Tag Archives: Names

Is It Necessary to Have a Hebrew Name?

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

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.)

‘Alexander the Great and Jaddus the High Priest of Jerusalem’ by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)

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.

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”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

“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.

The Names of the Torah’s Hidden Women

‘Shemot’ is also the name of the second book of the Torah, known in English as ‘Exodus’.

This week’s parasha, Shemot, literally means “names”. The Sages stress how important a name really is, so much so that the word shem and neshamah (“soul”) appear to share a root. The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that a person’s name affects their destiny, and changing one’s name can change one’s fate (Rosh Hashanah 16b). (Other things that can change one’s fate: moving to a new place, charity, prayer, and repentance.) The Zohar (II, 179b) further elaborates that the combinations of letters in a person’s name can reveal much about them.

Jewish tradition holds that an angel whispers a baby’s name to its parents. And yet, many Jews don’t have a Jewish name or don’t connect to their given name. Thus, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 23) that a person can have two names: a name from the side of kedushah, “holiness”, and a name from the side of kelipah, unholy “husks”. Meanwhile, the Midrash states that each person has three names: the name given by the parents, the common name (or nickname) called by close ones, and the name that a person acquires for himself. (The best of these, the Midrash concludes, is the name one makes for himself.)

The Midrash also states that Israel merited to be redeemed from Egypt because they preserved their Hebrew names, among other things.* Fittingly, Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh points out that the midwives Shifrah and Puah ensured the survival of the Jewish babies, so the gematria of their names equals 746, the value of shemot (שמות).

Where Are The Women?

Clearly, names are very important. Yet, while the names of Shifrah and Puah are mentioned, the names of many other important female figures are not! The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) is troubled by this, and even states that in those days people argued against the Torah’s authenticity by pointing out all those missing female names (especially because Judaism passes down through the mother). And so, the Talmud fills in the details and tells us some of these important names:

Rav Chanan bar Raba stated in the name of Rav: the mother of Abraham was Amatlai, the daughter of Karnevo [אמתלאי בת כרנבו]; the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of ‘Oravti [אמתלאי בת עורבתי]… The mother of David was Nitzevet, the daughter of Ada’el [נצבת בת עדאל]. The mother of Samson was Tzlelponit [צללפונית], and his sister was Nashyan [נשיין]…

What about the others? What was the name of Rachel and Leah’s mother? How about Lot’s salt-pillar-turning wife? The wife of Potiphar that tried so hard to seduce Joseph? It is said that one of the reasons Cain killed Abel is because of a dispute over a girl (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 21 or Beresheet Rabbah 22:7). What was her name? Luckily, other texts provide the answers.

Sefer HaYashar states that the mother of Rachel and Leah was called Adina (עדינה), while the wife of Potiphar was Zuleikha (זליכא). There are two main opinions as to the name of Lot’s wife: either Idit/Edith (עידית), according to sources like Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 25), or Irit (עירית), according to the commentary of the Ramban (on Genesis 19:17).

Another great source for names is the apocryphal Book of Jubilees. Here (4:2) we learn that the name of Cain and Abel’s sister was Aven (און). In traditional Jewish texts, Cain was born with a twin sister and Abel was born with two twin sisters, whom they were meant to marry. Cain reasoned Abel’s second twin should be his wife since he was the elder, and the firstborn deserves a double-portion. Abel argued that if that was the case she would have been born alongside Cain! This was one of their major points of contention, leading to Cain’s murder of Abel. The Book of Jubilees says none of this, and holds that Cain killed Abel out of anger that God did not accept his offering.

The Book of Jubilees also states that Noah’s mother was called Bethnah (ביתנה), and his wife was Emtzarah (אמצרה). Meanwhile, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 23:3) holds that Noah’s wife was Na’amah (נעמה), the sister of Tuval-Cain (Genesis 4:22). Interestingly, Jubilees gives us the name of Shem’s wife, too: Tzedeket-Levav (צדקת לבב). This is fitting, since Jewish tradition identifies Shem with Melchizedek. Interestingly, Jubilees states that all three of Noah’s sons built cities for themselves, and named the cities after their wives!

