In Judaism, a name is not merely a conglomeration of letters put together as a convenient way to refer to someone. Ideally, it is a definition of the individual - a description of his personality and an interpretation of his traits. It may even be a portent of the person's future, or perhaps a prayer that the person bearing this particular name shall live up to the potential expressed in the name.
The Torah (Genesis 5:29) relates that Noah was given his name with the prayer, "This one will bring us rest (noah) from our work and the toil of our hands." The intent was that Noah would lighten the burden of his family's toil by introducing agricultural tools (Radak).
Arizal writes that the nature and behavior of a person, whether good or bad, can be found by analyzing his name. Even the numerical value of the name's letters is an indication of the individual's character and personality.
The Talmud (Yoma 83b) describes the incident of R' Meir and his colleagues R' Yose and R' Yehudah who sought lodging at an inn for the Sabbath. R' Meir was known to pay close attention to a person's name. Upon learning that the innkeeper's name was Kidor, he refused to entrust his valuables to him, for the name Kidor brought to mind the phrase: "for they are a generation (ki-dor) full of changes, children in whom there is no trust." (Deuteronomy 32:20)
Nevertheless, R' Yehudah and R' Yose, who did not pay heed to names, entrusted their money to the innkeeper. Subsequently, the innkeeper denied taking their money from them for safekeeping, and it was lost. R' Meir's money, however, was spared.
THE NAME DEFINES
To label something properly is to define its nature. What one may see as a rusty old spoon, another will see as antique silverware. What one may consider random scribbling, another will consider abstract art, And what one observes as a heap of scrap in a city square, another will call modern sculpture befitting a large metropolis.
Rabbeinu Bachya (on Genesis 2:19) comments that Adam revealed his great wisdom when he named all species of creation. With his superior intellect, every name that he chose, together with the combination of its letters, defined the nature and characteristic of that creature.
For example, he named the lion "Aryeh." The letters Yud-heh - which are part of the name of God, the King of kings and Ruler of the universe - represent the lion's role as king of the jungle.
Another example: Adam named the ordinary weak-minded donkey "Chamor," a word that is cognate with "chomer" - simple elementary matter. "Chomer" is also a measure of volume (see Hoshea 3:2), signifying the load which the donkey forever carries on its back.
At the outset of mankind, to name meant to define.
It was just this kind of definition that Moses sought when he asked God at the burning bush, (Exodus 3:13) "When I come to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they will then say to me, 'What is His Name?' what shall I answer?" Nachmanides comments that it could not have been merely a literal name that Moses sought, for if Israel were to question the existence of God, it would be inconsequential for Moses to reveal a name to them. Rather, Moses requested a Divine Name that would signify the existence of His supervision and benevolent nature, for that would assure the Jews of their redemption. "What is His Name?" meant, "What is His main characteristic?"
PICKING A CHILD'S NAME
There is a spiritual connection between the name of an individual and his soul. The word "Neshama" (soul) stems from the word "Neshima" (breath), for it is the 'breath' of God that gives life to man (see Genesis 2:7). A soul's essence is Divine, and a person's name defines this essence.
It is interesting to note that the central letters of the word "Neshama" are "Shem," meaning name. Indeed some have written that the higher soul comes to the child when he is given his name (Sefer Me'or Gadol).
It is proper to use names that commemorate events, provided one uses names that had been utilized previously. For example, a war has ended and one wishes to name his son Shalom (peace); a person witnesses the helping hand of God and chooses the name Eliezer (my God aided me); or a refugee fleeing from country to country finally finds an area where he can settle and build his future selects the name Noach (rest).
It is also a Jewish custom to name a child in relation to a Jewish holiday or commemorative event that coincides with the child's birth. For a boy born on Purim, one might use Mordechai; on Chanukah, Mattisyahu or Yehudah; on Pesach, Moshe; on Yom Kippur, Rachamim (mercy); on Tishah B'Av, Menachem (comforter) or Nechemiah (God comforts); on Succos, the name of the special guest (ushpizin) corresponding to that individual day (i.e. first day, Avraham, second day Yitzchak, etc.). Some parents name a child with a name found in the weekly portion of the Torah reading that corresponds to the child's birth or bris.
The Midrash (Tanchuma Ha'azinu 7) says: "One should always be careful to choose for his child a name that denotes righteousness, for at times the name itself can be an influence for good or an influence for bad." The name given to a newborn child is eternal; it behooves one to evaluate the choice carefully.
PRELUDE TO REDEMPTION
The Midrash says: In the merit of four acts of restraint were the Jews redeemed from Egypt - they did not change their names; they did not change their language; they did not disclose each other's secrets; and they did not break barriers of morality (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:21).
The Maharal of Prague (Gevuros Hashem 43) writes that had the Jews succumbed to social interrelationship with the Egyptians, they never would have left Egypt. Only by their self-imposed barrier of having different names, a different language, maintaining utmost privacy and a higher standard of morality did they merit redemption that made them into a nation. They were like the ailing patient whose immunological defense system had broken down. Were his body to weaken to the point that it could offer no resistance to further disease, deterioration would set in and there would be no chance for rehabilitation. Similarly had the unique individuality of Jews in Egypt been worn down, had there been no resistance to the malady of assimilation, the redemption would have been impossible and they could never have attained the holiness of their forefathers.
In order to survive, the uniqueness of Israel requires boundaries to assure its purity. While names are not the only way - perhaps not even the most important way - to preserve Jewish identity, the Egyptian experience cannot be ignored. Indeed, many leaders and laymen have worked strenuously to foster the adoption and use of Jewish names, especially in countries where the cultural and commercial pressures toward assimilation are powerful. May the pride in our unique identity bring us one step closer to the final redemption.
Excerpted with permission from "BRIS MILAH,"
a compendium of laws and rituals about circumcision
and the covenant of Abraham.