Daily Israel Report

Judaism: What's In a Name?

The significance of the name changes in the book of Genesis.
Published: Friday, October 25, 2013 3:52 PM


The Midrash tells us that “a man is called by three names: one that his father and mother call him, one that other people call him, and one that he acquires for himself. And the best of these is the one he acquires for himself” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:1 [3]; Tanhuma, Vayak’hel 1).

 Our father Avram was given the name Avram by his parents, denoting “Av Aram”, the father of Aram (Berachot 13a, Yerushalmi Bikkurim 1:64). Then, after almost a century of devotion to G-d, after he had worked himself up to unimaginable spiritual heights, G-d added the letter heh from His own Name to Avram’s name, conferring upon him the name Avraham, denoting “av hamon goyim”, the father of a multitude of nations, meaning father of all the nations of the world (ibid.).

 At the same time and under the same circumstances, G-d added the letter heh to Sarai’s name, conferring upon her the name Sarah.

 In three weeks, Parashat Vayishlach will recount how an angel conferred on Avraham’s grandson Yaakov the new name Yisrael (Genesis 32:29), which name G-d ratified some time later (35:10).

 These are all people who actualized their potentials for holiness. Avram/Avraham, Sarai/Sarah, Ya’akov/Yisrael – all became what they were intended to be. All were given names by their parents, and were later known by the names that they acquired for themselves.

 These name-changes are all well-known and are easily carried over into English translations. But in the opening paragraph of Parashat Chaye Sarah is another change of name, so subtle that it is not only impossible to transmit in English translation, but is all too easy to overlook even in Hebrew.

 The first event in Parashat Chaye Sarah is Avraham’s purchase of the Machpelah Cave and the field in which it is located from Ephron the Hittite. In that one paragraph (Genesis 23), Ephron is mentioned eight times. Seven times, Ephron is spelt ayin-peh-reish-vav-nun, that is to say with a vav (technically called cholam mallei). Once, however, Ephron is spelt ayin-peh-reish-nun, that is to say without the vav (technically called cholam chasser).

 Why does the Torah suddenly change the spelling of Ephron’s name? Why is the vav removed?

 Let us begin our answer by seeing the verse in which the spelling changes: “Avraham heeded Ephron [with a vav], and Avraham weighed out for Ephron [without the vav] the money which he had spoken of in earshot of the children of Heth, 400 silver shekels in recognised currency” (Genesis 23:16).

 Ephron the Hittite (meaning descended from Heth) was, if not actually dishonest, certainly a sharp, wily, and unscrupulous businessman. He began by giving a most generous impression, offering Avraham the field and the cave as a burial-place for free (vs. 10-11). Only afterwards did he casually mention the large sum of money, almost as an afterthought: “Land worth 400 silver shekels – what’s that between me and you?” (v. 15).

 To put this sum into perspective, Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain and the British Empire 1913-1946) cites the findings of the historian Bennett, that in the contemporary Code of Hammurabi the wages of a working-man for a year are fixed at six or eight shekels; hence 400 silver shekels represents some sixty years of wages – surely a wildly exaggerated price for an empty field with a cave!

And Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (USA, 1934-1983) in The Living Torah points out that King Omri of Israel paid 6,000 shekels for the entire Shomron (Samaria) (1 Kings 16:25), and the prophet Jeremiah paid only 17 shekels for a property that was at least as large as the Machpelah Field (Jeremiah 32:9).

But Ephron’s demand was even higher than the Torah suggests. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 58:7, Sh’mot Rabbah 31:17) cites Rabbi Hanina: “Every shekel that occurs in the Torah is a sela; in the Prophets, a litra; and in the Writings, a centarium”.

We pause briefly to explain these terms. A sela is two common shekels; a litra is a Talmudic measure, based on the Roman libra, about 330 grams (12 ounces); and a centarium is 100 maneh, equalling 25 shekels (Rashi on Bava Metzia 87a).

The Midrash continues: “Rabbi Yudan says: The exception is Ephron’s shekels, each of which was a centarium, as it says ‘A man who has an evil eye hastens after wealth, he does not know that he will eventually be lacking’ (Proverbs 28:22). The ‘man who has an evil eye [who] hastens after wealth’ is Ephron, who cast his evil eye on the money of a tzaddik; and ‘he does not know that he will eventually be lacking’ – the Torah removed the vav from him”.

