These are the names…
‘And these are the names of the children of Israel’. The second book of the Torah is shemot, the book of names. The names of Jacob’s sons, the tribes of Israel are the introduction to the epic story of exile and exodus.
Names occupy a significant place in our heritage and culture. The Torah is replete with seemingly insignificant names which are later explained by the Rabbis as being laden with meaning.
Abraham, Sarah and many other major personalities have their names changed, and others, such as Moses have multiple concurrent names.
In Jewish thought a name is far more than an arbitrary label. The Hebrew word for name shem, forms the middle of the word for soul neshama.
The Talmud (Yuma 83b) explains that Rabbi Meir was able to ascertain a person’s essence and character from their name.
The renowned 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known as the Arizal) explains that when parents give their child a Hebrew name they are imbued with a spark of Divine inspiration.
The name they select is invariably the true description of the neshama, or spiritual essence of their child.
Whereas many Biblical names were called after specific events, current practice is to name after relatives.
Ashkenazim only name after deceased parents and grandparents, whereas common Sephardi practice is to honour them in their lifetime.
Either way, this gives the child a sense of identity and continuity, carrying on the legacy of previous generations into a new era.
Interestingly the Hebrew letters for name shin mem add up to the same numerical value as sefer, book.
Names tell a story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission. Perhaps this is why we are told that when we complete our years on this earth and face Heavenly accountability, one of the most powerful questions we will be asked is, ‘What is your name – and did you live up to it?’
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is founder and chief executive of Jewish Futures