Are You Your Name?

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A look at whether our names are chosen at random or whether there may be divine intervention behind them.
by Rabbi Benjamin and Elaine Blech

Editor’s note: Our souls and our names are very much intertwined, according to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of Your Name is Your Blessing: Hebrew Names and Their Mystical Meanings. After all, he and he wife Elaine explain, the Hebrew word for “name” is “shem.” These two Hebrew letters, SHIN and MEM, are central to the Hebrew word “neshamah,” which means “soul.” The soul, or essence, of any human being is a person’s name.

Your Name Predicts Your Journey in Life
Jewish mystics, who study the Hebrew letters in order to discover important hidden messages, teach a fascinating tradition. At death every person is asked his or her name. Why? Because one’s name, they believe, is one’s mission. What we are really being asked is whether we lived up to the ideals and potentials of the names given to us at birth.

A name actually defines a person. Remarkably, the Bible says: “For as his name, so is he” (Samuel I:25;25). Talmudic sages offer countless commentaries to explain the connection between the names of Biblical characters and their actions.

The name of one of the greatest Jewish leaders, Moses, presaged his life’s mission because in Hebrew the letters of his name read backwards make the word HASHEM, the name of G-d; viewing his life in retrospect we grasp that it was all in the service of the Lord. King Solomon, whose Hebrew name means “peace,” is remembered most in Jewish history for precisely that achievement. Naomi, mother-in-law of the convert Ruth, ancestress of King David, had such a profound influence because her name endowed her with its meaning of “pleasantness.” Rebecca, in Hebrew “Rivkah,” has the Hebrew letters for “Haboker” (“the morning”), granting her a personality that emotionally and/or intellectually will bring light to others.

Below are three more beliefs about the soulful connection between Jewish individuals’ names and their personal journeys in life.

  • A change of identity requires a change of name. When Abram came to the realization of monotheism, his name had to be changed: “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.” (Genesis 17:5)
    • A traumatic lifestyle change is cause for a new name. Jacob’s name came from the root word meaning “heel”—which so perfectly suited someone whose approach to the problems of life was always flight. Suddenly when he realized that there comes a time to fight rather than flee, the angel informed him: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with G-d and with men, and hast prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)

 

  • If a person is critically ill, Jewish law suggests a powerful “last resort”: Changing the person’s name can be a way to potentially alter the course of the sickness. For example, you can add “chayim,” which means “life,” in order to alter the decree destined for the one with another name. A new name is a new person. [Note: Read Elizabeth Mark’s article in this issue of 614 for a modern-day example.]

Does all this mean, then, that we are predestined to lives circumscribed by something beyond our control? Are we doomed to play out roles handed to us by our parents while we were infants? Is our free will limited by our names?

No. Judaism emphasizes the principle of freedom of choice, not fate. Yet our names can perfectly describe us because they are predictions of our futures. What makes parents decide on one particular name above all others? At a certain moment it suddenly becomes clear that this is who their child is and no other name will do. The decision, according to our tradition, is guided by a divine spirit—one of the very last remaining powers of prophecy to persist even in our generation. It is not our name which forces us to be what we are. It is what we are which transmits itself in a profoundly spiritual manner to those entrusted with the holy task of assigning to us our names.

What do you think of the idea that our names predict our life journey? Send your thoughts to mcove@brandeis.edu.

Want to find out more? This essay was excerpted from Your Name Is Your Blessing: Hebrew Names and Their Mystical Meanings by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and Elaine Blech, published (Jason Aronson Publishers, 1999). This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.

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A look at whether our names are chosen at random or whether there may be divine intervention behind them.

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