This past Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was unseated from Israel’s premiership after twelve continuous years in that role. (Together with his earlier stint as prime minister in the 90’s, Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving leader.) The fact that this happened particularly this week is not coincidental. As Torah-observant Jews, we firmly believe that the Torah informs each week and each day of our lives, and the events of the world around us. The weekly parasha and Haftarah are not just repetitive stories, and the dates of Biblical events are not just ancient history, they affect the present reality. With that said, it is incredible to note that this week’s Haftarah tells us about Yiftach, the ninth Judge of Israel. In the official count, Netanyahu is Israel’s ninth prime minister. While this may seem insignificant at first glance, there is actual a profound connection there. Continue reading
In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we read of the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron. The Torah states that they brought an incense offering that God “had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1) and as a result were consumed in a blaze of fire. The simple meaning here is that they had performed a priestly service that they were not supposed to, or were not worthy of performing, and this is why they were consumed. Rashi brings a number of other opinions as to why they perished: One is that they brazenly “rendered halachic decisions before Moses”. Another is that they had brought the offering while intoxicated, which is why just several verses later the Torah prohibits priests from being inebriated while serving in the Temple (Leviticus 10:9).
The Arizal, in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, brings a number of explanations, too. One is from an older Midrash that Nadav and Avihu refused to get married, believing that no women were worthy to marry them. Based on this, the Arizal states that Nadav reincarnated in Samson (ch. 36). Samson, too, didn’t marry any Jewish girls, and instead married Philistine women that brought him nothing but trouble. This may have been his punishment for refusing to marry a good Jewish girl in a past life. The Arizal adds that because Nadav had served while drunk, Samson was born a nazir, and was forbidden from consuming even a drop of alcohol his entire life. The proof that Samson was a reincarnation of Nadav comes from Scripture, where in one instance (I Samuel 12:11) Samson is actually referred to as “Badan” (בדן). This name is the reverse of Nadav (נדב), hinting to their spiritual connection.
Having said all that, the Arizal gives another reason for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and in this case not because they were sinful. Instead, he explains that Nadav and Avihu correspond to the sefirot of Netzach and Hod, emerging from the highest level of Adam’s soul (ch. 33). They died to atone for the sins of the nation, and to remove the zuhama, the spiritual impurity that the Serpent (Nachash) in Eden injected into the world. (For a deeper analysis of exactly which sin Nadav and Avihu died for and why, see ‘The Holy Souls of Nadav and Avihu’ in Garments of Light.) This idea predates the Arizal, and is found in the Zohar (III, 56b), which compares Nadav and Avihu to the two goats sacrificed on Yom Kippur. The Zohar states that the two brothers were equal in greatness to the entire Sanhedrin of seventy elders, and their deaths atoned for the sins of Israel.
The Zohar’s description brings to mind a similar one from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44a), where the Sages discuss the deaths of 36 Israelites in the Battle of Ai (Joshua 7-8). Recall that Joshua led the Israelites into battle to conquer the Holy Land. The first battle, for the city of Jericho, was a flawless victory, with not a single Israelite casualty. The second battle, however, was initially a defeat, with 36 Israelites losing their lives. While this is certainly a small number in military terms, the fact that there was any casualty at all was a shock for the nation. The Sages state that, in reality, it wasn’t even 36 soldiers, for “surely it was said, ‘about thirty six men’ [Joshua 7:5] which refers to Yair, the son of Menashe, who was equal to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”
The Sages state that actually just one person was killed in the Battle of Ai, and he was equal to 36 of the 70 wise and righteous elders of the Sanhedrin. They extract this from the words of the Tanakh itself, which states k’shloshim v’shisha ish, literally translated as “like 36 man”. In other words, the casualty of the Battle of Ai was one man likened to 36. The Sages use the same expression elsewhere, in describing Avishai, the nephew of King David (Berakhot 62b):
…“Satan stood up against Israel and stirred up David to number Israel.” [I Chronicles 21:1] And when he did number them, he took no ransom from them and it is written, “So God sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed.” [I Chronicles 21:14]
… And He said to the Angel that destroyed the people: “It is enough” [I Chronicles 21:16] Rabbi Elazar explained: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Angel: ‘Take a great man among them, through whose death many sins can be expiated for them.’ At that time died Avishai son of Zeruiah, who was equal in worth to the greater part of the Sanhedrin.”
