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Home » Shemot Parshah

Shmot: Jewish Names

Submitted by on January 8, 2013 – 3:39 amNo Comment | 2,322 views

The Door Handle

Why do rabbis often prefer to address their congregants by their Jewish names. Why is the Jewish name important? To understand, we must return to the beginning. What is a name?

Names are funny creatures. We have no need for them unless others want to reach us. If I lived alone on an island and no one needed to reach me, I’d have no need for a name. And though I often call myself by name when I berate myself (Lazer, you know better than that…) it is only because I am mimicking others berating me. If no one else existed, I wouldn’t have a name.[1] A name is like a door handle. The door has no need for a handle, If it didn’t need to be opened it wouldn’t have a handle; it has a handle only so others could open it. A name is a handle, it exists only so others could reach us.

The name reaches my external dimension, the part of me that relates to others outside of me. My essence, the part of me that doesn’t need or want others in order to be satisfied, the part of me that looks forward to silence and serenity, the part that is just me, transcends my name.

Yet, when my name is called, I turn in my entirety. When my mother called my name in her no nonsense voice, it was definitely I who was trembling, not some external dimension loosely associated with me. When a lover breathes your name on a breathless sigh, you are touched on the deepest level. When your name is called in a city full of strangers, you respond with joy as you turn to greet a rare friend.

There is a duality at work here. Names are external to us and yet they capture us perfectly. The jewish names - innerstreamTalmud teaches that names describe the nature of the person.[2] The Mystics explained that names are not only descriptive of personality, but of the soul.[3] In fact, the Talmud often looks to a name to seek insight to character and the Talmud cautions parents to avoid naming their children after the wicked.

Our souls in heaven have no names; they are nameless spiritual creatures, submerged entirely in the G-d they serve. They have no separate identity that can be named or that requires one. Yet, as the soul descends to this world and as part of it enters the body it takes on an identity and this identity is captured and described by the Hebrew name.[4]

Jewish mystics taught that every letter in the Hebrew Alphabet represents a particular flow of creative energy. When three or four letters are placed in sequence, the combined formula comprises a mix of these particular energies distilled in sequence. The first letter is the dominant energy, the second letter is secondary and the third letter acts as tertiary and so forth. In addition, a collective energy, that transcends the particular energies of the letters, binds them and forms a cohesive name or formula out of a disparate collection of unique energies. [5]

The name is given only to enable others to relate to us, but the part of us that relates to others, namely the external dimension of soul that enters the body to live an integrated life in the material world, is captured perfectly by the name. The external dimension of our soul is linked to our essence, the highest level of our soul, which is why we are reached on the deepest level when our names are called.[6]

In Egypt

In narrating our descent into Egypt, the Torah highlights the Jewish names of the original descendants, emphasizing the fact that they didn’t change their names while in Egypt. They descended [to Egypt} as Reuven and Shimon and they ascended [from Egypt] as Reuven and Shimon.[7]

This is astounding in light of the fact that most Jews followed Egyptian Paganism and Idolatry. They were not faithful to Judaism in practice, but they retained their Jewish names because they never forgot their true identity; they remained true to their Jewish souls and never assimilated into the Egyptian people. They remained a distinct people with a unique identity and destiny.

Two Levels of You

In Egypt our people remained in touch with their essential spiritual and Jewish selves, but this was not always the case in Jewish history. Under occupation by the Syrian Greeks many Jews Hellenized and adopted Greek Names. In Post Renaissance Germany many Jews took on German names. Today too, many Jewish parents give their children secular names in addition to Jewish names.

Is a non Jewish name not reflective of our true selves? After all, when a non Jewish name is called its bearer also responds in entirety though he is Jewish. How then is the non Jewish name different?

When we speak of true self we must know that there are two dimensions. Suppose your son was getting married and for whatever reason you couldn’t attend. Your friends threw a party for you on the night of your son’s wedding and you had a great time. If you were asked during that party if you wanted to be there, you could truthfully say yes and no. It would be true that you want to be at the party and it would be equally true that you don’t.

The part of you that is moved and touched by your friends wants to be with friends that night. But the deeper you, the one that is reached only by your son doesn’t want to be distracted by friends. You want to be alone at that moment where you can close your eyes and attach your mind and heart to your son in his happy hour. Both are true, it just depends on which we are talking about.

When someone calls Jack, the real you responds, but it is an external dimension, not the truest part of who you are. It is not the fullness of your Jewish soul that responds, but the dimension that interacts with the material and secular world. But when Yaakov is called, you turn with the totality of your being. The soul that was tasked by G-d to become you, responds. The you that flashes before your eyes when death stares you in the face, responds. The truest you, the one that is embedded in your deepest essence, responds to your Jewish name and that is why we make such a big deal of not only knowing our Jewish name, but of using it too.



[1] We use names to relate to G-d and in many cases we didn’t create them, they appear in the Torah. G-d was kind enough to give us names to help up relate to Him, but G-d has no need for names; it is only for our sake that He takes on a name.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Brachos 7b

[3] Likutei torah, Balak 67b.

[4] Likutei Torah Ki Teze

[5] Shaar Hayichud V’Haeminah ch. 12.

[6] Choosing a name is thus a form of prophetic exercise as it accurately describes the spiritual and mystical expression of their child’s soul.

[7] See Baal Haturim’s commentary on Exodus 1:1.

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