These days, people alter their names for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are getting married or divorced, they wish to assume a stage name, they want to correct their name, or they simply don't like their name. Some but not all of these cases represent a change in status. And unless a change is fraudulent, there is no prohibition against it.
In biblical times, personal names often reflected the circumstances of birth and were based on an event, a situation, or a personal characteristic. At times, they were reminiscent of animal or plant names as terms of endearment. A change in the role or status of an individual required a change in name; kings and other leaders frequently took on new names when they assumed power. Thus, for example, Jacob becomes Israel; Joseph becomes Zaphenath-paneah; Hosea becomes Joshua; the Judean kings Eliakim and Mattaniah become Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, respectively, and Hadassah becomes Esther. The case of Solomon is not clear, however. The Bible tells us that Bathsheba named him Solomon, yet through the prophet Nathan he was called Jedidiah ("beloved of Adonai ," II Samuel 12:25). Was Jedidiah his throne name? We do not know.
In the ancient Near East, among non-Israelites too, a name change indicated a change in status. Thus, for instance, Amenhotep IV of Egypt became Akh-en-aten; at least three Persian kings of the Achaemenid dynasty assumed the name of Artaxerxes (I, II, and III) in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E. In the New Testament, the apostle Simon was later called Peter. And today, popes and kings regularly take on new throne names.
In this week's Torah portion, Lech L'cha , Abram's name is changed to Abraham as part of a new covenant with God, through circumcision. Later on, Sarai, his wife, becomes Sarah. How can we account for these changes?
The name Abram, related perhaps to other ancient Near Eastern names of the nineteenth century B.C.E., such as Abiram or Abarama, meant either "Father [that is, God] is exalted" (from West Semitic rwm ) or "Father [that is, God] loves" (from Akkadian ramu ). The Bible explains the change in Abram's name by saying that Abraham will now become av hamon goyim, "father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:5). With regard to Sarai, who becomes Sarah, we find no explanation at all (Genesis 17:15).
Grammatically speaking, Sarai is an archaic form of Sarah. The Talmud, however, intimates that the change marks the end of her barrenness (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16b). The midrash states that the change is made because until now she has been a princess to her own people, but from this point forward she becomes a princess to all humanity (cf. B'reishit Rabbah 47:1).
The Bible often provides nongrammatical, popular etymologies using a "sounds-like" approach. The case of Abraham is one of them. Though the explanation is linguistically incorrect, the text points to the patriarch's new status in humanity. The Rabbis, on the other hand, try to solve the problem by saying that this is a notarikon, namely, "the system of abbreviation either by shortening the words or by writing only one letter of each word" (per Encyclopaedia Judaica ). So, for example, Rashi states that in the beginning, Abram is only the "father" of Aram, his birthplace, but now he becomes the father of all nations. This is achieved by adding the letter hei , the first letter of hamon, "multitude," to his name: Abram becomes Abra ha m. Regarding Sarah, Rashi adds that the final letter yod in Sarai was taken away from her and given to Joshua, when his own name was altered from Hosea (Rashi on Genesis 17:5). For Ibn Ezra, the letters aleph, bet, reish, hei, and mem stand for Abir ("the mighty one," that is, God), hamon, and goyim ("nations").
In the Bible, the word shem, "name," also means "reputation," for when a person's acts are known in the community, his or her name goes out for recognition and, if the act is commendable, for praise. Thus, for example, when the builders of the Tower of Babel seek acknowledgment for their achievement, they state that their goal is to "make a name for ourselves" (Genesis 11:4).
Life experiences show us that there is nothing more precious to us than our good name. A fine reputation cannot be bought. It must be achieved through deeds of kindness and generosity. "A good name is better than fragrant oil," states Ecclesiastes 7:1. According to Proverbs 22:1, "Repute is preferable to great wealth." Countless individuals of excellent reputation have been destroyed because of a dark shadow on their name. One shameful deed can blot out all the good that a person has done in the past. Regrettably, many have been dishonored because of a false accusation against their good name.
Whether we keep our names or change them, we need to keep our reputation above reproach, as one of our most important possessions. We can do that by being most careful about what we say and do. "Have regard for your name," teaches Ben Sira in Apocrypha, "since it will remain for you longer than many stores of gold." (Wisdom of Ben Sira 41:12) Then we can be proud of our achievements and the name we leave behind.
At the time of this writing in 2006, Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., was rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, and a member of the theology department at Boston College .