This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, has a most unique line when reading it in a proper Torah scroll. We read of a future time where “… Hashem removed them from upon their soil, with anger, with wrath, and with great fury, and He cast them out [וישלכם] to another land, as this very day.” (Deuteronomy 29:27) The Torah prophecies that a time will come when Israel will be exiled out of their land. The word וישלכם, “cast them out” is written with an enlarged letter lamed (ל). As is known, there are instances in the Torah where certain letters are written larger or smaller than normal. What is the significance of this enlarged lamed?
This week’s parasha begins with the words Eleh hadevarim, “These are the things” that Moses spoke to all of Israel. Our Sages taught that the term eleh hadevarim is particularly significant. The words appear just three times in the whole Torah. By stating that these, specifically, are the things that God commanded, we are being called to give extra attention to them. The first instance of this term is in Exodus 19:6, where God promises that “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation—these are the things that you should relate to the Children of Israel.” God underscored that Moses should make it clear to the people: they are absolutely unique in the world, and their task is to be entirely righteous and holy. This is probably the most essential thing that every Jew must remember.
The only other instance of the term (aside from the introduction to this week’s parasha) is in Exodus 35:1, where we read how
Moses assembled the entire congregation of the Children of Israel, and said to them: “These are the things which Hashem has commanded, that you should do them: Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be for you a holy day, a Sabbath of Sabbaths to Hashem…”
Here God is underscoring what may be the most important mitzvah: Shabbat. This mitzvah is among the very first mentioned in the Torah, and one of the most frequently mentioned. It is certainly among the severest, being one of 36 mitzvot whose transgression carries a death penalty. Unlike many other well-known mitzvot which are not explicitly mentioned outside of the Chumash (such as tzitzit or tefillin), Shabbat is clearly noted throughout the Tanakh. It is the reason that today the whole world follows a 7-day week. There are more halachot regarding Shabbat than perhaps any other topic. While the Talmudic tractate of Bava Batra may be the longest by number of pages, the tractate Shabbat is by far the longest by number of words. (The former has 89,044 words while the latter has a whopping 113,820!) And to determine if a person is Torah-observant or not, it typically suffices to ask if they are shomer Shabbos.
The power of Shabbat was best described by Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (1856-1927, better known by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am). He famously said that “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Ginsberg was born into a Hasidic family and raised very religiously. Though he later had many issues with ultra-Orthodoxy and became mostly irreligious, he nonetheless opposed political Zionism and argued for a spiritual Zionism based on traditional Jewish values. He accurately wrote that Israel must be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.” Among other things, it was Ginsberg who played a key role in convincing the Zionists that Hebrew must be the official language of Israel, and not German as pushed by Herzl. He also argued for state-wide Sabbath observance. In his 1898 essay Shabbat v’Tzionut, “Sabbath and Zionism” (where that famous quote above is from), he wrote:
Anyone who feels a true bond in his heart, with the life of the nation over many generations, simply will not be able—even if he believes neither in the World to Come nor the Jewish State—to imagine the Jewish people without Shabbat Malketa.
While his wife was strictly shomer Shabbos, Ginsberg himself wasn’t so careful with all the rules. It seems he disagreed with the Talmudic derivation of the 39 melachot, the categories of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. Ironically, the Talmud (Chagigah 10a) itself admits that “the laws of Shabbat… are like mountains hanging by a hair, for they have little scriptural basis but many laws.” Keeping Shabbat to rabbinic standards is hard and hefty like a mountain, yet the basis for doing so from a Torah perspective is minimal.
The Torah does not list the 39 prohibited works. Rather, the Talmud explains, they were derived from the 39 works done to build the Tabernacle, based on the juxtaposition of the command to keep the Sabbath and the command to construct the Tabernacle in Exodus 35. Elsewhere (Shabbat 70a), Rabbi Natan shows how the number 39 can be derived from the words eleh hadevarim in that Exodus passage. The plural word devarim implies a minimum of two, and the definite article “ha” adds another, making three. The gematria of the word eleh is 36. Altogether, we have 39!
Today’s halachot of Shabbat have come a very long way since the 39 melachot of the Talmud. Each generation since has added more and more fences, and in recent centuries Shabbat observance has become ever more stringent. A story is told of the Baal Shem Tov that he saw a vision of two men, one going to Heaven and the other to Gehinnom. The first, while being entirely ignorant of the law, would enjoy himself mightily on the Sabbath and have a day of true rest, as the Torah commands. The second was so strict with every little halacha that his Shabbat was nothing but prohibitions, restrictions, and fears that he would inevitably transgress something. Above all else, Shabbat must be a day of rest and joy.
Shabbat in Jubilees
Interestingly, the ancient Book of Jubilees (written in the late Second Temple era, and before the Mishnah and Talmud) provides a different list of Shabbat restrictions. While Jubilees is considered an apocryphal text, and is generally not accepted in traditional Judaism (Ethiopian Jews are pretty much the only ones that consider Jubilees a canonical text), it did make an impact on other traditional Jewish texts, especially midrashic and mystical ones.
Jubilees lists fifteen prohibitions: doing one’s professional work, farming, traveling on a journey, and riding an animal, commerce, water-drawing, carrying burdens, and carrying things from one house to another, killing, trapping, fasting, making war, lighting a fire, cooking, and sexual intercourse. (See Jubilees 2:29-30 and 50:8-12.) Just about all of these—the major exception being sexual intercourse—is also forbidden in the Talmud. When we keep in mind that 11 of the 39 Talmudic prohibitions fall under the category of farming and baking, and many more under trapping, killing, and cooking, the two lists start to look very similar.
In some ways, the Jubilees list is even more stringent, which fits with the assertion of historians that Jubilees was probably composed by the Essene sect (or their forerunners). The Essenes were the religious “extremists” of their day, who fled the corruption of Jerusalem to live in isolation, piety, celibacy (for the most part), meditation, and study. Interestingly, the oldest known tefillin that archaeologists have uncovered are from Essene caves around the Dead Sea.
The Mishnah was first recorded about a century after the Essenes all but disappeared. There (Shabbat 7:2) we have the following list of melachot:
The principal melachot are forty minus one: Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking; shearing wool, whitening it, combing it, dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], untying [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing for the purpose of sewing two stitches; hunting a deer, slaughtering it, skinning it, salting it, curing its hide, scraping it, cutting it; writing two letters, erasing for the purpose of writing two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, striking with a hammer, carrying from one domain to another.
A Taste of Eden
The Midrash relates the 39 melachot of Shabbat to the 39 curses decreed following the sin of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden. God pronounced 9 curses and death upon the Serpent, 9 curses and death upon Adam (and all men), 9 curses and death upon Eve (and all women), as well as 9 curses upon the earth itself (with, obviously, no death). That makes a total of 39 curses (see, for example, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14). Thus, keeping the Sabbath reverses the curses of Eden, and is simultaneously a taste of Eden before the fall of mankind.
The Zohar (III, 182b) explicitly compares Shabbat to a “lower” or “earthly” Garden of Eden. The Talmud (Berakhot 57b), meanwhile, states that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. On the same page, we are told that three things give one a sense of Olam HaBa. One is basking in sunshine. Another is “tashmish”—either sexual intercourse, or that feeling of satisfaction when relieving one’s self in the bathroom. The third is Shabbat.
The Arizal (in Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh) taught that Shabbat is the only day when the highest realm of Atzilut is revealed. The lowest of the olamot or “universes”, Asiyah, is revealed on Tuesday and Wednesday. In the account of Creation, it was on these days that Earth and the luminaries—ie. this lower, physical cosmos that we are familiar with—were made. The second, Yetzirah, is revealed on Monday and Thursday, days on which the Torah is publicly read. In Creation, on Monday the waters were split into upper and lower domains, while on Thursday the waters below and the “waters above” (the skies) were filled with life (fish and birds respectively). The higher universe of Beriah is revealed on Sunday and Friday, corresponding to the first day of Creation when God brought forth divine light, and the last day of Creation when God made man. Only on Shabbat is it possible to glimpse into the highest universe of pure divine emanation, Atzilut.
