Names and Naming

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Names and Naming

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



A.                 Introduction – Named and Nameless


"These are the names of the children of Yisrael …" (1:1)


            We open the Torah's second book with the listing of the names of Yaakov's family.  This naming forms a literary bridge that connects our book with the original verses in Sefer Bereishit; it informs us immediately that this book serves as the continuation and culmination of all the historical processes set into motion long ago.  In his introduction to the book, the Netziv notes that ones of the names given to Sefer Shemot is "Sefer Ha-sheni" (the second book), "for it comes to teach us that this book's uniqueness is that it is the second book to the first – for in it is the completion of the purpose of the Creation… the leaving from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah by Hashem's people."


            Rashi notes that the re-listing of the names suggests the distinctive individual achievements that each of the founders achieved:


Though they were counted by name in their lifetimes, they are listed again after death to display their singular preciousness, for they are likened to the stars which God shepherds, counting them by name: He brings out their legions by number, to each He calls by name (Yeshayahu 40:26). (Rashi on 1:1)


However, within a few verses, we note that this emphasis on individuality disappears.  The uncanny birthrate transforms the Jewish people from a collection of accomplished individuals to a faceless group, where individual identities are overrun under the explosion of humanity that covers the land of Egypt.


Then Yosef died, along with all his brothers and that entire generation.  And the children of Yisrael were fruitful and increased extravagantly, and multiplied and grew very, very powerful, and the land was filled with them.  (1:6, 7)


The Seforno sees in this phenomenon criticism of the new generation:


"… were fruitful and increased extravagantly" (In Hebrew – paru ve'yishritzu) – After the death of the original seventy souls, their descendants deviated from the ways of their fathers, and followed the paths of the creeping insects (in Hebrew- sheretzim – a play on words on the original 'increased extravagantly'), who run (another play on words – she'ratzim – those who run) to the pit (an expression for the vacuous life taken from Talmud Berakhot 28b).


To underscore this loss of identity, the next two stories conspicuously avoid the mention of any individual names:


And he said to his people, "Behold, the people, the children of Yisrael are more numerous and stronger than we.  Let us act wisely to it … (1:9, 10)

And the more they oppressed it (them), the more they proliferated and the more that they spread.  (1:12)

The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women – they bear children like animals. (1:19)

And a person of the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi.  And the woman conceived and gave birth to a son.  (2:1, 2)[i]

And his sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. (2:4)

And the daughter of Pharoah went down to bathe by the river … (2:5)


It is not surprising that the Rabbis saw the midwives' proper names as given in this account as not real names, but references to the roles they played in the birthing process:


… the midwives of the Hebrews, the name of one being Shifra, and the name of the other being Pu'ah.  (1:15)

Shifra was actually Yocheved.  And why was she called "Shifra"?  Because she would beautify the newborn (Hebrew SH.P.R. – to beautify) before giving it to the mother … Pu'ah was actually Miriam.  And why was she called "Pu'ah?"  For she would coo (po'eh in Hebrew) to the infant. (Talmud Sota 11b)


B.                 Who Gives the Name


            The Torah's emphasis on anonymity crashes to a halt in the middle of Chapter 2.  Upon receiving the freshly weaned child that she had rescued from the river and given over to a Hebrew wet-nurse (from her point of view), it is none other than Pharaoh's daughter who holds the young child and exclaims:


"The child grew, and the woman presented him to Pharaoh's daughter who took him as her son.  She called his name 'Moshe,' for she said: 'I have drawn him from the water' (MiShitiHu)" (Shemot 2:10). 


