What's In a Name?

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on November 19, 2017
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

It is one of the first and most powerful responsibilities given to those of us who are parents: give that child a name. Is it any surprise that the various streams of Jewish culture, and other cultures as well, have folk traditions that offer guidance for this process (so, for example, Ashkenazi Jews often name children for deceased relatives, while Sefaradim name for grandparents and other living relatives)? Moreover, the moment when the name is bestowed is often ritualized. For boys, this is usually part of the brit milah ceremony (unless, for example, if the circumcision cannot take place on the 8th day due to health or other urgent reasons). For a girl, it was long traditional for the father to come for an aliyah shortly after the birth and for the congregation to offer a prayer for the well-being of the mother and the newborn and to grant her a name; in our more egalitarian era, this may take place during a brit/simhat bat ceremony, or both parents may be called to the Torah.

Names carry information with them. Who are the ancestors of this child, and what traits of those ancestors do parents hope to impart to their descendants? How do the parents imagine the place their child will take and the role their child will play in the world: is it important to have a name that marks that child as Jewish (perhaps a Hebrew name, or a name that is the same in English and Hebrew), or as American, or as part of the family or child's ethnic heritage (a Persian name for a Persian family, or perhaps a name that reflects the place and community from which a child was adopted)? A creative name that marks the child as distinctive, unique? What are the origins of the name and what does it mean, and what does that say about the child and/or the hopes the parents have for their child?

There are a lot of babies born and named in this week's parashah - eleven boys and one girl. An intriguing phenomenon about all this naming is that it is the women - Leah and Rachel - who give names to the children each bears, and even those borne by each sister's slave women, Bilhah and Zilpah. What is more, each of the names of these sons - though not the name of Leah's daughter, Dinah - is given a meaning.

These names speak to the fierce and sorrowful rivalry between the sisters, played out in the interconnected spheres of fertility (mostly granted to Leah) and Jacob's love (given to Rachel). Thus, then, the first three to be born, Leah's first three sons:

Reuben: "...for she said, 'The Lord saw my plight [ra'ah...b'onyi]; yes, now my husband will love me.'" (29:32)

Shimon: "...and [Leah] said, 'The Lord heard [ shama] that I am despised and has given me this one too.'" (29:33)

Levi: "...and [Leah] said, 'Now, this time, my husband will beattached [yelaveh] to me, for I have borne to him three sons."

Three verses, three sons, three names that speak to the dimensions of Leah's pain at being unloved and deprived of warmth and attention from her husband.

And yet - there is one more verse, one more son. This time something different happens when Leah names him:

"...and [Leah] said, 'This time I give thanks [ odeh] to the Lord.' She therefore named him Judah [Yehudah]." (29:35)

As the commentary in the Etz Hayim humash notes (p. 174), "The names of Leah's first three sons reflect her frustrating sibling rivalry with her sister for the love of the husband they share. The reasons given for her choice of names for the first three children say nothing about her hopes for them but focus solely on how the births will affect her marriage. Now, with a fourth son, her mood changes from rivalry to gratitude, so she names him Judah (Yehudah), from a Hebrew root meaning 'to praise.'" Leah, it seems, has found a place apart from her bitterness at her situation to find simple gratitude and joy in the birth of this particular child. Indeed, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai claims in the Talmud (Berakhot 7b), before this moment, no one in the history of the world had thanked God in precisely this way; this is the force of Leah's statement that " This time I give thanks...."

One might thus observe - as both the commentary in Etz Hayimdoes and as Tammi J. Schneider notes in her comments to this parashah in The Torah: A Women's Commentary - that it is not coincidental that it is particularly this name that comes to form the basis of the name of our people at large:

"In the future, the descendants of Jacob will be known as Judeans or Jews ( Y'hudim)... Her heartfelt prayer of thanks reflects her having grown from self-concern and a focus on what she lacked to a genuine sense of appreciation for what was hers." (Etz Hayim, 174)

"Thus Judah, who becomes the forefather of most of the Jewish people, is so named because his mother was simply thankful to the Deity to have him." ( A Women's Commentary, 176)

That is, if we turn to our collective name as inspiration, then Jews - Judeans - descendants of Judah - are called on to be those who are thankful to God.

But the biblical account is more complicated than that. First of all, Leah's point of acceptance is one that Rachel does not come to (which perhaps should not surprise us given her feelings about her barrenness -" Let me have children or else I am a dead woman!" she cries to Jacob in 30:1). She bestows on both of Bilhah's children names that refer not exactly to a contest of Jacob's affections (which she already has), but rather first to her sense of concern and vindication vis à vis the Divine, Who has let her remain barren (Dan: "Rachel said, 'God has judged [danani] and has also listened to my pleas and given me a son.'" 30:6), and then to her competition with her sister fought on the battleground of fertility (Naftali: "Rachel then said, 'A mighty rivalry [naftulay] have I waged [niftalti] with my sister; moreover, I have prevailed" 30:8). Even when she eventually bears her own son, she thinks in terms of overcoming and the need to continue the battle; both themes are encompassed in the name Joseph (Yoseph): "She [Rachel] said, "God has removed my disgrace.'..."May the Lord add on another son for me."(30:23-24)

Meanwhile, so long as it is the slave women bearing, Leah seems to retain her equanimity, naming Zilpah's two sons with names that express feelings of gratitude: good fortune (Gad: "Leah said, 'Fortune [ gad] has come!'" 30:11) and happiness (Asher: "Leah then said, 'How happy [b'oshri] I am—yes, women will call me happy [ ishruni]!'" (30:13). But when she herself gives birth to two additional sons (as well as a daughter, whose name Dinah, as already mentioned, is not explained), she too returns to the theme of her feelings about her difficult place in a difficult and complicated family:

Issachar: "Leah said, "God has given me my reward [ s'khari] for giving my maid to my husband.'" (30:18)

Zebulun: "Leah then said, 'God has given me a fine gift [zavdani...zev ed tov]. Now my husband will [finally] give me the [wedding] gift [yizb'l aini] due me, for I have borne him six sons." (30:20)

The first of these two names also puns on the circumstances of Issachar's conception, the "deal" in which Leah gives the mandrakes (considered in the ancient world to be an aphrodisiac and/or fertility aid) found by her son Reuben "to Rachel" in return for the right to a night with Jacob (30:14-16): "Leah went out to meet him and said, 'You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you (sakhor sakharticha)..." (30:16). The exchange (both the verbal exchange and the exchange of mandrakes for Jacob's time and sexual attention) between the sisters suggests that even when ostensibly working together each to provide the other with something she wants/needs, the bitter and painful conditions that create tension between them have not been overcome. Leah is readily drawn back in to her resentment and loneliness. She cannot resist accusing her sister, responding to Rachel's request, "Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son's mandrakes?" (30:15).

We strive for thankfulness, for gratitude, for joy and appreciation of good fortune. In fact, the Mishnah goes so far as to tell us that "a person is required to bless [God] on the bad just as one blesses on the good..." (Berakhot 9:5). But we are human, and sometimes lash out instead, at God and at each other. The struggle too is part of our heritage and identity, as we will see next week when the other name that defines our people is bestowed: Yisrael, named after our forefather Jacob, "for you have striven (sarita) with beings divine and human, and you have prevailed." (32:29). We succeed temporarily, and sometimes fail - but we live out our identity as Jews, Yehudim, when we strive to succeed again.

May we continue to seek and find our gratitude in this week of Thanksgiving. Shabbat shalom.