Importance of Names
The story is told of a man who came into court one day on a petition to change his name (in most states, in order to change your name you must appear before a judge for approval). The man stepped up before the Judge, and they had the following conversation:
Judge: What is your current name?
Man: Joe Yucky
Judge: Joe Yucky? Well, I can certainly understand why you would want to change that! What do you want to change it to?
Man: I want to change it to Sam Yucky.
Judge: What??? You want to change your name from Joe Yucky to Sam Yucky? Why do you want to make that change?
Man: Because I am sick of people saying to me “Hey Joe, whad’ya know?”
In Jewish history, the first change of name - or in Hebrew, שם - occurs in this week’s parsha (Lech Lecha), in Genesis 17:5, in which God says to Avram:
“And you shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”
The second recorded change of name comes a few verses later, in Genesis 17:15, when God goes on to say:
“And God said to Abraham, ‘As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.”
Why is God changing Abraham and Sarah’s names? And why now? Abraham was then 99 years old, and Sarah was 90 - can you imagine them wondering why, after so many years, these changes were suddenly necessary? Or even a good idea? What difference would it make if Abraham and Sarah kept their old names or got new ones? In Judaism, how important is a person’s name anyway?
Let’s answer the last question first. On a scale of 1-10, the importance of names is at least a 10, maybe an 11. We know this in several ways.
The first words in most Siddurim, and the first thing a Jew should say upon waking, is the “Modeh Ani”:
“I am grateful to you, living, enduring king, for restoring my “nishama” to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.”
What is a person’s “nishama/נשמה”? It is most often translated as the soul - you could also refer to it as spirit, or even personality -, the unique spiritual/emotional side of each and every human being. Pronounced and voweled a different way, it becomes נשימה/neshima, which means breath. We see the connection between soul and breath in Genesis 2:7 where, after forming Adam from the dust of the earth, it says ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים - “ and He (God) blew into his (Adam’s) nostrils the breath/soul of life.” Of course, God does not have lungs and does not breathe as we do; rather, the Torah is telling us that man has Godliness in him, because God took from His breath, or spirit, and made it a part of the human He had just created.
And at the core of nishamah/neshima, and central to the idea of a soul or the breath of God within us, there is the Hebrew word for name; spelled with a shin ש and a מ, it is right there in the middle of the word נשמה. A person’s name is their external identity (“Hello, I’m _____), but it is also a part of, and linked to, their inner self, soul, identity and spirit.
Names are so important that God uses names not only to precede, but to cause creation - as in Genesis 1:2, where God says יהי אור, ויהי אור - “Let there be light, and there was light.” The name comes first, and is followed by doing God’s will and being what it will be. And after God created Adam, and breathed נשמת חיים into him, how did God make Adam His partner in creation? God brought him all the animals, so that Adam could decide and assign them the names that would fit them, and that they would forever thereafter be called (see Genesis 2:19-20). Finally, consider Tehillim 146, a part of our daily tefillot, where it says of God:
“He numbers the stars, and calls each one by name.”
Now, you might think it is pretty impressive that God knows the number of how many stars there are, and it is; after all, with all our telescopes, space satellites and other technologies, no astronomer or scientist knows that number, nor could they ever claim a certain number without wondering if there weren’t another thousand or million or more stars out there in a galaxy far away. But even more impressive than God knowing the number is the second part of the verse - that He calls each one not by their number, but by their name. Why? What is this verse trying to tell us?
Well, when you greet someone, do you just say “hey you”? Or do you greet them by their name? Calling someone by their name is more than just being polite. The famous Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, said that “names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Using someone’s name makes them feel good, because it shows that you acknowledge their identity, their uniqueness, and that you are connecting to them on a personal level. There are more stars than we know, but God, who created them, knows them all. More than that, they are each so dear and so special to Him, that he calls each of them by name. And if God is putting that much importance on the names of the stars, how much more so when it comes to the names of the Jewish people?
Which brings us back to Abraham. Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 17:5 explains that he was known as “Avram” when he was merely “אב ארם,” the father of Aram, the region of land he was from. God tells him in that verse that the name change is necessary because he is now going to be “אב המון גוים” the father of a multitude of nations (imagine how Abraham might have taken this news; at this point, Ishmael had been born to the maidservant Hagar, but Abraham and Sarah had no children!), and Abraham is an abbreviation of that three-word phrase. Astute readers will notice that the “ר” (the R) that was in his name originally is not part of that new phrase, and perhaps should not have remained part of Abraham’s name; Rashi suggests that it was allowed to stay out of respect, for to have been a part of a righteous person’s name and then be removed would have been a degradation and embarrassment to that letter!
The change from שרי (Sarai) to שרה (Sarah) was for a different reason, but also necessary for her new role. Sarai is a possessive form of the word שר (Sar), which means a prince or princess, someone of noble authority. Previously, Sarai’s identity was as Abraham’s princess or ruler; now, that will not be enough. Now she is Sarah, which means the princess or ruler of all, in her own right, and not as defined or possessed by anyone else.
In these verses, God is saying that while their old names fit them until now, their new names were needed to match their new roles and identities. Did they work? Well, Abraham and Sarah do go on to have a child, Isaac, and he, along with Ishmael, do become the fathers of a multitude of nations and people. Indeed, to this day, Abraham and Sarah are claimed by the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as their founding Matriarch and Patriarch, and those names live on in the many nations around the world where those religions are practiced, and their followers give their children these names, signaling importance, honor and respect. It appears that God knew what He was doing!
Questions for further thought and study:
Why does the Modeh Ani, quoted above, describe God as a king, but does not contain any of God’s names?
Why is Abraham known exclusively by that new name after God gives it to him, when Jacob is called both Jacob and Israel after he gets that new name? (See Sforno’s commentary on Genesis 17:5).
What do parents consider when choosing a name for their children? Are the names they choose more of a prophecy, or a wish?
Keith M. Kanter teaches Judaics/Biblical Studies, Tefillah, Jewish History and Torah reading at Kreiger Schechter Day School in Baltimore, Maryland; he previously taught a similar curriculum at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago.