What's in a name?
How many names do you have? Chances are that you carry around at least two or three different appellations. There is the workplace name and title, the affectionate name by which your wife and friends may call you and the name, rank and serial number in your social security file. This situation pertained already in ancient times.
You find that a person is called by three names: one by which that his father and mother call him, one that people call him and one that he acquires himself. The best one is the one that he acquires himself (Tanchuma VaYakhel, 1).
One of the most prominent features of Midrashic approach is calling apparently different personages by the same name. Thus, for example (and there are dozens of examples), Chazal said that Ezra and Malachi is the same person based on the similarity in the subjects with which they dealt and their attitude to them (Megillah 15a) . The first to propose an explanation was Azariah Di Rossi . I have not been able to locate a copy of Meor Einaim but his words are quoted with approval by R. Z. H. Chajes in his Introduction to the Talmud (Feldheim, 1960, p. 172-174) . He writes:
The reason for this method is to be found in the chief principle which the Rabbis laid down as a cornerstone or basis for their exegetical expositions, namely that the lecturer may in all possible ways enhance the praise of righteous and pious men, and whenever he finds a reference in the Holy Writ to the worthiness of a particular righteous man he should attribute any other virtue to him which is found in any other outstanding personality, if only it can be given Biblical support. In this way we find the righteous adorned with every worthy quality and virtue".
The principle that Chazal endeavored to explain all actions of a righteous man toward good and conversely, all deeds of a wicked person as bad is certainly correct and has been discussed in the Midrash and Method in the past (http://www.aishdas.org/midrash/5764/shelach.html). The conclusion, however, that identifying different names as belonging to one person is a special case or corollary of this rule is problematic. If this were correct we would expect that Chazal would show a tendency to assign names in random. In fact, however, we find that they tended to aggregate names around only a few individuals and also that they often, although not invariably, tended to the number seven.
Yisro had seven names : Yeter, Hovav, Reuel, Chever, Putiel and Keni. Yeser because he added a section to the Torah. Yisro because he became outstanding in good deeds. Chovav for being beloved by G-d. Reuel because he was, as if a friend to G-d. Chever because he became an associate to God. Putiel because he abandoned idolatry. Keni because he was zealous for Torah and acquired Torah.
The Midrash goes on to suggest another explanation, saying that the name Yisro was given to him after he did good deeds. The name Yisro is presumably his new Jewish name after conversion
The tendency to find specifically seven names is quite common. I quote two other instances of this phenomenon.
Moshe had six (other) names: Yered, Heber, Yekusiel, Avigdor, Avo Sokho, Avi Zanoach. R. Yehuda ben Ilai said; Toviah was also his name. R. Yshmael ben Ami said: Son of Nesanel was also his name. R. Yehudash ben Korcha said: He was also called Levi, becasue of his family (Leviticus Rabbah 1,3; names are from Chronicles 4,18 and 24,6) .
This was apparently an early tradition for we find that the Yalkut Shimoni Shemos 166 attempts to explain these names as having been given by different people around Moshe - perhaps having in mind the Midrashic passage with which we started this discussion(You find that a person is called by three names: one by which that his father and mother call him, one that people call him and one that he acquires himself.).
His father called him Hever because for his sake Amram reunited with his wife. His mother called him Yekusiel because she gathered him to her bosom after G-d restored him to her. His sister called him Yered because for his sake she went to the Nile to find out what shall become of him. His brother called him Ave Zanoach because "my father left his mother and then took her back for this one". Kehath and his wet-nurse called him Avi Sokho for hie was hidden from the Egyptians for 3 months . And all of Israel called him Shemaiah ben Nesanel because in his days G-d has heard them…
Another example of the tendency to allocate specifically seven names is found in regard to what is not even a person - the mountain on which the Torah was given. This midrash from Numbers Rabbah 1,7 states that Wilderness of Sinai has 6 additional names, altogether seven .
Wilderness of Sinai…
It is called six names:
Mountain of G-d for God sat upon in Judgment…
Har Bashan for the Holy One Blesed be He came there.
Har Gavnunim - The Mountain that voided all other mountains…
Har Chemed for the Holy One Blessed Be He desired to dwell there…
Mount Choreb - for a sword was released there as it says, "the adulterer and the adultress shall die (by sword)".
Mount Sinai for upon it the worshippers of idols became hateful to the Holy One Blesssed Be He.
There is another name which is found in a different midrash, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1,1.
I will bring you to my mother's house - this is Sinai. R. Berachia said: "Why is Sinai called 'My mother's house"? Because there they became like a day old child.