The Mothers of Israel

The Torah devotes quite a bit of attention to the Four Mothers of Israel (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), but what about the names of the wives of the Twelve Tribes? The Torah only mentions the wife of Joseph (Osnat) and passively mentions the wife of Judah, calling her the daughter of Shuah. Seder HaDorot states that her name was actually Eilat, and fills in the rest:

The wife of the elder Reuben was a Canaanite woman named Elyarem. Shimon’s wife—according to this particular text; there are other opinions—was his sister Dinah, the daughter of Leah. (The Midrash explains that Shimon had to marry her because he killed Shechem, whom she was meant to marry.) Levi married Adina, a descendent of Ever, one of the forefathers of Abraham. It seems Issachar married Adina’s sister, Arida.

Zevulun married a Midianite named Marusha, while Dan married a Moabite woman named Aflala. Naftali married Merimat, a distant cousin descended from Nachor, the brother of Abraham. Gad married her sister Utzit. Asher married a great-granddaughter of Ishmael named Adon, and after she passed away, married a woman named Hadurah. Benjamin had two wives: one called Machlat, and another Arvat, the granddaughter of Abraham from his later wife Keturah.

Each of these names certainly carries deep meaning, as do all names and appellations. Jewish texts call God by many different names and titles, each of which captures a different essence of God, and thereby helps us understand Him. Similarly, all of a person’s various names and titles combine to make up who they are.

To conclude with a famous story that illustrates this, it is said that a three-year old Tzemach Tzedek (the third rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, 1789-1866) was once sitting on the lap of his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, 1745-1813). The Rebbe asked his grandson: “Where is grandpa?” The child quickly pointed to his grandpa’s head, to which the Rebbe said, “That’s just grandpa’s head! Where is grandpa?” The child tried again and again, pointing to other parts of the body to which the Rebbe similarly replied. Later on, the young Tzemach Tzedek was playing outside and called his grandfather. The Rebbe immediately hurried over to him, and the smiling child said: “There’s grandpa!”

The Alter Rebbe and the Tzemach Tzedek

*This is actually a problematic Midrash. Names like Aaron and Pinchas don’t seem to have a meaning in Hebrew but do in ancient Egyptian! Aaron is believed to come from the Egyptian aha rw, “warrior lion”, while Pinchas sounds like the common Egyptian name Pa-Nehasi, “the bronze one”. Thankfully, a variant Midrash preserves a different tradition. While Vayikra Rabbah (Ch. 32) states that Israel was redeemed on account of their names, language, abstaining from lashon hara and licentiousness, Pesikta Zutrata (on Ki Tavo, 46a) states that it was because of their clothing, food, and language.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is concerned with the first major set of laws that the Israelites received following the Ten Commandments. While the term mishpatim literally means “ordinances” or “judgements”, the Zohar (II, 94a) suggests a very different interpretation:

“And these are the judgements which you shall set before them…” These are the rules concerning reincarnation, the judgement of souls that are sentenced according to their acts.

The Zohar goes on to interpret the laws in the Torah with regards to the mechanisms of reincarnation. For example, whereas the Torah begins by describing a Hebrew servant who is indentured for six years of labour and must then be freed in the seventh year, the Zohar interprets that this is really speaking of souls which must reincarnate in order to repair the six middot before they could be freed. (The middot are the primary character traits: chessed, kindness; gevurah, restraint; tiferet, balance and truth; netzach, persistence and faith; hod, gratitude and humility; and yesod, sexual purity.)

While the Zohar speaks at length about reincarnation, it is the Arizal who systematically laid down the rules of reincarnation and explained the Zohar in depth. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded these teachings in a famous treatise known as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnation”. The following is a brief condensation of the basic rules of reincarnation that are defined in this tremendous text, answering many of the common questions people have about spiritual transmigration.

