similar idea in relation to each person’s individual name: “The name is a person’s purpose for which he was created, just as it is said, concerning angels, that their name denotes their task. Similarly, when a person is sent from the world after completing his task, he merits his unique name. Therefore, we fi nd that the wicked forget their name in the grave.” The Medrash Hagadol informs us that the profundity of names extends not only to people but even to animals. Commenting on the verse, (Bereishis 2:19), “And Hashem G-d created from the earth all the beasts of the fi eld and all the birds of the heaven, and He brought to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living soul, that was its name,” the Medrash says:
“This teaches that he (Adam) passed them all before him to call them names, and he called each one a name according to what it was and according to what he perceived in them and knew the secret of them all.”
In other words, even the names of animals are not mere labels but indications of the animals’ hidden purpose. Regarding other languages, however, the Ran points out (Nedorim 2a) that their words are merely “the convention of every separate nation.” This introduction may explain a phenomenon that persisted for the first three thousand years or so of the world’s existence. During these early centuries, almost every recorded name in the Tanach was a unique appellation that had never been used before and was, perhaps, never meant to be used again. Those monikers were for one-time use only.
For example, nowhere in Tanach do we find anyone named after Avrohom, Yitzchok or Yaakov, nor is any one of the twenty-one kings of Yehudah named after the first royal precursor, Dovid, and no Kohein Gadol of the First Bais Hamikdash is named after any Kohein Gadol who preceded him (see Ezra 7, Divrei Hayomim I 6).
Why did people in those times have unique names?
The Yalkut Shimoni (Yeshayahu chapter 41:449) explains that this was a continuation of the theme Hashem began with Adam. People’s names were indications of their essence and goals. Commenting on the verse (Yeshayahu 41:4), “Who wrought and did? He who called the generations [their names] from the beginning,” the Medrash states:
“Had the [later] generations merited, the Holy One would have called [them] their names, just as He named Adam and Chavah, as it says, ‘And He called their name Adam.’ And so you find that when the Holy One saw a holy person born, He Himself would call him his name. He called Avrohom [his name], ‘And your name will be Avrohom,’ etc. And had the generations merited, the Holy One would have called everyone his name, and from his name, people would know his nature and his deeds.” The Medrash continues:
“And so you find in Egypt, ‘These are the families of Levi, the family of Livni,’ named after the mud and bricks (leveinim), ‘the family of Shimi,’ because Hashem heard (shama) their prayer, etc.”
The Medrash gives other examples of unique names that closely mirrored the unique characters and goals of individuals.
Bereishis Rabbah (37:7) declares that even non-Jews could possess such names:
“R. Yossi ben Halafta said: ‘Ever was a great prophet who was named based on an event, because it says, ‘And to Ever were born two sons. The name of the one was Peleg, because in his days the land was divided (nispalg).’”
And similarly, Rabbi Yochanan (Berachos 7b) asks, “What is [the implication of the name] Rus? That she merited having Dovid descend from her who delighted (ravah) Hashem with songs and praises.” It should be noted that the tendency to give unique names in those times was by no means watertight. This is evident from Avos d’Rebbi Noson that explains to us:
“…Why did Klal Yisroel weep over Aharon for thirty days? …there were thousands of Jews whose name was Aharon because, if not for Aharon, they would not have come to the world since he made peace between man and wife, and they would be together, and call the name of the child after his name.”
A NEW PARADIGM
The tendency to give children unique names lasted until the golus to Bavel. After that time, we find old-time names like Yosef, Binyomin, and Shimon, making a reappearance, and by the time of the Mishnah and Gemara, common names for everyone had become more the rule than the exception. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 37:7) offers two opinions for this development:
“Rav Yossi said, ‘The early ones, because they knew their family origins, used to give names according to an event, but we who do not know our family origins give names after our fathers.’ Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, ‘The early ones who used ruach hakodesh gave names according to an event, but we who do not use ruach hakodesh do not give names after an event.’” Despite this development, the Yalkut Shimoni cited above makes it clear that the power of names to indicate people’s characters and goals applies even now when people share the same names, illustrating this rule with the following episode:
“Our rabbis said, ‘When Rav Meir saw a person, he used to learn his name and from his name, he discerned his deeds. On one occasion, two talmidim came to him and the name of one of them was Kidor. Rav Meir said to his talmidim, “Be careful of this Kidor.” They said to him, “Rebbi, he is a ben Torah!” He said to them, “Even so, be careful of him!” After some days, they went to the bathhouse and left their clothes with Kidor while they entered the bathhouse. What did that Kidor do? He took their clothes and left. They came out and did not find him. They went home and put on other clothes.
“‘They came before Rav Meir [and] he said to them, “Why have you changed your clothes?” They told him what happened. He admonished them, saying, “Did I not tell you to be careful of this Kidor?” They replied to him, “Please, our Rebbi, how did you know?” He explained, “From his name that he is called, Kidor, since it says, ‘Ki dor tahafuchos heimah,’ ‘For they are a treacherous generation’” (Devorim 32:20).
The Gemara (Yuma 83b) cites the incident of another villain of the same name who was outsmarted by his victims:
“Rav Meir used to deduce from names while Rav Yehudah and Rav Yossi did not deduce from names. When they came to a certain place… they asked [their host], ‘What is your name?’ He responded to them, ‘Kidor!’ [Rav Meir] commented, ‘This indicates that he is a wicked man because it says, “Ki dor tahafuchos heimah.”’
“Rav Yehudah and Rav Yossi gave him their wallets [for safekeeping but] Rav Meir did not give him his wallet… The next day, they said to [the host], ‘Give us our wallets!’ He replied to them, ‘Nothing ever happened (you never gave me them)!’… They took him to a wine shop and noticed lentils on his moustache. They went and gave a sign to his wife (telling her that her husband had instructed her to return their wallets, and as a sign that this message was authentic, he had told them he had lentils for breakfast). She gave them their wallets and then they left…”
The Tanchuma (Parshas Haazinu) also warns us that our names have a profound influence on our future:
“A person must always examine names to give his son a name that is fitting to be righteous because, sometimes, a name causes good or bad, etc.”
The Bais Yoseph (Maggid Meisharim Parshas Shemos) elaborates on this theme:
“The secret of names is learnt from what our rabbis teach us, “Do not read shamos but shemos. Someone who is named Avrohom will lean towards the side of doing chesed, while someone called Yosef will either be powerful in suppressing immorality or will feed and sustain other people, like Yosef, who fed and sustained his father and brothers. And even though there are wicked people who have names of righteous people, that name is not worthless because nevertheless, he will have an inclination to the trait hinted in that name.”
If so, the perceptive reader might ask, how come we find Tannaim and Amoraim with the names of wicked people, such as Yishmael and Menachem, and how can it be that some of our greatest gedolim even had names of non-Jewish origin like Vidal and Maimon?
The answer will need to wait for another article of its own.
(Sources:  Weisberg, Yoseph Dovid, “Otzar Habris,” Mechon Toras Habris, Yerushalayim, 5753;  Kaganoff, Benzion C., “A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History,” Shocken Books, New York, 1977;  Friedman, Shema Yehudah, “Hashem Gorem: Divrei Hachacham Nofl im al Shmo,” Ve’eileh Shemos – Mechkarim Be’otzar Hasheimos HaYehudim, published by Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 5759.)