The number seven is, of course, has numerological and mystical significance. Chazal may have well have had a tradition that important personages are found in Tanach under seven different names. This is in full consonance with the concept of Key-words (leitmotif) . The key word usually, although not always, appears seven times or a multiple of seven times in a defined section of Biblical narrative. As such it serves to define and focus the reader's attention on a specific concept or idea that is basic to the message of that particular section; it also serves as below the surface key to interpreting the text. An example is the seven appearances of the word 'gave' in the 'reading of Bikkurim' . If this relatively modern observation is correct, the idea that important concepts are repeated seven times may lead directly to the understanding that important persons or places are also encoded in Tanach seven times under different names, and then to attempts to find them . I believe that as an important exegetical tool it would most certainly be a tradition received from earlier times, perhaps, from Moshe Rabbeinu himself.
Finally, despite my misgivings, I feel obligated to share with my readers the idea of closed cannon that had been offered by certain contemporary scholars to explain this feature of Midrashic method. They claim that there exist two different ways to approach one perceive any sacred text. One is referred to as open cannon and sees Scripture as being only a partial description of events and as open to explanation through the use of information that is located outside of it. One would therefore look to archeological, comparative linguistic or contemporary literary sources for information to identify names of people who are not otherwise explained. The other approach assumes that Scripture contains within it all the information that is necessary to interpret itself - the so-called closed cannon. It is this second approach that is assumed by midrash. When a midrashist encounters a name or a person of whom little is known, he assumes that he or she is identifiable elsewhere in Tanach and searches in it for identification. This is why different names are assigned to one, usually well known individual.
This explanation suffers from the same disadvantage as the one that was offered by Di Rossi and Maharitz Chajhes. If this is correct, why should Midrash look to assign specifically seven names? What is it that impels them to be allocated preferentially to well-known individuals rather than evenly and equally? Finally, why explain such assignments with Scriptural proofs?
The tendency to identify various names with one individual is more likely a received tradition of interpretation that has its roots in deep understanding of how the Torah encodes information below the surface level of pshat. As such it is a part of the Oral Law, all of which we must assiduously pursue and study.
1 In Malachi it is said, "He has married the daughter of a foreign god" and in Ezra it says, "We have broken faith with G-d and married strange women".
2 c. 1511 - 1578. The advanced critical spirit and method of Me'or Einayim made the work a subject of controversy for a long time. The first part deals with the earthquake in Ferrara in 1571 and the second part is a translation into Hebrew of The Letter of Aristeas. The third part deals with aggadah and chronology and is particularly controversial. While it was being printed in Mantua, rabbis who heard about its contents raised objections, some of which Rossi answered in the work itself. In 1574, even before the printing of Me'or Einayim was completed, the rabbis of Venice , headed by Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, published a proclamation of h erem against possessing, reading, or using the book, unless one received special permission from the rabbis of his city. Rossi was not personally attacked, the impeccable conduct of his private life easily meeting Orthodox standards of behavior. Although the book was criticized throughout the succeeding centuries, it continued to be studied and quoted, even by its critics, including the Vilna Gaon. Renewed interest in the book was aroused with the beginning of the Haskalah period late in the 18th century, when maskilim found in Rossi's work ideas similar to their own. The first modern printing of the work (after the Mantua edition) was published by the maskilim of Berlin in 1794.
3 A new edition will shortly by published by Yashar Books.
4 This midrash exists in multiple textual variations, some of them containing only six and others eight names. Six names may be explained on the basis of Ba'al Haturim who reads Yisro as Yeser 6 - that he had six names more than everyone else. See Torah Shelema to Shemos 18, 1 for a discussion of various texts.
5 Giving Moses ten names is just as significant as giving him seven.
6 The reference to a wet nurse is unclear. Perhaps this midrash does not identify the anonymous wet-nurse of Shemos 2,7 with Yocheved, his mother. Just in case, it adds Kehas, so that if the wet-nurse is Yocheved who had already given Moshe a different name, Kehas can substitute.
7 See Shemos Rabbah 2,6 which quotes five of these. It appears that there may be scribal or printers' omissions in some versions. There are perhaps other versions that are extant or that had existed that listed all seven names in one list.
8 M. Buber, Darko Shel Mikra, Bialik Institute, Jeruslem, 1964, p. 300-307.
9 See S. Peerless, To study and to teach: The methodology of Nechama Leibowitz, Urim 2004. p.100-102
10 An interesting article on number symbolism in the Torah by the late Solomon David Sassoon can be found at http://www.judaicseminar.org/general/vezot2_number_symbolism.pdf