The Torah forbids taking a census of the Jewish people. The only way it is permitted to count Jews is if each person gives some kind of “ransom”, such as a half-shekel coin, and the coins are counted, not the people. In an infamous episode from the Tanakh, Satan enticed David to sin by taking a census without collecting any ransom. As a result, a plague struck the nation, taking the lives of 70,000 people, shiv’im elef ish [I Chronicles 21:14].
Following this, God told the Angel of Destruction to stop by saying rav, “it is enough”. The Sages interpret rav to mean “rabbi”—that God actually told the angel to take the life of one righteous rabbi instead. Again, the Tanakh uses the word ish, as if a single person was killed; one man equal to 70,000. This is a beautiful teaching of the Sages, and transforms what one might read as God’s strict, merciless judgement, into God’s kindness and mercy. Although 70,000 may have deserved to die, God took the life of one righteous man instead to spare all the others.
The fact that such people—Yair, Avishai, Nadav, Avihu—are always compared to a greater part of the Sanhedrin, meaning 36 people, is not a coincidence. As we’ve written before with regards to Chanukah (when we light a total of 36 candles), the number 36 is of huge significance in Judaism.
Greater Than Thirty-Six Tzadikim
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states:
Abaye said: “The world must contain no less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are worthy to receive the Shekhinah, for it is written: ‘Blessed are all they that wait for him’ [Isaiah 30:18]; the numerical value of ‘for him’ [lo, לו] is thirty-six.”
But that is not so, for did not Rava say: “The row [of righteous men] before the Holy One, blessed be He, consists of eighteen thousand, for it is written, ‘It shall be eighteen thousand round about?’” [Ezekiel 48:35] That is no difficulty: the former number [thirty-six] refers to those who see Him through a bright speculum, the latter [eighteen thousand] to those who contemplate Him through a dim one.
In every generation, there must be 36 perfectly righteous people in the world. There are an additional 18,000 very righteous people in each generation. The former can behold the Shekhinah—God’s Divine Presence—clearly, while the latter only dimly. The idea of the 36 righteous people, lamed-vav tzadikim, plays an important role in Judaism, especially in Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts.
The number 36 corresponds to the 36 hours that the Divine Light shone uninterrupted at the start of Creation. It is through this Divine Light that the Tzadikim are able to behold the Shekhinah. And just as this Hidden Light continues to uphold all of Creation, so too are the 36 Tzadikim said to uphold the world, as it is written: “The tzaddik is the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 10:25).
Meanwhile, we know that the Torah, too, is the foundation of the world (see, for example, Avot 1:2). Indeed, we find that there are exactly 36 individual texts in the Tanakh: the Five Books of Moses, nineteen books of Prophets, and 12 Holy Writings. (The 36 texts are usually combined into “24 Books of the Tanakh” for the sake of convenience. So, for example, the “Twelve Minor Prophets” are combined into one book, Trei Asar.) Each of the 36 Tzadikim corresponds to one “hour” of Divine Light, and to one of the Holy Scriptures. As such, they are the 36 pillars of the world. (It just so happens that there are also 36 sins for which the Torah prescribes the death penalty, though we shall leave that discussion for another time.)
From the words of our Sages, we can extract that in addition to these 36, there is one more, even greater individual who is equal to all 36 of them, to the “greater part of the Sanhedrin”. Between the two of them, Nadav and Avihu were greater than the Sanhedrin of seventy elders in their own day, as were Yair and Avishai. And it is such people that, ever so rarely, God chooses to take away to atone for the sins of many others.
The spiritual math is simple: if you have a thousand people, each with a “kilogram” of sin, and one person with 1000 “kilograms” of merit, the merit of the one can be “taken back” in order to neutralize the sins of a thousand. In this way, a great many lives can be spared. The idea makes sense in principle, and a person who is truly the most righteous of his generation would undoubtedly have no problem giving up his or her own life to save a multitude of others.
And yet, the idea is sometimes hard for modern Jews to digest because it has been hijacked, abused, and taken to an illogical extreme by Christians.
