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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Power of Names

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on October 23, 2009)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Noach, Personal Status & Identity, Sefer Breishit, Torah

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In parshat Noach, the months get great play. All the events of the flood are dated by the month in which they occurred – “in the seventh month,” “in the tenth month,” and so on. However, as is clear from Rashi, because of the lack of proper names for the months, it is very hard to know which months are being referred to. Also, it is hard to even relate to or remember these months because they lack a proper name. Their names are abstract labels and they lack character or definition.

This practice of referring to the months by number continues throughout the Torah (although there is some question if the numbering switched at the time of Exodus, with Nissan replacing Tishrei as the “first month”). It is not until we get to the books of Tanakh that were written during or after the Babylonian exile – Megilat Esther, Ezra-Nechemya and Zecharya – that we have the names of the months that we are familiar with today – Adar, Kislev, and so on. These names were taken from the names of the Babylonian months (to see the parallels, see This fact is attested to by the Yerushalmi Rosh HaShana 1:2 which states explicitly, “The names of months they [the Jews] brought up with them from Babylon.” It is thus that, in those books of Tanakh, there is an identification of the Babylonian names with the Hebrew names (e.g., “In the tenth month (=Hebrew name), which is the month of Tevet (=Babylonian name)”), and this is similar done with the names of people: “And he raised Hadassah (=Hebrew name), she is Esther (=Persian name).”

Once we took these names, we made them our own. Esther represents hester panim, a period of God’s hiddenness. Elul is the month of ani li’dodi vi’dodi li, of God’s closeness. And Ramban (on Exodus 12:2) even goes so far to say that the use of these Babylonian month-names is a fulfillment of the Biblical mitzvah of relating the months to the Exodus, because now they evoke the second exodus in our history, the exodus from Babylon to rebuild the Second Temple.

The naming of the months has given them character and has allowed us to create a relationship with them. And we know the character of the different months. We know what Elul is as a month. We know what Tishrei is as a month. And we also know what Marcheshvan is. It is a month without any definition – there is nothing interesting about it. And because it has no definition, we have to give it one. It is the bitter month; it is mar; there are no chagim, so we are bitter. That, at least, is the folk parsing of the name, which sees “mar” as a prefix. As a result of this understanding, the “mar” has often been dropped, and it is commonly referred to as “Cheshvan”. And anyway, who wants a bitter month? Thus, there has even been a move in Israel recently to have the name of the month officially changed to Cheshvan and to introduce into this month the theme of social justice. That is, to change its name and to give it a new character. In fact, since the name derives from the Babylonian month, it is clear that “mar” is not a prefix and does not mean bitter. The original name of the month was “Arach Samna” which means the eighth (samna=shmoneh) month (arach = yerach) and thus dropping the “mar” is completely out of place. However, the true etymology is not the issue. What is at stake is the current name and the current character of the month. How should it be shaped? What do we want this month to be?

All of this shows us how powerful names are. They define things and give them character. And the question over who gets to name something and what its name should be is often the question of what the identity and character of that thing will be. Thus, the naming of the animals in last week’s parasha by Adam was the first act that he did as a human. In fact, after the creating itself, naming was the first act that God performed as well. In this act we take something from the universal and abstract and make it particular, concrete, and real.

This theme of names continues from Breishit through parshat Noach. The people of Migdal Bavel said “Let us make for ourselves a name, lest we spread throughout the land.” What was their sin? Their sin was that they were supposed to spread throughout the land and populate it, but they only wanted to stay in one place. They were afraid that by venturing forth into the world they would lose their identity, they would lose their name. The only way they could preserve their name was to stay in one place and have everyone come to them. To assimilate all others into themselves – this would grow their name. They are the insecure person writ large, the person who does not have a strong enough sense of self and who needs others to constantly feed his ego so they can prop up his self-image. The people of Bavel needed all people to gather around them so that they could preserve their name, their sense of self. The other side of this is the case by the Nifilim in Breishit 6:4. They were people not of “a name,” but of “the name” – only one name, their own – these are the egotistical people who have a very strong sense of self, but only can see themselves and no one else.

God, on the other hand, wanted the peopel of Migdal Bavel to venture into the world. God wanted them to have a strong name, a sense of identity and purpose that would allow them to individuate themselves from others and to authentically encounter the other. Different languages became a necessary tool to force this distinctiveness and identity. This was, for them, the only way they could retain their identity. This would allow them to spread forth throughout the world and not lose their name .

One of Noach’s sons, of course, embodied this sense of identity and purpose: Shem, whose name, literally, means “name.” It is Shem who knows how to act when his father is disgraced. And it is Shem’s son, Avraham, who in next week’s parasha, has such a strong sense of God, as distinct from all the false gods of his time. It is he who knows the name of God and who, wherever he goes, calls “bi’shem Hashem,” “in the name of God.” Avraham understands what it means to go out into the world with a strong sense of purpose, a strong sense of self. He knows his name, and he knows God’s name, and it is this that he brings into the larger world. Rather than needing others to prop up his identity, he is able to encounter others and share with them what he, as Avraham, has to offer.

Just as Avraham calls out in God’s name, so God names Avraham, and changes his name from Avram to Avraham. This is the first naming that God has done since creation. God recreated the world after the flood and now, in naming Avraham, God has done the second act of creation anew, the act of naming. And, through this act of naming, God has defined Avraham’s character and defined his relationship to Avraham.

And so the relationship continues, with Avraham’s descendants, Yitzchak and Yaakov, continuing to spread God’s name, and with God continuing to name them – Yitzchak, by directing Avraham how to name him, and by changing Yaakov’s name to Yisrael.

This is the move from Noach to Lekh Lekha. It is the move from the universal to the particular. It is what creates the special, personal and intimate relationship that we have with God and that God has with us, the descendants of Avraham, the descendants of Shem.

As Bnei Yisrael, we know our own name, we know our character and our identity. If we have a strong enough sense of who we are, and a strong enough sense of mission, if we ourselves know the name of God, then we will not be afraid to venture into the larger world, to encounter the other and to spread the name of God.