The Arizal also taught that only on Shabbat are the highest states of consciousness completely open (Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Hanagat Limmud, 1). He was referring to the inner states of the Mochin, the three highest, “intellectual”, sefirot. The first of these is the sefirah of Keter, willpower. The second is Chokhmah, typically translated as “wisdom”, but more accurately referring to knowledge. The third is Binah, “understanding”. The Sages say there are 620 pillars in Keter, 32 paths in Chokhmah, and 50 gates in Binah. The 620 pillars correspond to the 620 mitzvot in the Torah (613 for Israel, and 7 Noahide laws for the rest of the world, or sometimes the 7 additional rabbinic mitzvot). The 32 paths correspond to the 22 Hebrew letters and the 10 base numerical digits (as well as the Ten Sefirot) that form the fabric of Creation. The 50 gates correspond to, among other things, the 50 times the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah, the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot, the 50 questions posed to Job, and the 50 levels of impurity and constriction. The mysteries of all these esoteric things is revealed on Shabbat. For this reason, the Arizal taught, the sum of 620 pillars, 32 paths, and 50 gates is 702, the gematria of “Shabbat” (שבת).
So significant is Shabbat that it is one of the Ten Commandments. The Torah relates the Ten Commandments on two occasions.* In the first account of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), we read:
Remember [zachor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… for in six days Hashem made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day…
In the second account of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5), we read:
Observe [shamor] the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as Hashem, your God, commanded you. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Hashem, your God… And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Hashem, your God, brought you out from there…
The first case uses the verb zachor, to commemorate, while the second uses shamor, to safeguard. The first refers to the positive mitzvah of resting and delighting on the Sabbath, while the second refers to the negative mitzvah of not transgressing the Sabbath through work and other profane things.
We further see that the first instance ties Shabbat to Creation, while the second instance ties Shabbat to the Exodus. In the former case, since God created the universe in six days and “rested” on the seventh, we should emulate His ways and do the same. In the latter case, since we were once slaves—working round the clock, seven days a week—we must always take a full day off work so as to remember that we are no longer in servitude. Only slaves work seven days a week! Thus, the first instance uses the verb zachor, to remember Creation, and the second instance uses the verb shamor, to make sure we do not labour on this day.
In reality, the two are one: when we remember Creation we are reminded that we are here for a reason. We are not a product of random chance in a godless, purposeless universe—as some would have us believe. We were created with a divine mission, in God’s image. And thus, we must make sure that we never fall into servitude; that we do not live under someone else’s oppression or dominance (whether physical, emotional, or intellectual). We must be free people, in God’s image, with no one above us but God.
Sefer HaBahir (#182) adds another dimension to the two verbs: it states that zachor alludes to zachar, “male”, and shamor relates to the female. For men, it is more important to remember Creation when it comes to Shabbat, while for women it is more important to remember the Exodus. Perhaps what the Bahir means to say is that for men—who are prone to have big egos—it is vital to think of Creation and remember who the real Master of the Universe is. For women—who are generally the ones cooking and preparing for Shabbat, serving food, and taking care of the kids while the men are at the synagogue—it is vital to think of the Exodus and remember that they are not slaves! Take it easy and ensure that Shabbat is a complete day of rest for you, too.
To conclude, the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) famously states that if all the Jews of the world kept two consecutive Shabbats, the final redemption would immediately come. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai bases this teaching on Isaiah 56:4-7, where God declares that those who “keep My Sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant… them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer…” The verse says Sabbaths in plural, and as stated earlier, this implies a minimum of two. Perhaps we can say that Israel needs to observe one Shabbat in honour of zachor and one in honour of shamor. The upcoming Jewish New Year of 779 may be a particularly auspicious time to do so, for the gematria of shamor (שמור) and zachor (זכור) is 779. We should redouble our efforts to create a truly restful, spiritual Shabbat for ourselves, and strive to open the eyes of those who are not yet fortunate to do so.
*There is a hidden, third place where the Ten Commandments are discussed in the Torah. To learn about this see ‘The Real Ten Commandments You’ve Never Heard Of‘ in Garments of Light.