Careful readers note the irony involved – the person to break the silence of names that has pervaded the story comes from no other place than Pharaoh's house!   This parallels a larger theme within the story – deliverance comes from within the source of destruction.  The river where countless Jewish babies were drowned becomes the river where the Jewish people's future savior is rescued.  Pharaoh's house, the source of so many decrees of evil and suffering, becomes the place where the future savior is redeemed.  What generates this transformation?  A quick structural outlining of the story of Moshe's birth may reveal some answers:


A.      The formation of Moshe's first family – a man of Levi and a daughter of Levi. (2:1)

B.           Moshe's mother cares for him (building the teivah ) (2:2,3)

C.              Miriam stands afar to know what will be done.  (2:4)

D.                    Pharaoh's daughter finds Moshe in the basket. (2:5,6)

C1.          Miriam knows what to do – she offers her mother as a wet-nurse. (2:8)

B1.     Moshe's mother cares for Moshe (feeding him) (2:9)

A1.  Moshe is given to his new family – the daughter of Pharaoh, who names him.  (2:10)


The chiasm helps us identify the narrative's turning point – Pharaoh's daughter discovery of Moshe on the river:


"Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, attended by her maidens.  She saw the box among the rushes and sent her maidservant to fetch it.  She opened it and saw him, the boy, and behold (ve-hineh), the child was crying.  She took pity upon him, and she said: 'he is a Hebrew child!'" (Shemot 2:5-6). 


The Hebrew word for behold (ve-hineh) serves a special function in Biblical narrative.  When this word appears, it denotes a chance in perspective from the narrator to viewpoint of the character involved[ii].  Here, the Torah treats us to a rare glimpse of the inner thoughts of one of the main characters.  As she reaches for the basket, what will Pharaoh's daughter see?  Will it be one of the accursed slaves' children trying to avoid its inevitable fate?  (She immediately displays her awareness of Moshe's heritage with her exclamation.)  What she sees, and what ultimately moves her, are a baby's cries.  That pity leads her to choose to adopt the young infant, a fact the text underscores, "And he was a son to her." (2:10) 


            We can demonstrate that Pharaoh's daughter supplanted Yocheved as Moshe's mother by noting several textual clues.  The first is the comparison alluded to above between the two times that Yocheved cares for Moshe.  The first time, the Torah uses eight verbs to describe the steps that Yocheved took to protect her child, "And she conceived … and she gave birth … and she saw … and she hid him … and she took … and she smeared … and she placed the boy in it … and she placed it among the reeds."  This expansive description of Yocheved's actions serves to emphasize how every step that she took, no matter how small, she performed out of love with the one purpose of saving her beloved child.  In contrast, the Torah is sparing in its description of the care she gave Moshe when he was returned to her to breast-feed – "she took the boy … and she fed him  ... and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter."  To some extent, the boy is no longer wholly hers.


            The second textual clue is that the Torah reserves the right to name the child for Pharaoh's daughter.  While Yocheved and her family must have had a name by which they called the baby before sacrificing him (Rabbinic tradition suggests 'Tuviyah'); the text only mentions Moshe.  Earlier, we saw that both Rachel and Leah named the children of Bilha and Zilpa.  Rav Elchanan Samet suggests, "they see themselves as the mothers of those sons because it was they who gave the maidservants to Yaakov in order that the children who would be born would be considered theirs."


How are we to understand the name Moshe?  The Netziv suggests that the name Moshe comes from the ancient Egyptian word for son:


"'And he became a son unto her' – Since she saved him from death and raised him, it was considered as though she had given birth to him, as she says: 'And she called his name Moshe.' And I have seen written in the name of R. Shmuel of Bohemia, that in the Egyptian language, this word in this form means 'son'… and this interpretation is correct. Thus, she explains the reason why the child is hers: 'for I drew him out of the water' – for it is as if he drowned in the river, and so his father and mother have no portion in him, and I am the mother of the child. This is truly called acquiring a person…According to our words, the word 'meshitihu' (I drew him out) is not related to the name Moshe, but rather is the explanation that she called him ["son," i.e.] Moshe.  In any event, this is the way of the holy language – to present a play on words." (2:10)

The Seforno suggests that his name, in the active verb form "to draw" and not the passive "to be drawn" foreshadows his eventual life mission:


"His name means 'to draw others out of distress.'  Pharaoh's daughter remarked: 'I have given him this name to indicate that he will in turn rescue others, for I saved him from the waters.  Surely, his deliverance was accomplished through the agency of a Higher Power, in order that he might one day rescue others'" (2:10). 