The Death of the Messiah
All of Christianity rests on the idea that Jesus, the supposed messiah, died for the sins of the world. We have already addressed the issues with Christianity on several occasions (see here, here, and here) so there is no need to do that again. What needs to be understood is where the idea comes from, and what it originally meant. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) records the following:
What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days, as described in Zechariah 12:12]? Rabbi Dosa and the other Rabbis differ on the point. One explained: “The cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef” and the other explained: “The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.” It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef, since that agrees with the Scriptural verse, “And they shall look upon Me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son” [Zechariah 12:10]. But according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?
Rav Yehudah explained: “In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread!’ And the Holy One, blessed be He, will also marvel together with them, as it is said, ‘Thus says the Lord of Hosts: If it be marvellous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in those days, it shall also be marvellous in My eyes.’” [Zechariah 8:6]
First, we must remember that according to tradition there are two messiahs (or possibly one messiah in two phases): Mashiach ben Yosef, and then Mashiach ben David. The former dies amidst the great battles of the End of Days. For this, the people at that time will mourn. Zechariah describes a great mourning like no other, with all the families of Israel in tears. This is enough to debunk Jesus’ identification with Mashiach ben Yosef: Jesus did not die in battle, and was not mourned by all of Israel (quite the contrary). The fact that Jesus’ “father” was named Joseph means nothing, for Jesus supposedly did not have an earthly father anyway.
Now, the more important event that will happen at that same time, with the death of Mashiach ben Yosef, is the destruction of the Evil Inclination. This is, after all, the very purpose of having an “End of Days” to begin with: to destroy evil for good and usher in a perfect world. When Evil will be crushed, the people will weep. As our Sages explain, those who overcame evil and did good will weep because they will be amazed at how they were able to conquer the great temptations, while those who were evil will weep because they will realize how weak they were in falling to mere temptation. Again, Jesus’ death did not end Evil on Earth. On the contrary, one might argue that even more horrible evils were done since then, many of which were done, ironically, in the name of Jesus!
Finally, the Talmud goes on to say what will happen to Mashiach ben Yosef next:
Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (may he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree… this day have I begotten you, ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance.” [Psalms 2:7-8] But when he will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him: “Master of the Universe, I ask of You only the gift of life.” He would answer him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life from You, You gave it to him…’” [Psalms 21:5]
After his death, Mashiach ben David requests of God to bring Mashiach ben Yosef back to life. It is important to remember that this is followed by a Resurrection of the Dead of all righteous souls, not just the messiah’s. From the wording of the Talmud, we might conclude that there is indeed just one messiah: Mashiach ben Yosef dies and is resurrected as Mashiach ben David. (We can extract this from the fact that ben David seems to be asking for life for himself, and God replies that it had already been granted to you.)
In the case of Jesus, he was apparently resurrected, but then supposedly ascended to Heaven, and hasn’t been heard from in two millennia. This is not how prophecy describes the coming of Mashiach. He is supposed to come once, at the End of Days, and needs no “second coming”. He comes once, and then reigns on Earth as king of Israel. Nowhere does it state that he will come and disappear for any long duration of time. He comes once, fights great battles that engulf the whole world (as described in detail by Ezekiel and Zechariah, among other prophets), might die for the sins of Israel specifically (like Nadav and Avihu did), is mourned by all of Israel, and is then resurrected, finishes the great wars, brings peace to the world, reigns as king of Israel, regathers the Jews to the Holy Land, rebuilds the Temple, facilitates a Resurrection of the Dead, and completes his task once a perfect world is re-established.
There is no more need for him after that. He is not a god, and is never described as such. He is not supposed to be prayed to, or worshipped. He is a man. And although Scripture describes him as a child of God (as in the Psalm above), it clearly describes all of Israel as children of God (as in Deuteronomy 14:1, for example).
To summarize, the concept of unique righteous people dying to atone for the sins of others is an ancient Jewish one, and a valid one. Christians adopted it, to an extreme (ie. not to a specific generation of Jews, but for all mankind for all time) in describing Jesus. This is not surprising, for as we’ve written before, the character of Jesus was carefully constructed from Jewish texts, both Scriptural and extra-Scriptural. This is how some Jews unfortunately succumb to Christian missionaries who bring “proof” from Jewish texts. These prove nothing but the eventual coming of the true messiah—may we merit to see him soon.
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.