This week’s parasha is named after Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, who is commended for taking action during the sin with the Midianite women. Pinchas was blessed with an “eternal covenant”, and Jewish tradition holds that he never really died. Pinchas became Eliyahu, and as the Tanakh describes, Eliyahu was taken up to Heaven alive in a flaming chariot (II Kings 2). While we know what the name “Eliyahu” means, the name “Pinchas” is far more elusive. It doesn’t seem to have any meaning in Hebrew. Historical records show that there was a very similar name in ancient Egypt, “Pa-Nehasi”. Did Pinchas have a traditional Egyptian name?
When we look more closely, we find that multiple figures of the Exodus generation actually bore Egyptian names. For example, “Aaron” (or Aharon) doesn’t have a clear meaning in Hebrew, and appears to be adapted from the ancient Egyptian name “Aha-Rw”, meaning “warrior lion”. Even the origin of Moses’ name is not so clear.
Although the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter named him “Moshe” because she “drew him [meshitihu] from the water” (Exodus 2:10), it seems very unlikely that an Egyptian princess should know Hebrew so well and give her adopted child a Hebrew name. Our Sages noted this issue long ago, and grappled with the apparent problem. Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) writes that it was actually Moses’ own mother Yocheved that named him “Moshe”, and then informed Pharaoh’s daughter of the name. Yet, the Midrash affirms that Yocheved called her son “Tuviah”, or just “Tov” (based on Exodus 2:2), and Moshe was the name given by Pharaoh’s daughter. Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Munius”. Josephus takes an alternate approach entirely, saying that Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name was Thermuthis, before she became a righteous convert and was called Batya or Bitya in Jewish tradition) named him Moses because the Egyptian word for water is mo.
The most elegant solution might be that Pharaoh’s daughter called him “Mose” (spelled the same way, but pronounced with a sin instead of shin), which means “son” in Egyptian. This is most fitting, since Pharaoh’s daughter yearned for a child of her own, and finally had a “son”. In fact, we see this suffix (and its close variant mses, from which the English “Moses” comes) used frequently in Egyptian names of that time period, such as Ahmose, Thutmose, and Ramses. Thus, he would have been known as Mose (or Moses) during his upbringing, but later known to his nation as Moshe, with a more appropriate and meaningful Hebrew etymology, yet without having to change the spelling of the name (משה) at all.
All of this begs the question: is it important to have a Hebrew name? And is it okay to have a Hebrew name together with an English name, or a name in the local language of wherever a Jew may live?
Why Are So Many Sages Called “Shimon”?
When looking through the names of the many rabbis in Talmudic and Midrashic literature, we find something quite intriguing. Although we would expect the Sages to be named after great Biblical figures like Moses, David, or Abraham, in reality there are essentially no sages with such names! Instead, we find a multitude of names of lesser-known Biblical figures, and many names that have no Biblical or Hebrew origin at all.
One very common name is Yochanan: There’s Yochanan ben Zakkai and Yochanan haSandlar, Yochanan bar Nafcha, Yochanan ben Nuri, and Yochanan ben Beroka. Another popular name is Yehoshua. While we might not expect this name to be so popular (considering its association with Jesus), we still find Yehoshua ben Perachia, Yehoshua ben Levi, Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Yehoshua ben Korchah, and many others. There are also lots and lots of Yehudas like Yehuda haNasi (and his descendents, Yehuda II and Yehuda III), Yehuda ben Beteira, Yehuda bar Ilai, and Yehuda ben Tabbai. And there are tons of Elazars: Elazar ben Arach, Elazar ben Azariah, Elazar ben Pedat, and many more with the similar “Eliezer”.
Perhaps the most common name is “Shimon”. There is Shimon haTzadik and Shimon bar Yochai, Shimon bar Abba and Shimon ben Shetach, Shimon ben Gamaliel (both I and II), Shimon ben Lakish (“Reish Lakish”), and more. We would think this is a strange choice, considering that the Biblical Shimon was actually of somewhat poor character (at least compared to the remaining Twelve Sons of Jacob). In fact, on his deathbed, Jacob did not bless Shimon at all, and instead said he wanted nothing to do with his violent nature. Moses, meanwhile, completely omits Shimon in his last blessings! So why would so many of our Sages be called “Shimon”?
