5769 - #07




At the conclusion of the Priestly Blessing, Bamidbar 6:27 states v’samu et Shmi, “and they will place My Name on the Children of Israel and I will bless them.” At the end of the Aleinu prayer, we quote Zechariah 14:9 that on that great future day, Hashem will be One – uShmo echad --  and His Name One.1 These are but two examples when we refer, with great significance, to the Name of God; there are, of course, many others. Yet the question must emerge: what is the actual significance in the Name? Of course, I understand the importance of God, of belief in God, of knowing of God’s Existence – but what is the importance in the Name? Please, let God bless us, protect us, shine His Countenance upon us, be gracious to us and bring peace to us2 – but what does it even mean that His Name will be placed upon us? Whatever we understand from what the prophet is saying concerning the End of Days and God’s Presence in this world, what is the importance in His Name being One? In a broader sense, the question may be: what is the importance of names in general?

            The Torah is filled with episodes that apply great import to a naming. The first task that we are told that Adam HaRishon undertook was the naming of the animals.3 It is in anticipation of his circumcision that God changes the name of Avram to Avraham.4 It is only subsequent to that change in names and the change in the name of Sarai to Sarah that God declares that the founding father and mother of the Jewish People will have a son.5 We are further told that God, upon informing Avraham that Sarah will have a son, also tells Avraham to name this son Yitzchak.6 Of course, this should not seem so strange for it is the angel of God who also informs Hagar that she should name her son Yishmael.7 The overriding question is why. For God to declare what someone’s name should be, there must be meaning in the name that we employ. For the Torah to inform us that Adam named the animals – and then also named Chava8 – there must be value in the process of naming. If the essence of the Priestly Blessing is that God’s Name should be placed upon us, the Name must carry great worth. The challenge is determining what exactly is this meaning, value and worth.

            T.B. Rosh Hashanah 16b states that amongst the four undertakings that will cause an unfavourable Divine decree against a person to be torn up is the changing of one’s name. Maharsha presents a basic problem with the statement. Why should this be? If someone, through the process of Divine judgment is found deserving of a harsh decree, why should changing one’s name cause this decree to be overturned? Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 2:4 explains that when a person changes his/her own name, the person is declaring to the world that he/she is a different person and thus should not be made to suffer for the misdeeds of the person he/she once was. Yet the proof that the gemara elicits to show that a change in name can cause a change in a decree is from Sarah Immeinu who upon being named Sarah was immediately informed that she would have a child. Sarah did not change her own name; it was changed by God so the explanation of the Rambam for why this change of names is significant would seem to be inapplicable. More distinctly, Maharsha queries, how can the concept of a harsh decree due to past misdeeds even be considered in the context of Sarah Immeinu? It must mean, Maharsha contends, that shinui shem, the changing of one’s name, must also have an effect in changing one’s mazal, one’s fate.9 The problem is that the gemara uses the term gezar din which implies a decree, which can be distinguished from fate. The further problem, though, would be the statement in T.B. Shabbat 156,a,b of ein mazal l’Yisrael, that there is no imposition of fate upon the Jewish People.10 It would seem to be that it could only have been a specific Divine decree that declared Sarah unable to have children, but why then would the changing of Sarah’s name, under the command of God, be necessary to override the decree?

            Rambam states that when one changes one’s name, one is declaring that he/she is a different person. Why would this be so? What is in a name that would indicate that, by changing one’s name, one is changing one’s being? It would be difficult to say that in every change in name, we encounter a change in being yet it would also seem that our name is the most personal definition and statement of the self. A name reflects one’s essence for a name is the description of a self that is totally unique. We can refer to ourselves by many titles or descriptions – rabbi, doctor, brother, golfer – but it is when we refer to ourselves or to others simply by our names that we understand that we are referring to someone who is more than the sum of our parts. It is through a name that we refer to one’s uniqueness. It is how we see ourselves and how we portray our selves – our essence, our uniqueness – to another. When Adam named Chava he was stating how he saw her but he was also describing into the future how Chava will portray herself to all others. He was also describing how Chava would see herself. Extending this concept to the birth of Yitzchak, it would seem that it was most important for this next father of the Jewish People to have been born to and brought up by individuals who radiated the essences of Avraham and Sarah and not Avram and Sarai. What is in a name? It is the uniqueness of our individuality and how we relate to our names informs us how we relate to our distinct beings.

            There is a great difference when we refer to Hakodesh Baruch Hu as God and as Hashem. God is a description of office, of relationship. Hashem is a description of Being. On that great day in the future, we do not solely wish that the world will recognize the office of the Deity but encounter the uniqueness of this Deity, Hashem. The world will not just be filled from the expression of the relationship between created and Creator but between unique selves and the unique Possessor of the Name.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 The verse inherently begs many questions for obviously it cannot mean that God, in Essence, will only be One in the future and thus, chas v’shalom, is not One today. This study, though, is beyond the parameters of this Insight. See, however, the many commentators on the verse to see how they deal with this issue.

2 These are all parts of the Priestly Blessing. See, further, Bamidbar 6:24-26.

3 Bereishit 2:20.

4 Bereishit 17:5.

5 Bereishit 17:15,16.

6 Bereishit 17:19.

7 Bereishit 16:11.

8 Bereishit 3:20.

9 I have chosen to translate mazal as fate, although it is usually translated as luck or constellation (with connections to astrology) for it broadly implies the cause-and-effect that is imposed upon someone rather than the natural results of the flow of the moral cause-and-effect built upon a person’s acts.

10 We will not entertain the idea that this statement only applied to the Jewish nation after if became a nation and thus did not apply to Sarah Immeinu.

11 See, also, Maharal, Chidushei Aggadot, Rosh Hashanah 16b who states that a name reflects the essence of a person.

(c) Nishma, 2008


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