Jewish Life in Your Life

Search and the other Reform websites:


  • Names

    Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3
D'var Torah By: 

This week's parashah, Vayeitzei, details the years of Jacob's servitude to Laban. Early in the parashah we learn how Laban entrapped Jacob into serving him for twenty years. (Genesis 29:15-30) Then the Torah narrative changes its focus and turns to a discussion of a new dimension of life in the ancestral household. Thirty verses unfold the experience of the next seven years. (Genesis 29:31-30:24) In these verses, we are admitted to the most intimate circle of family life. We find ourselves among the women, handmaids, and children. The men all but disappear. In this intimate setting we learn that enmity prevails between the sisters Leah and Rachel. They vie for preference from Jacob and yearn for children, who they hope will bring happiness and peace. As each child is born, name-giving becomes central. Each name reveals what J. P. Fokkelman calls "the inner meaning of [the infants'] births."

In ancient Israel, names were often given by the mother and sometimes by the father. Some names were drawn from nature: Barak/Lightning; Tamar/Date-Palm. Many names, like Jocheved/God Is Power, contained an element of the divine name. In this story, naming abounds—it includes eleven male names and one female name—but traditional explanations do not suffice. The father is always absent, and it is the women who give the names. The name bestowed here always reveals the state of being of the mother-her pride, expectation, and hope. The names Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Dinah, and finally Joseph all make their debut in this week's parashah. Each name reflects the state of being of the child's mother, the inner meaning of that child's birth.

As it was with our ancestors, so it is with us. The names we bestow on our children reflect our own state of being. We factor in the memory of parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and friends who nurtured and sustained us. Each new life bears something of the past and the promise of tomorrow. The children who fill our lives with joy and fulfillment are bearers of our history and emissaries of our future. The elaborate story of name-giving in Vayeitzei reminds us that like the names of our biblical ancestors, our names and the names of our children and grandchildren are expressions of our love, our pride, our expectation, and our hope.

In her poem "Each of Us Has a Name," the contemporary Israeli poetess Zelda shares a glimmer of this ongoing struggle to define and redefine our experiences and our expectations.

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents....
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness.
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

For further study: J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis; Benno Jacob, Genesis; Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary.

Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman serves at Temple Israel in Boston, Massachusetts and is Professor of Homiletics and Midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

What's in a Name?
Davar Acher By: 
Jody Kaufman

In this week's parashah, we learn of the empowerment of the family through the giving of names. Eleven of Jacob's children are given names not by God but by their mother, their parent. Each of the sons is given a name that reflects his mother's emotions at the moment of birth. For example, Leah named her first son Reuben, meaning "God has seen my affliction"; it also means "Now my husband will love me." (Genesis 29:32) As illustrated by this example, the Torah teaches us that we have the power to give names: It is not just God who has that power.

We have taken the importance of naming in the Torah and made it into a ritual. Receiving a Hebrew name is the first Jewish life-cycle event for a child. Naming usually takes place in a ceremony at the synagogue or during a special home ceremony, held soon after a baby's birth. In a synagogue ceremony, the parents and baby are called up to the Ark. The Ark is opened and the child is given a name in the presence of the community with the backdrop of history, the Torah.

Our names are filled with history. They reflect where we came from and what we are to become. Names tie us to our past and provide us with an opportunity for a wonderful family-learning experience. Talk to your children and tell them how you chose their names. Ask your relatives how you received your name.

If you don't have a Hebrew name, here are some suggestions for choosing one. You could choose

  • Someone whose name you would like to bear, a close relative or friend.
  • A biblical character whom you consider a role model.
  • A name based on the season of the year in which you were born, for example, Aviva, which comes from aviv, meaning "spring."
  • A Hebrew name connected to a Jewish holiday that falls close to your date of birth (e.g., Pesach, the Hebrew name for Passover; Esther, Mordecai, or Hadassah for Purim; Judah for Hanukkah; Elan [Tree] for Tu Bishevat).
  • A name having to do with nature, for example, Shoshanah, which means "Rose," or Tal, which means "Dew."

The Midrash says: "One should examine names carefully in order to give his [or her] child a name that is worthy so that the child might become a righteous person."

Suggested Reading:
Beyond Sarah & Sam: An Enlightened Guide to Jewish Baby Naming by Linda Rosenkrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

At the time of this writing in 1998, Jody Kaufman was the director of education at Congregation Micah in Brentwood, TN.

Reference Materials: 

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–213; Revised Edition, pp. 194–213;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 157–182