A Good-Sounding Name
What might explain the strange selection of names among our ancient Sages? While no clear reason stands out, there is one plausible answer. It appears that the choice of names above was heavily influenced by the contemporary Greek society. Just as today many Jewish parents seek Hebrew names that also sound good in English, it seems parents back then wanted names that sounded good in Greek (since most Jews lived in the Greek part of the Roman, and later “Byzantine”, Empire).
We find that Greek names tend to end with an “n”: Platon (“Plato” in Greek), Jason, and Solon, for example. Numerous others end with “s”: Aristotles (“Aristotle” in Greek), Pythagoras, Philippos. Indeed, many of our Sages actually have such Greek names directly: Yinon, Hyrcanus, Pappus, Symmachus, Teradyon, and Onkelos. There is no indication that these great rabbis had some other “Hebrew” name.
Those that did want to bear Hebrew names could choose names already ending with an “n” like Shimon and Yochanan. Or, they could choose names where adding an “s” to the end would be easy: Yehoshua in Greek is Yeosuos (later giving rise to Yesus, ie. Jesus), while Yehuda is Yudas (Judas). Such names would be easy to convert between Hebrew and Greek. We know from historical sources that several people named Chananiah were simultaneously called “Ananias” in Greek.
The same is true for Elazar or Eliezer. Many Greek names transliterated into English and other languages simple lose their “s” and end with an “r”: Antipatros becomes Antipater, while Alexandros becomes Alexander. In reverse fashion, Elazar could easily become Elazaros (or Lazarus)—very palatable in the Greek-speaking world which our early Sages inhabited.
On that note, what do we make of “Alexander”? A great number of Jews both modern and ancient (there is Alexander Yannai and Rabbi Alexandri in the Talmud) have this name. Some cite a famous Midrashic account of Alexander the Great’s arrival in Jerusalem as being proof that while Alexander is not a Hebrew name, it is something of an “honorary” Jewish name. This requires a more careful analysis.
Is Alexander a Jewish name?
The Talmud (Yoma 69a) describes Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea. As he is marching towards Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Temple, Shimon HaTzadik goes out to meet him in his priestly garments (he was the kohen gadol at the time). When Alexander sees him, he halts, gets off his horse, and bows down to the priest. Alexander’s shocked generals ask why he would do such a thing, to which Alexander responds that he would see the face of Shimon before each successful battle. Alexander proceeds to treat the Jews kindly, and leaves the Temple intact. The Talmud stops there, though it does mention that this event took place on the 25th of Tevet, which was instituted as a minor holiday on which mourning was forbidden. (The story is also attested to by Josephus, though with a different high priest—see here for more.)
According to one tradition, the priests at the time wanted to honour Alexander for his kindness, and named all the boys born that year “Alexander”. In another version, Alexander was given a tour of the Holy Temple and, naturally, wished to place a statue of himself inside. Since this was impossible (but they couldn’t refuse the emperor), Shimon haTzadik convinced him that it would be a greater honour for all the children born to be named “Alexander”. Either way, some like to say that “Alexander” has become a Jewish name ever since.
In truth, this suggestion looks more like a modern way of explaining why so many Jews were named Alexander. In reality, the Midrash clearly states that a Jew should not name his child Alexander. We read in Vayikra Rabbah 32:5:
In the merit of four things was Israel redeemed from Egypt: they did not change their names*, nor their language, they did not speak lashon hara, and not one among them committed sexually immoral sins… They did not call Yehuda “Rufus”, and not Reuben “Lullianus”, and not Yosef “Listus”, and not Benjamin “Alexander”…
Apparently, when Midrash Rabbah was composed—just like today—it was common for Jews to have a non-Jewish name that they would use regularly, together with a Hebrew name that they would use only in Jewish circles. The Hebrew name “Benjamin” was often paired with “Alexander”.
