When I was born, my parents decided to name me after my paternal grandmother, “Fagaleh,” true to the Ashkenazi tradition. In Hebrew School I was known as Tzeporah, and in the secular world I was/am Florence.
The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment. The Sages say that naming a baby is a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life. (If that’s the case I am a bird–maybe meant to soar or fly to or from–whatever that means.) But in reality, my Jewish name was to honor my late and unknown grandmother who had a very difficult life and died at a young age.
According to the Talmud, at the beginning of life we are given a name, and at the end of life, a “good name” is all we take with us. Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that parents receive one-sixtieth of prophecy when picking a name. An angel comes to the parents and whispers the Jewish name that the new baby will embody.
So names are a significant part of our tradition. In the Torah, names and their meanings often are reflective of deeper meanings. Let’s take a look at some of those names.
When born, Jacob is given the name “Jacob” meaning, “trickster, supplanter, heel grabber.” After he wrestles at Jabbok, he is renamed “Israel” meaning “strives with G-d.” However, the text still calls him Jacob most of the time. Then in Genesis 35, he has another encounter with G-d and it then begins to call him Israel in the text. But not all the time.
Genesis then switches back and forth between those names at this point. From Gen 35:21 to the end of Genesis, he is called Jacob about 35 times and Israel about 39 times. Maybe it is because the text is a compilation of different written accounts, or what is far more interesting – perhaps it is because we are all a composite of personality traits and characteristics.
Later in Genesis when Jacob is preparing to die, Joseph brings his sons Ephraim and Manasseh for a blessing, he crosses his hands giving Ephraim the first blessing, even though Manasseh was the first born, Joseph attempts to correct him. But Jacob says, “No—I know who they are.”
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim over Manasseh had nothing to do with their ages and everything to do with their names. Joseph names his first son Manasseh—forgetting—because he wished to forget the pain of his years in servitude; but names his second son Ephraim because at that point in his life, he wishes to remember his heritage and his family. The child of forgetting (Manasseh) may have blessings. But greater are the blessings of a child (Ephraim) who remembers the past and future of which he is a part.
So how do our names remind us of our family’s past and, by extension, our heritage? Fagaleh connects me to my paternal grandmother and Tzeporah to Moses’ wife. Not too shabby.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.