December 9, 2021 |

What's In A Name

I was named for my grandfather. Twice. Rabbi Velvel Heller's name in Hebrew was Ze'ev; in English, Wolf, an exact translation. Ze'ev is also my first name in Hebrew (Zev in English.) My middle name is Aviezer[1], which has in it the three letters of Ze'ev, zayin, aleph and bet. My grandfather was niftar (passed away) when my father was a teenager and I would have had to been born twenty years earlier to have known him. I have only gleaned a few stories about his life, not nearly enough to satisfy my curiosity. I have a few of his sefarim (holy books) displayed on my bookshelves and I have always wanted to live up to what I imagined would be his expectations as his namesake, especially one twice-named. When I began wearing a gartel (a black belt worn by Chassidim during prayers), I did it because it was his minhag (custom) and when I went to study in yeshiva, I felt proud to be keeping the family tradition of Torah learning. Of course, my learning is a pale shadow of his (he knew the whole Talmud back and forth), but I often hope privately that he would have approved of my learning, my teaching and my family.

It is a strong and beloved custom among Jews to name our children after our deceased relatives[2] and for our Biblical forebears; the traditional blessing associated with these names is kishmo kein hu, let them be as their name suggests. Let Moshe be like Moshe, let Baruch be blessed, let Aviezer be like his saintly and learned grandfather. We have followed this tradition in our family as well, giving Nadav the middle name Simcha (joy) for his Zayda Sam (z'l), Rinat's middle name Miryam for her leadership and strength of character and Uriel's middle name Moshe, since he was born right before Shavuot, when Moshe went up to get the Torah.

There are also times when one might be inclined to change their name. It is our custom to add a name to the very ill (such as Chaim or Chaya, that they should live) as if to plead with God and the Angel of Death that they need more time in this world to live up to their new name. Maimonides writes in the Laws of Teshuva (2:4) that one who has committed a severe sin should change their actions, their city and their name (like witness protection) as part of their penance, as if to say "I am not the one who sinned; I have a new name and am a new person." There are many Jews who were simply never given a Jewish name, including many Jews from the FSU, who grew up almost without religion during and even after the era of Communism. I have seen many Jews who have come closer to their Judaism take on proudly a Jewish name; some do it to cut their ties with their secular pasts and others just to embrace and forge a Jewish future for themselves, as if to say "I am a new person with my new Jewish name and a strong Jewish identity." The names they choose may hark back to the past (a religious grandparent, a family name) or yearn to the future, to take a name that suggest the kind of committed Jew they want to become. Both are beautiful choices.

It is interesting that two of our three Patriarchs and one of our Matriarchs also underwent name changes. Avram became Avraham (see Gen. 17:5 and Divrei ha-Yamim 1:27), Sarai became Sarah (Gen 17:15) and Ya'akov became Yisrael (Gen 32:29 and 35:10). What do these name changes mean? Why didn't Yitzchak, Rivka, Rachel or Leah get name changes? Why is Ya'akov's name change so dramatic compared to the others?

Although I have found no commentators that discuss it, it seems that Yitzchak did not need a name change because he was the middle forefather. In becoming the father of the Chosen People, Avraham had to go, says the Talmud, from Av of Aram, a local leader,to Av of Hamon goyim, the spiritual father of the world. Sarai undergoes the change to Sarah for the same reason, it seems[3]. Likewise, it would seem that since Ya'akov had to transition from the era of the Avot (forefathers) to that of the 12 shevatim (tribes), his name was also changed at that nexus point.

What is unique about Ya'akov is not only that he gains a totally new name, but that his old name never disappears. Though the Rabbis teach (Berachot 13a) that it is forbidden to refer to our forefather Avraham by his former name, God and the Jewish people continue to refer to Jacob as both Ya'akov and Yisrael, as in Gen 46:2 and e.g. Isa. 44:1 and 48:12. In fact, Ya'akov even has a third name, referred to later in the Torah. He is sometimes referred to as Yeshurun (sometimes spelled Jeshurun), as in Devarim 32:15, 33:5 and 33:26.

Each of Ya'akov's three names represents another facet of his personality, a development of his legacy. He was originally named YA'AKOV, suggestive of his being the underdog. He was born second, holding on to his brother's heel (eikev) and unchosen by his father. The other meaning of Ya'akov - which is how Esav interprets it - is that which is bent or to be shrewd/deceptive; this is what Ya'akov is forced to do for much of his life in order not to be exploited by others. However, when he finally returns to his homeland and struggles with the angel and with Esav, he is given the name of a champion. YISRAEL means "the one who struggles with God" and the interpretation of the name means one who has prevailed (from the language of sar, prince, or serara, ruler[4]) over both the earthly and the divine, one who is no longer the underdog. However, Ya'akov continues to suffer in his life from challenge and deceit (losing Rachel in childbirth and his beloved son Yosef because of sibling rivalry) and it is only posthumously that he becomes known as YESHURUN, from the language of yashar, straightness. Though he was forced to struggle and suffer his whole life, in the end he not only prevailed, but he made everything straight. In the end, he was able to leave behind his shrewdness and his struggles and emerge as the father of the Jewish people. We proudly define ourselves by any of the three: b'nei yisrael (the children of Israel) beit ya'akov[5] (the house of Jacob) or b'nei yeshurun.

In some ways, Ya'akov's names reflect what it means to be a Jew. We are often underdogs, carving out our impact in history behind the scenes, clinging to the heels of the empires who rise and fall. We are often targeted by God and the nations for special treatment and are forced to struggle with anti-semitism and overwhelming odds. But not only do we, in each generation, prevail, but we maintain our Torah and our ethics. No matter how much we fight and suffer, we remember that the Torah tells the children of Yeshurun that they should be yashar v'tov (Devarim 6:18), straight and good. Our national Jewish identity reflects the challenges we face and the expectations that we will rise to them and succeed, fulfilling God's hopes and expectations for us.

This is true of our personal Jewish names as well. A famous Chassidic story is told about Rav Zusha of Anipol, who cried soul-searchingly on his deathbed. He told his students how scared he was to die and to stand before the Heavenly tribunal that would judge his life's work. They asked him why he was so scared - after all, he was one of the righteous of his generation, humble and God-fearing. How could God do other than to judge him for a blessing and a glorious afterlife in the World to Come? Reb Zusha responded by saying: If God will ask me why I was not more like Moshe Rabbeinu or the Rambam, I will simply answer that I was not zocheh (worthy) to be given that level of wisdom or leadership. I could never have been like them! But what if God will ask me - why weren't you more like Reb Zusha, what will I answer then?"

I know that Zev Aviezer is no Moshe or Rambam and not even a Rabbi Velvel. But he can still hope to live up to being Zev Aviezer. Maybe you too are no Moshe or Rambam, no Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Soloveichik. But may you live up to being a descendant of Yakov-Yisrael-Yeshurun and may you live up to the challenges and promise of YOUR Jewish name. Shabbat shalom!

[1] Aviezer is rare, derived from a family in the tribe of Menashe (Yehosshua 17:2, Shoftim 6:34) and the name of one of Benayahu ben Yehoyafa's lieutenants (II Shmuel 23:27). There are a handful of us out there, such as Nathan Aviezer (as a last name) and Aviezer Ravitzky, the noted Israeli scholar.
[2] Ashkenazi Jews do not name for living relatives, though some sefaradim do.
[3] The name change seems only to add to their names, not to take away. Hence, Avraham should have been Avham, but the resh was retained as a sort of conservation of letters (see Midrash rabba 46:7). This might also explain why the Rabbis went to pains to day that Sarai's lost yud was not really lost. Either it was added to Hoshea's name, making Yehoshua (Joshua) or it was split into two - the gematria of yud is 10 and so the two heys (gematria of 5) given to Avraham and to Sarah are really the two parts of the original yud.
[4] This is also the root of our foremother Sara's name; it is an aristocratic name.
[5] Sometimes, beit yaakov is said to refer specifically to the women of Israel, see Rashi on Sh'mot 19:3.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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