What’s in a name?
When we give someone a ‘Jewish’ name, we believe that it has great significance. It may be that the name is to celebrate or commemorate a family member – in Ashkenazi families, almost always a loved relative who has died; in Sefardi and Mizrachi families, it may be after a living matriarch or patriarch of the family.
Or perhaps the name itself is of significance, such as ‘Simcha’ – joy; ‘Tova’ – good.
Many of the names of characters in the Torah are loaded with meaning and implication. This week’s parashah begins to teach us about a couple named Avram and Sarai, who later have their names changed by God to Avraham and Sarah.
There are many explanations for the change. One is that Avram and Sarai were destined always to be childless; but no such fate had been decreed for Avraham and Sarah.
Another interesting explanation is that God wanted the parents of Yitzchak to be equally holy; true, Ishmael had been born to Avram, but Hagar was not of sufficient holiness to be the mother of the nation that God wished to create from Avram. The midrash suggests that Sarai had a double portion of holiness; a ‘yud’ – numerical value 10 – was taken from the name Sarai and replaced with two ‘hehs’ - numerical value 5. One was given to create the name Sarah. And another ‘heh’ was added to Avram to make Avraham.
Surnames are another matter altogether – reputed to have begun in England after 1066, but Jews were always known by the addition of ‘son of’ or ‘daughter’ of and then their parents’ Hebrew names. Arriving in other countries, often not speaking the local language, Jews adopted many surnames often based on the country or city they came from – eg Berliner, Hamburger, or their trade, although ‘Baker’ is a name often found in families of Kohanim – being an acronym for ‘Ben Avraham HaKohen’ …..
I’m sure we could all write a fascinating chapter in The Book of Names…..