Midrash and Method
Midrash and Method
on the weekly parasha by
Meir Levin

AishDas Home

Midrash and Method Home
Va'eira 5765

What's in a name?

What's in the name.

On several occasions in the past we had discussed that fact that the Chazal had a set of received principles which they utilized in their reading of Biblical tests. One such rule is found in the following midrash.

And I appeared to Abraham. Isaac and Jacob with name Shakkai but my name YKVK I was not known to them (Exodus 6,3)

My name Shakkai...

The Righteous, their name precedes them - "and his name is Manoach", for they are compared to their Master - "and my name Shakkai...(Midrash Shemuel, 81-6)".

The wicked are listed before their names - Naval is his name, Sheva ben Bikri is his name. But the righteous, their names are listed before them - his name is Elkana, his name is Boaz, his name is Mordechai. They are compared to their Creator - my name Shakkai.
They asked against this: does it not write his name is Lavan (and he was wicked)? This means second in power.[1] R. Berakhia says, "white in wickedness" (Yalkut Shimoni 176,6).

The wicked precede their names - Naval is his name, Goliath is his name, Sheva ben Bikri is his name. But the righteous, they come before their names - his name is Elkana, his name is Ishai, his name is Boaz, his name is Mordechai, his name is Manoach (Bamidbar Rabbah 6,14).

This assumption that when a name is listed first, it affects the person may be based on another tradition, found in Brochos 7b.

How do we know that the name is causative? R. Elazar said. The verse says " come see works of Hashem, that he put destruction (shamus) in the land. Do not read Shamos but sheimos (names).[2]

It follows then that when the name is listed first, it will have a causative effect upon the person.

This rule is certainly supported by many verses. However, there are also a number of verses that would appear to contradict it, quite aside from the one that speaks of Lavan.

Torah Shelema to Genesis 24, 121, quotes Pa'aneach Razi who brings up many examples where this rule seems to break down. They include "her name is Reuma" and she was evil, "Yiov was his name" and he was good, "Tsemach is his name (Zechariah 6,12)" and he was the redeemer. He also points out that in regard to names of women the usual formula is "her name is..., Delila, Hagar, Ketura, Ritspah, Rachav, Atara" etc and in some cases these women were wicked. He therefore attempts to reinterpret the midrash as saying that "righteous precede their names" means simply that gain for themselves a good reputation while the reverse is true of the wicked - their name is preceded by their bad reputation. It is difficult, however, to maintain this explanation when we look at the three passages above together.

It may be suggested that we focus on the names of men only for none of the midrashim mentioned this rule in regard to female names and it may not apply to female names. If we do so, only three examples that explicitly contradict this principle will remain - those of Lavan, Yiov and Tsemach. It is noteworthy that even on the level of plain meaning, these are more literary names than proper names. The Midrash did not even consider Yiov and Tsemach as problems for these names are clearly not proper names of the individuals involved; even had Yiov existed,[3] he probably had a nicer name than the one that means "enemy". Tsemach's real name was Zerubabel and Tsemach is a reference to Ishaia 11,1 and not his proper name.[4]

In summary, here we encounter another long standing rule of derash. These rules were important in setting the direction of Midrashic exegesis, of specific verses as well as broader approaches to personalities and events in Tanach.

1 In Bamidbar Rabbah below this is quoted in the name of R. Yitshak and he and R. Berakhia disagree whether Lavan was wicked or not. These descriptions of Lavan are also found in Bareishis Rabba 60. See Torah Shelema 24, 124 for a discussion of various translations of this term. The simplest meaning of the answer is that Lavan was in fact righteous in certain ways.

2 Although in Yoma 83b we are treated to a story of how R. Meir was able to prevent financial loss by paying attention to a name of an innkeeper who turned out to be a wicked swindler, there is no relation to our topic. The question there is whether one may inquire into a name to protect himself form a swindle and whether it is indicative of a man's spiritual status, not that it is the name that caused his to be wicked. In this vein we also read in Sotah 9b, "If her name was not Delila she should have been called that, since she weakened his strength and his vigor". Similarly in Sotah 34b we are told that all of the spies were named according to their deeds; this also appears unrelated to this Midrash.
That a name may indicate something about its owner goes back to Tanach. "Naval is his name and navala he does (Samuel 1, 25,25). "It is for this that they called him Yakov and he outwitted me these two times (Genesis 27,36).
In the same vein, R. Yosef Karo writes in Magid Meisharim (Shemos) that a man named Abraham leans toward the side of kindness and one who is called Yosef is either a hero in sexual matters or feeds and supports others. These sources probably mean no more than the subconscious effect of carrying a name and its meaning will often and of itself create expectations that will influence a person to express precisely the qualities associated with the name.

3 B"B 15b

4 See Malbim who discusses the symbolic meaning of this name (Zechariah ibid).