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Judaism: Changing Names

What does a name signify? And a name change? Close reading of the text of this week's portion adds another dimension.
Published: Thursday, October 10, 2013 10:32 AM


Abraham and Sarah begin the voyage of a people, yet right at the start ,their names are changed. Jacob is given a vision of his people's destiny with a name change. Joshua is given charge of the journey of his people following a name change. What is the mystery regarding names and the changing of those same names?

We read in the book of Genesis the following ;
“And out of the ground HaShem G-d formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them; and whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof.( Genesis 2:19)”.

Our sages have understood this verse to mean that whatever Adam called the animal that “name” was to be its spiritual essence as well. In a similar vein, the Ari HaKadosh teaches that the name the parents choose for their baby is actually a ‘small prophecy’. The parents think they read or heard something that moved them to name their child in a certain way. Yet in fact it was prophetic inspiration that moved the parents   to give the child the exact name that is destined for that child. That name and the combination of the Hebrew letters that make up that name  then defines the child’s spiritual potential, direction or his or her challenge.

The act of changing names then is seen as producing a shift in the spiritual paradigm.

In the secular world, as well ,the change of names is seen as an opening to  new opportunities. It becomes a doorway into new beginnings. When the state of Israel was born the early pioneers were intent on changing and hebraicising their names.

On a purely psychological level there is something very powerful and impactful about  the way we are addressed by others. On the other hand the retaining or the return to former names becomes at times a declaration of courage and faithfulness. The Midrash relates that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four virtues. The first merit that is mentioned is that they didn’t change their Hebrew names.(Leviticus Rabbah 32:5.).

So what are we to learn from the name changes of Abraham and Sarah?

After many of the significant trials of Abraham we are informed;  "As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations."( Genesis 17:5-6).

Regarding Sarah we are told " And G-d said to Abraham, "Your wife Sarai-you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name.. And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, and I will bless her, and she will become [a mother of] nations; kings of nations will be from her" (  ibid 17:16   ).

In both cases we are to understand that their name change relates to the universal character of their mission. Abraham becomes the “the father of a multitude of nations “and Sarah becomes “a mother of nations; kings of nations will be from her “. Their mission was to be patriarchs of a great nation but they and their offspring will be the source of great blessing for the nations of the world.

Yet we can also note a dramatic difference between the two. Regarding Abraham we read "but your name shall be Abraham" and regarding Sarah we read  “for Sarah is her name”. Abram was to become Abraham and Sarai was already Sarah.The Talmud explains; “Rabbi Huna said, quoting Rabbi Acha: The letter” yud “( numerical equivalent-10 )which was removed from Sarai’s name was divided into two letters, one hei  “(numerical equivalent-5) was added to Abram and the other to Sarah.”( Yerushalmi , Sanhedrin 2;6).

Women, by the virtue of their Extra Spiritual intuition (Bina Yeteira), sense G-d and spirituality from the inside out , while men sense G-d from the outside in. Sarah was already blessed with an intuitive spiritual awareness and shared that strength with her husband and both were then blessed with the letter Hei.

This relationship would be the first of many blessings that Abraham and Sarah would bequeath to their offspring and thereupon unto all the nations of the earth.

Another lesson we can learn from this is that the relationship between husband and wife must be based on a mutual understanding of the spiritual debt each owes to the other. Together, then, they create the  building blocks for a spiritually blessed world


LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved