Judaism & the Power of Names

April 17, 2013

4 min read


Your name is the key to your soul.

It’s official: The name Sandy has been retired as a suitable name for tropical storms due to the horrific damage and the 72 deaths she caused on the East Coast.

Storm names are recycled every six years or so, unless they cause catastrophic harm. In that case, we just don’t want to take a chance on a repeat performance by another storm bearing the identical name.

Sound superstitious?

A more serious question we ought to consider is whether names really have a deeper meaning - and whether our own names have any great significance. The answer from a Jewish perspective may surprise you.

Names represent our identity not simply because they are a convenient way to allow us to be distinguished one from another. It is because they define us. The names we are given at birth aren’t accidental. They are to some extent prophetic. They capture our essence. They are the keys to our soul.

The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to that word, the middle two letters, shin and mem, make the word shem, Hebrew for ‘name.’ Your name is the key to your soul.

The Midrash teaches us that although prophecy no longer exists after the close of the Bible, there is one small area in which we are still granted a glimpse of Divine wisdom. It comes to us when we struggle to find the right name for our offspring.

The names of our children are the result of a partnership between our effort and God’s response.

The names of our children are the result of a partnership between our effort and God’s response. That is why the Hebrew word for ‘name,’ shem, has the same numerical value as the word for ‘book,’ sefer: 340.

Names are a book. They tell a story. The story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission. That explains the fascinating midrash that tells us when we complete our years on this earth and face heavenly judgment, one of the most powerful questions we will be asked at the outset is, What is your name – and did you live up to it?

Who was the first one ever to call something or someone by name? The Torah makes clear it was none other than God. And God used names not for the sake of identification, but rather for creation.

When the Torah says, “God created,” it doesn’t suggest that He worked with what He fashioned by labor, but merely that He spoke – and the very words describing the object came into being. God said, “Let there be light and there was light.” The Almighty merely gave it a name, and the very letters defined its atomic structure.

Names are not just convenient ways for us to differentiate between objects. Names are responsible for the differences between all things on this earth.

Names came before the existence of those things with which they would subsequently be identified. Names are not the offspring, but rather the parents of everything in the universe. Things really are what they are called. Or to put it more bluntly, they are what they are because of what they are named, in spite of Shakespeare’s belief that “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

That is why:

  • When Abram came to the realization of monotheism, his name had to be changed: “Neither shall your name any more be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for the father a multitude of nations have I made you” (Genesis 17:5). The change of identity required a change of identification.
  • When Jacob, whose name came from the root word meaning “heel” – which so perfectly suited someone whose approach to the problems of life was always flight – suddenly realized he had to fight rather than flee, the angel informed him: “Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). A traumatic lifestyle change brings with it a new personal descriptive.
  • When the children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt, the Midrash makes says it was in the merit of three things that the Almighty took note of their suffering and decided to ensure their survival. The Jews may have been imperfect in many ways, but overriding their sins was the fact that “they did not change their names, their language, and their mode of dress.” First and paramount was the fact that they maintained their attachment to their “true selves” by remaining loyal to their given names.
  • If a person is critically ill, Jewish law suggests a powerful last resort: change the name of the individual in order to alter the decree. Adding the name Chaim, Hebrew for ‘life,’ is one well-known example.
  • It is our custom to name children after those whom we deeply admire or seek to memorialize. To link a newborn with someone from the past is to bring together two souls in an inseparable bond of life.

Indeed, the Bible remarkably tells us “As his name, so is he” (Samuel I, 25:25). Talmudic sages offer countless examples of the connection between the names of biblical characters and their actions.

We will forever leave behind our names as a final legacy.

Does that mean that we are predestined to live lives circumscribed by something beyond our control? Are we doomed to play out roles handed to us by our parents while we were infants? Is our free will limited by our names? Of course not. Judaism emphasizes the principle of freedom of choice. Yet our names are indicators of our potential and predictors of our possible futures.

It is not our names that force us to be what we are. It is what we are that transmits itself in a profoundly prophetic manner to those entrusted with the holy task of choosing our names. It is a message from God entrusted to our name-givers in order to help us define our mission on earth.

So while we are far from being like Hurricane Sandy, we need to recognize that we will forever leave behind our names as a final legacy. Our names outlive us; let’s do everything in our power to make them be remembered for blessing.

Next Steps