Why Do People Reincarnate?

At the start of the eighth chapter, Rabbi Vital writes:

למה מתגלגלים. דע, כי הנשמות יתגלגלו לכמה סבות, הראשונה הוא, לפי שעבר על איזו עבירה מעבירות שבתורה, ובא לתקן. הב’ הוא, לתקן איזו מצוה שחסר ממנו. השלישית היא, שבא לצורך אחרים, להדריכם ולתקנם… לפעמים יתגלגל, ליקח את בת זוגו, כי לא זכה בראשונה לקחתה

Why do people reincarnate? Know that souls reincarnate for several reasons: The first is that one transgressed one of the prohibitions in the Torah, and returns to repair it. The second is to fulfil a mitzvah that one lacks. The third is in order to assist others, to guide them, and rectify them… Sometimes one reincarnates to marry their soulmate, which they did not merit to do in a previous life.

The Ari explains that people mainly reincarnate in order to atone for sins of past lives, or to fulfil mitzvahs that they didn’t do previously. Later, in Chapter 16, we read that people who return do not have to fulfil all the mitzvahs in one lifetime, but only have to accomplish those that their souls are still lacking. Some reincarnate not for their own rectification, but to assist others. We are told elsewhere that these are usually very righteous individuals who agree to return to this world in order to help others.

Fresco of the Resurrection of the Dead from the ancient Dura-Europos Synagogue

Some also reincarnate because they either did not marry, or married the wrong person. They must return to reunite with their true soulmate. The Arizal teaches that, unfortunately, some people are so deeply mired in kelipot, negative spiritual “husks”, that they are unable to find their soulmate in this world. These people will reunite with their other half only in Olam HaBa, the “next world” at the time of the Resurrection. With regards to finding soulmates, this is directed particularly at male souls, for it is primarily a man’s responsibility to find his soulmate.

On that note, the following chapter tells us that female souls actually reincarnate very rarely. To begin with, female souls are more refined than male ones, and are unlikely to require more rectifications. What does happen more commonly is that male souls are reincarnated into female bodies! This opens up a number of fascinating scenarios which Rabbi Chaim Vital describes.

What Do People Reincarnate Into?

In Chapter 22, we read that people can reincarnate not only into human bodies, but also animals, vegetation, and even inanimate matter. For example, a person who feeds others non-kosher food reincarnates as a tree; one who sheds blood reincarnates into water; those who transgress various sexual prohibitions reincarnate into bats, rabbits, and other animals; while proud people and those who talk too much reincarnate into bees. (We are told that this is what happened to the judge Deborah who, despite her greatness and wisdom, had a bit of pride and was required to reincarnate into a bee, hence her name devorah, which literally means “bee”!)

It is important to mention, though, that an entire human soul does not fully reincarnate into another organism. Rather, souls are complex entities made up of many different interacting sparks. It is only those sparks that require rectification that return to this world (Chapter 14). Interestingly, the Arizal teaches that when two people really dislike each other, and are constantly in conflict with one another, this is often because the two are sharing sparks from one soul!

How Many Times May One Reincarnate?

Sha’ar HaGilgulim records that a person can reincarnate thousands of times—but only on the condition that they improve at least a little bit in each incarnation. If they fail to improve, they can only reincarnate a maximum of three times. After three strikes, that particular spark is sent to Gehinnom (loosely translated as “hell”) where it will be purified. However, the souls of those who regularly learn Torah are never sent to Gehinnom, and always merit reincarnation. This is one of the incredible protective powers of regular Torah study.