We see from the Midrash above that it is important to have a Hebrew or Jewish name. But what exactly counts as a “Jewish” name?
Non-Jewish “Jewish” Names
Although today most Jews insist on having Hebrew or Biblical names (and rightly so), it seems that our Sages weren’t so strict in this regard. Indeed, many of them bore Greek, Latin, or Aramaic names with no second Hebrew name. Akiva, Avtalyon, Nechunia, Mani, Nittai, Nehorai, Adda, Papa, Simlai, Tanhum, Tarfon, Ulla, and countless others are cited in rabbinic literature. As we saw earlier, those that did have Hebrew names naturally chose names that would be palatable to the surrounding Greeks, much like many Jews today choose names that have easy English homonyms.
This trend continued for centuries, all the way up to modern times. The result is that many seemingly “Jewish” names are actually adaptations of very non-Jewish names. For example, one popular name among Ashkenazi Jews in the past was Feivel or Feibush. This name, meaning “bright”, comes from Phoebus, one of the appellations for the Greco-Roman god of light, Apollo. With this in mind, there may actually be a big halachic problem of bearing this name, since it is forbidden to recite the names of idols. (Some say the name was only meant to substitute the Biblical name Shimshon, the root of which is “sun”, thus having a similar meaning to Phoebus.)
Another appellation for Apollo was Lycegenes or Lukegenes, “born of a wolf” (possibly the source of the name “Luke”), which would be “Wolf” in Germanic countries, where the wolf was an important symbol in European mythology. Wolf also became very popular among Ashkenazis, who usually added the Hebrew translation Ze’ev to the name. The same is true for the classic German/Norse name Baer (“Bear”), to which Ashkenazis added Dov, its Hebrew translation. None of these names are Biblical or Talmudic, nor is their origin truly Hebrew. (Ironically, the name Ze’ev appears in the Tanakh [Judges 7:25] as the name of an enemy Midianite prince that the Israelites slayed!)
Having said that, many have linked these names to Biblical characters. For example, Benjamin is described in the Torah as a wolf (Genesis 49:27), so some carried the name “Binyamin Wolf”, where the former was their actual Jewish name while the latter was their social name. The same goes for “Yehuda Leib”, where Leib means “lion”, like Aryeh, the symbol of the Biblical Yehuda. It has even become common to combine all three to form “Yehuda Aryeh Leib”. Similarly, there’s “Naftali Tzvi Hirsch”, since the Biblical Naftali is described as a deer, ayalah or tzvi, and “Hirsch” is German for “deer”.
“Schneur”, too, is of non-Jewish origin, and comes from the Spanish name Senor (and is sometimes a German equivalent for Seymour). Chassidim have since reinterpreted it in the Hebrew as Shnei Or, “two lights”. It probably didn’t have this meaning when it was given to Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad. In his case, “Schneur” was likely meant to be his social name while “Zalman” (Solomon, or “Shlomo) was his traditional Jewish or Hebrew name.
Sephardic Jews are just as culpable. Many have Arabic names like “Massoud” (which means “lucky”) or “Abdullah”. In fact, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s birth name was Yusuf Abdullah, and it was only when the family made aliyah to Israel that “Abdullah” was replaced with its Hebrew translation “Ovadia” (which is a Biblical name). At one point, a popular female Sephardic name was “Mercedes”. This one is highly problematic, as it happens to be a Spanish appellation for the Virgin Mary! (The automobile brand Mercedes is named after a Jewish girl of that name, the daughter of the company’s founder Emil Jellinek and his French-Sephardi wife.) A similar problem lies with the very popular “Natalie”, which literally means “Christmas” in Latin.
Is it okay to bear such names? A distinction must be made between those that clearly have an idolatrous origin versus those that were simply adapted from non-Jewish names but still carry a good meaning. The latter are certainly permissible, since many of our great Sages had such foreign names. Over time, many of these evolved a deeper, Jewish meaning. For instance, Adele was a classic German name (meaning “noble”) and yet the Baal Shem Tov chose it for his daughter. He explained to his chassidim that he received this name through divine inspiration, and that it is an acronym (אדל) for the important words in the Torah אש דת למו—that God gave His people “a fiery Torah” (Deuteronomy 33:2). The Torah, like fire, purifies all things. The Baal Shem Tov’s daughter went on to become a holy chassid of her own, imbued with so much Ruach haKodesh that she was nicknamed Adele HaNeviah, “Adele the Prophetess”.