C.                 Moshe, Gershom, and Redemption


The final naming in Chapter 2 occurs many decades later.  Moshe, having incurred the wrath of the Egyptians for his murder of the overlord, fled to Midiyan, where we married Tzippora and settles down to dwell.  Upon the birth of his first son, Moshe provides a brief glimpse into his thoughts:


"He named him Gershom, for he said: I was a stranger in a strange land." (2:22)


The Ibn Ezra comments that this land refers to Egypt – I was a stranger.


            Is their any significance to the placement of the naming here? The Torah waits until chapter 18 before telling us the name and meaning of Moshe's second son Eliezer, though he was undoubtedly born earlier.  Immediately after the naming, the text continues:


And it happened … that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Yisrael groaned because of the work, and their cried out.  Their outcry because of the work went up to God.  And God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzchak, and with Yaakov.  And God saw the children of Yisrael, and God knew.


We must ask: Surely God had heard the cries of the Jewish people earlier?  What happened now that God finally pays attention to their suffering?  Rashi suggests that Pharoah did not in fact die, but fell sick, and a particularly gruesome remedy was prescribed:


He was stricken with leprosy, and to cure himself he would slaughter Jewish children and bathe in their blood. (Rashi, from Shemot Rabba 1:37)


Despite the extremely savage behavior that Rashi suggests, we must ask whether it was indeed so much more horrible than the wholesale slaughter of infants by drowning described by the text previously.  Recognizing the significance of the namings of our book, we ask: Is there any connection between Moshe's naming of Gershom and God's decision to (finally) remember his covenant with his people?  Following in the Netziv's explanation earlier that this book is the continuation and culmination of Sefer Bereishit, we go back to the description of the Covenant Between the Parts (Berit Bein Ha-betarim):


And you will be strangers (GERIM) in a land not yours, and they shall be enslaved (ve-AVDUM) and they will afflict them (ve-EENU) for four hundred years. (15:13)


To fulfill the terms of the covenant, the Jewish people have to endure three conditions:  being strangers (GEIRUT), slavery (AVDUT), and affliction (EENUI).  A quick perusal of the story until now reveals that while the text emphasized the oppression ("As much as they would afflict them (ya'ANU)), and the Hebrew root for the word slavery (E.V.D.) appears as a leitwort (a key, repeating word) throughout the narrative (significantly, seven times between Chapter 1 and the final verses of Chapter 2 – linking the two accounts), the word for strangers, 'GEIRUT', is significantly absent.  Why?  A glance backwards at the first exile in Jewish history, Yaakov at Lavan, provides the answer.  Like his descendants, Yaakov finds himself separated from family and homeland in the house of his father-in-law.  There, he undergoes afflictions and tribulations, as the crafty Lavan outwits him at every turn.  The root word for work/slavery (E.V.D.) appears 14 times (a multiple of 7) in the story.  Noticeably, however, Yaakov is only able to articulate his status in Lavan's household upon his return home:


"IM LAVAN GARTI "– I was a stranger with Lavan. (32:5)


Apparently, in order to recognize that one is a stranger in a certain location, one requires the perspective that comes only upon leaving that environment.  This reality, however, places the Jewish people in a unsolvable quandary:  In order to leave the land of Egypt, they have to recognize that they are strangers in it.  But in order to recognize that they are strangers in it, they have to leave the land!  Without outside assistance, they would have remained trapped in the land for eternity. 


            With this new understanding, we return to Moshe and the naming of Gershom.  "He named him Gershom, for he said: I was a stranger in a strange land." Moshe's naming of Gershom is more than the reflection of his personal sense of estrangement from the land where he grew up a member of royalty; in the larger, Divine scheme, his understanding provides the missing element required for the redemption of the Jewish people.  It is appropriate that the Book of Names, whose theme is redemption, sees the beginning of redemption in the act of providing the right name. 



[i] The Ramban commented on the failure to identify Moshe's parents as follows:

"The Torah does not mention the name of the man or of the woman that he took as his wife, for this would have necessitated a listing of their respective genealogies.  But for now, the text wishes to focus on the birth of the deliverer, and later it will return to describe his family roots..." 

[ii] See Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, p. 62:  "Often a statement of perception includes the word hinneh which is known to sometimes mark the perception of a character as distinct from that of the narrator."