So according to the Midrash, Ephron’s price was 25 times higher than the simple reading of the Torah suggests!

The Talmud notes Ephron’s avarice, and contrasts him with Avraham: “It is written [that Avraham told the three angels], ‘I will bring some bread’ (Genesis 18:5), and then it is written ‘Avraham ran to the herd’ (v.7)! Rabbi Elazar said: This teaches that tzaddikim promise little and do a lot. By contrast wicked people promise much but do nothing. Where do we learn this? – From Ephron.

At the beginning it is written [that Ephron defined the Machpelah Field as] ‘land worth 400 silver shekels’, but ultimately it is written ‘Avraham heeded Ephron, and Avraham weighed out for Ephron the money which he had spoken of in earshot of the children of Heth, 400 silver shekels in recognised currency’. He did not mean ordinary shekels but rather centenaria” (Bava Metzia 87a).

Several other Midrashic sources (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Masechta de-Amalek, Yitro 2, s.v. Vayishma Yitro; Tanhuma, Behar 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 102, Exodus 169 et. al.) similarly note that G-d removed the vav from Ephron’s name because of his avarice.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the gematria (numerical value) of Ephron without the vav is 400. Ephron demanded this absurdly inflated price of 400 silver shekels, after initially offering Avraham the Machpelah Field for free – so G-d reduced his name to 400.

This brings us to another question: what is the significance the vav that G-d removed from Ephron’s name?

The word vav means “hook” – something which links two things together. Grammatically, the prefix vav performs two functions. The first is vav ha-hibbur, the conjunctive vav, the prefix that means “and”, the prefix that links two words. The second is vav ha-hipuch, the inversive vav, the prefix before a verb that inverts future tense to past tense and past tense to future tense (for example, hayah = “it was”, ve-hayah = “it will be”; adabber = “I will speak”, va-adabber = “I spoke”).

The very essence of Hevron is hibbur, connexion. The name Hevron comes from the root le-habber (“to connect, to conjoin”), the same cognate as haver (“friend”), one with whom there is a connexion. Hebron is the place where this world is connected with the next: “The Machpelah Cave is on the threshold of the entrance to the Garden of Eden” (Zohar Hadash, Volume 2, Ruth 33b).

And in greater detail: “There are seven gates through which the souls of the tzaddikim enter their exalted place, and at every single gate there are guardians. The first gate through which the soul enters is the Machpelah Cave, which is on the threshold of the Garden of Eden, and Adam, the first man, is the guardian there. If the soul merits [to enter through the gate] then he announces: Clear the way! Come in peace! And thus [the soul] passes through the first gate” (Zohar Hadash, Volume 1, Parashat Noach 35b).

Hevron is the place that connects the Jew to the Land of Israel, to the Torah of Israel, to the G-d of Israel. Hevron is the place that connects the Jew with the past and with the future.

All this is symbolised by the letter vav, the hook, the conjoiner, the Hebrew prefix that connects future with past and past with future.

When Ephron made his exorbitant demand of 400 silver shekels for this field and cave – whose significance he was entirely unaware of – he forfeited his connexion with the entrance to the Garden of Eden, he forfeited his connexion with Avraham, the forefather of G-d’s holy nation.

He sold his potential connexion with the Garden of Eden for 400 silver shekels, and G-d’s response was to deprive him of the vav in his name.

When Avram became what he was intended to be, G-d added the heh to his name to show how he had reached unprecedented heights. When Ephron became what he wanted to be, G-d removed the vav from his name to show how low he had sunk.

We all have our names that our parents gave us at birth. And through our conduct we all earn our names by which posterity will call us. The name we earn for ourselves, as the Midrash tells us, is the best name of all.

“A good name is better than a good oil, and the day of death is better than the day of birth”, said King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:1). This sounds strange: after all, Judaism is hardly so nihilistic. Rabbi Yochanan helps us to understand: “Every person is destined one day to die… Happy is the one who grew up with the Torah and whose labour is for the Torah, who brings pleasure to his Creator, who has grown with a good name and departed this world with a good name. Of him King Solomon said, ‘A good name is better than a good oil, and the day of death is better than the day of birth’” (Berachot 17a).

 Indeed, the name we earn for ourselves is how posterity will remember us. And every one of us can choose to be the disciple of Ephron from whose name the vav was removed, or the disciple of Avraham and Sarah to whose names the heh from G-d’s own Name was added.