Jewish “Non-Jewish” Names
The opposite case exists as well: names that appear to be non-Jewish but actually have a clear Jewish origin. Take “Elizabeth”, for example. While it may sound like a classic European name, it is actually the transliteration of “Elisheva” (אלישבע), the righteous wife of Aaron (Exodus 6:23). Some Jewish name sources incorrectly write that John is a non-Jewish name, associating it with the “New Testament” John. Yet, even that John was originally a Jewish man living in Israel, and “John” is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew name “Yochanan”. (It sounds closer in Germany and Eastern Europe, where “John” is “Johan”, or “Yohan”.)
There are numerous other examples. Susanna is Shoshana (שושנה), and Abigail is Avigayil (אביגיל). In the Tanakh, the latter makes an important comment about names, pointing out that because her first husband’s name was Naval (“abomination”) he acted abominably (I Samuel 25:25). She later married King David and is considered a prophetess in her own right.
Many are surprised to discover that “Jessica” comes from the Torah. It is an English adaptation of Iscah (יסכה), mentioned in Genesis 11:29 and, according to our Sages, the birth name of Sarah. Rashi comments:
Iscah. This is Sarah, because she would see [סוֹכָה] through divine inspiration, and because all gazed [סוֹכִין] at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom [נְסִיכוּת], just as Sarah is an expression of dominion [שְׂרָרָה].
Interestingly, it appears that the earliest recorded use of the transliteration “Jessica” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Here, Jessica is the Jewish daughter of the play’s Jewish villain, Shylock. Although many see The Merchant of Venice as an anti-Semitic work, others actually see it as Shakespeare’s cunning manipulation of that era’s rampant anti-Semitism and his own “plea for tolerance”. After all, Shylock’s most famous speech (Act III, Scene 1) reads:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
Shylock argues that his own villainy is nothing but a reflection of the villainy of the Christian world. Shakespeare recognized the cruelty that Jews had suffered, and tells his anti-Semitic audience that Jews are human, too.
Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?
Ultimately, it is certainly beneficial to have a Hebrew name of some sort, whether Biblical, Talmudic, adapted, or modern. After all, Hebrew is a holy language, and each of its letters carry profound meaning. The Hebrew term for “name” is shem (שם), which is a root of neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, and spelled the same as sham (שם), “there”, for it is there within a person’s name that his or her essence is found. For this reason, the Talmud (Yoma 83b) tells us that Rabbi Meir used to carefully analyze people’s name to determine their character. (This Talmudic passage was explored at length in Secrets of the Last Waters.)
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) also notes that changing one’s name is one of five things a person can do to change their fate. Indeed, we see this multiple times in Scripture. Abraham and Sarah have their names changed (from Abram and Sarai) to allow them to finally have a child. Jacob becomes Israel, while Hoshea becomes Yehoshua (Joshua). At some point, Pinchas becomes Eliyahu, and even Yosef (Joseph) becomes Yehosef (Psalms 81:6). On that last name change, the Midrash explains that it was only because Yosef had an extra hei added to his name that he was able to ascend to Egyptian hegemony.
Thus, having a name with a deep meaning, in Hebrew letters, and one that is actually used regularly (as opposed to a secondary Hebrew name that no one calls you by) is of utmost significance. If you don’t yet have such a name, it isn’t too late to get one!
*This Midrash presents a possible contradiction: how can it say that the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names when we see that some clearly did? Maybe most of the Israelites did not adopt Egyptian names, though some did. Thankfully, another Midrash (Pesikta Zutrati on parashat Ki Tavo) steps in to offer an alternate reason. Here, Israel was redeemed in the merit of three things: not changing their clothing, their food, and their language. Changing their names is conspicuously absent.