In multiple places, the Arizal teaches about the reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam. Abel (הבל) had a good side and a bad one. The good side was represented by the letter Hei (ה) of his name, and the bad by the Beit and Lamed (בל). The bad part needed to be rectified, so it reincarnated in Laban (לבן), the wicked father-in-law of Jacob. Laban didn’t do much better, so he was reincarnated in the gentile prophet Bilaam (בלעם). He, too, was an ungodly person, so the Beit-Lamed soul was reincarnated for the third time in Naval (נבל), the ungrateful man who rejected David. Naval was strike three, and that Beit-Lamed soul no longer returned in a reincarnation.

We see from the above how a person’s name may offer tremendous hints as to their soul sparks, previous lives, tests, challenges, and character traits. When we read about the above individuals in the Tanakh, we see how similar they were. All three were very wealthy, famous, and participated in divination and sorcery. All were cunning, greedy, and deceitful individuals. The Arizal explains in detail what rectifications each was supposed to do, and how one life affected the next, weaving together these three seemingly unrelated Biblical narratives that span nearly a thousand years into one beautiful tapestry.

Which Body Will A Person Have at the End?

Perhaps the most famous question: if a soul has so many different bodies over so many different lifetimes, which body will that soul inhabit in the afterlife, or in the world of Resurrection? Rabbi Vital writes:

וכן הענין בכל נשמה ונשמה, וכאשר יהיה זמן התחיה, כל גוף וגוף יקח חלקו של נשמתו, כפי חלק הזמן שלו באיזו מדרגה היתה

And with each and every soul, when the time of the Resurrection comes, each and every body will take its corresponding soul, according to the part that it had at that particular time.

Thus, each part of the soul will have its own body, and all reincarnations will exist simultaneously as individuals in Olam HaBa!

Breaking Free from Materialism

In Chapter 23, Rabbi Vital suggests that the most important thing to take from all of this is to live a meaningful, spiritual life. When a person is mired in materialism, and cares only for their physical aspects, they become so attached to their bodies that they cannot exist without one. And so, when that person’s body dies their soul is in complete disarray; frightened, pained, and unable to ascend onwards. Angels must come and quickly place the soul in a new body. As such, this person can never free themselves from endless reincarnations into this imperfect, difficult world.

However, those who in their lifetimes tap into their souls, and are comfortable with their spiritual side, are able to simply take off their dead bodies like an old garment, and move on. For such people, their wonderful portion in Olam HaBa is not too far away.

Should Jews Believe in Astrology?

This week’s parasha, the second last of the Torah, is Ha’azinu. This parasha is unique in that it consists almost entirely of one lengthy song – clearly visible when looking at a Torah scroll, where the text of Ha’azinu is split into two narrow columns. Moses sang this prophetic song to the nation right before his passing.

Two columns of parashat Ha'azinu

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu

In the verses that introduce it (Deut. 31:19), we see God commanding Moses to write the song and “teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it in their mouths so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.” God wanted Moses to diligently teach this song to the entire nation. In fact, the actual wording of the verse has God commanding everyone – each member of the nation – to write the song for themselves. It is based on this verse that the Sages drew the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll (or participating in writing one), even though the plain text of the verse states only to write this particular song, Ha’azinu.

Perhaps because of this, the Ramban taught that Ha’azinu contains the entire Torah within it. Moreover, he believed that every detail of every person’s life is somehow encoded within this song! In one famous story, when a student of the Ramban, a man named Avner, heard this teaching, he was so baffled by it that he left Judaism entirely, converted to another religion, and became a prominent anti-Semite. When Avner later confronted the Ramban, the Rabbi showed him how one verse in the song did indeed accurately point to this man’s life. Avner was so ashamed that he disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Heavenly Princes

And so, each and every one of the song’s 43 verses has a great deal to teach us. The eighth verse begins by telling us that God gave each nation their lot, and the ninth verse says that “Hashem’s portion is His people, the lot of His inheritance.” The Zohar comments on these words that while God established Heavenly “princes” to watch over every nation in the world, Israel is watched over by God Himself. The Ramban (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah) elaborates:

He gave each and every nation… some known star or constellation, as is known by means of the science of astrology… Higher above [the constellations] are the angels of the Supreme One, whom He appointed as “princes” over them… It is further written, “So shall you be My people, and I will be your God, and you will not be subject to other powers at all.” (Jeremiah 11:4)

When we often say that Hashem is our God (as we do in the daily Shema), or when the Tanakh writes that we are God’s people, this does not mean that gentiles cannot have a relationship with God, or that there are other gods out there for the non-Jewish world. Rather, it means that while God oversees absolutely everything in His universe, and has created all people, He has also appointed various Heavenly (or astrological) forces above each nation – except Israel. These forces are not independent in their own right, as they are subject to the angels above them, and these angels ultimately serve God. As such, the nations of the world have various Heavenly intermediaries between themselves and Hashem. Israel, however, has a direct connection to Him. In fact, this is the hidden meaning within the name “Israel” (ישראל), which can be read as yashar El. (ישר-אל), “straight to God”.

Ain Mazal L’Israel

Long before the Ramban, the Sages of the Talmud debated whether the constellations had an effect on people (Shabbat 156a). The consensus of the Rabbis was that constellations do impact people, but Jews are free from this influence. They learn this from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied: “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.” (10:2) God tells Israel not to draw meaning from heavenly signs as the other nations do. The Talmud goes on to tell us a story about Abraham, who cried out to God: “Master of the Universe! I have looked at the constellations and find that I am not fated to have children.” To this, God replied: “Stop your star-gazing! Israel has no constellations.”

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th Century Synagogue

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th-Century Synagogue

Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that Abraham was once a powerful astrologer, and great men from around the world came to consult with him about their fortunes (Bava Batra 16b). When Abraham looked into his own fate, he saw that he would not have children. God commanded him to desist from astrology, for the Jewish people have the power to transcend the stars. Of course, Abraham went on to have many children.

Later on, Moses would record in the Torah the prohibition for Jews to consult various fortune-tellers and astrologers. The Rambam codifies the law in this way:

It is forbidden to tell fortunes. [This applies] even though one does not perform a deed, but merely relates the falsehoods which the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his journeys to fit a time that was suggested by the astrologers is [liable for] lashes, as [Leviticus 19:26] states: “Do not tell fortunes.” (Sefer HaMadda, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, Chapter 11, Halacha 9)

Transcending Nature

We see from the above that various Heavenly forces, angels, and constellations do exist, and certainly do influence the world. Astrological signs can be potent forces. Ironically, earlier in his discourse, the Ramban points out how astrology is intricately tied into the Jewish calendar: it is no coincidence that Pesach is celebrated in the month of Nisan, the sign of which is Aries (the ram, or sheep), since the main mitzvah of Pesach was to sacrifice a lamb; and it is no coincidence that Rosh Hashanah – judgement day, when each person is put on trial – is in the month of Tishrei, the sign of which is Libra, the scales of justice. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 418) even tells us how each of the 12 Tribes of Israel corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac!

And yet, all the sources are clear: Jews are not to dabble in astrology, for we have no need for intermediaries, and we have all the power to break free from the influence of the constellations. It is precisely when we believe in astrology that it becomes real, just as Abraham had no children as long as he believed in the heavenly signs that he saw. Every Jew must realize that we are Israel, yashar El, and that Hashem alone is our astrological sign. There is no need to believe in what the Rambam calls “emptiness and vanity”. The Rambam ends his laws on this subject by telling us to live up to the Torah’s call (Deut. 18:13) to be of “perfect faith with Hashem, your God.” When one has perfect faith in the Master of the Universe, anything is possible, and this is how God finished his rebuke to Abraham:

“Stop your star-gazing! Ain mazal l’Israel. What is your calculation? Is it because Jupiter stands in the West? Then I will turn it back and place it in the East!”

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.