As is well known, Jewish tradition attaches crucial importance to the assignment of people’s names. The Bible goes out of its way to explain how and why parents chose the names of their children. With respect to our most important ancestors, the Almighty himself is often the one who selects the name. Fundamental changes in a person’s status are accompanied by divinely ordained re-namings.
Notably, the promise that Abraham will become the father of many nations is accompanied by the declaration, “neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham.” Similarly, the assurance to his childless wife that she will bear a son is confirmed by the change of her name from Sarai to Sarah.
The sages of the Talmud and Midrash took those name changes very seriously. Some of them declared that anyone who continues to refer to Abraham as “Abram” is actually transgressing a biblical prohibition, while others insisted that the violation was even more serious, involving both positive and negative precepts.
In view of such sweeping claims, later commentators were puzzled to observe that none of the major lists of Torah commandments or codifications of Jewish religious law actually included a requirement to use the name “Abraham” or to avoid “Abram.” Rabbi Judah Bachrach suggested that this was because the relevant passages were taught prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Rabbi Samuel Edels inferred that the rabbinic comments and their proof-texts were not intended to be taken literally, but were merely homiletical overstatements of a kind that are encountered frequently in the Talmud.
For Rabbi Ezekiel Landau this approach was not quite satisfying: granted that it does not rank among the 613 commandments of the Torah—it is nonetheless a normative rule, if only by rabbinic authority, and therefore it deserves to be included in comprehensive halakhic codes like those of Maimonides or Rabbi Joseph Caro! Indeed, a few authorities, such as Rabbis Isaiah Di Trani and Abraham Gombiner, made a point in their writings of presenting this rule as a normative law—or even a full-scale commandment.
Now this may all be well and good for the name of Abraham; but we do not find in the rabbinic tradition any equivalent law with respect to other figures whose names were changed by divine command. In the case of Sarah, the Torah states, “and God said unto Abraham: as for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.” The Talmud explained that the verse was addressed specifically to Abraham, and was not being commanded as a binding obligation for future generations.
More difficult is the case of Jacob. He is subject to a momentous renaming—to “Israel”—as the result of his struggle with the mysterious supernatural being at the Jabbok river, at which point he was informed, “thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel.” Despite the apparent similarity to the story about Abraham, Jewish tradition never insisted that the new name “Israel” must completely replace “Jacob.” In fact, this was not a real option, since the Almighty himself continued using the old and new names alternately, as we find a few chapters later: “and God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’”
For the medieval Spanish exegete Rabbi Baḥya ben Asher, who understood Jacob’s struggle with his opponent as a symbolic representation of the battle between body and spirit within each person, the retention of the earlier name holds an important lesson: even if we aspire to an ideal standard in which the spirit holds the upper hand over our earthly desires, this should not come at the cost of a complete neutralization of our physical nature. We are after all creatures of flesh and blood, and even if our spiritual “Israel” is able to maintain its supremacy over our “Jacob,” but we were never intended to deny or eliminate our basic physicality.
However, the names “Abram” and “Abraham” have a very different relationship to one another. As understood by rabbinic tradition, Abram was destined, at the most, to be the progenitor of a local movement or sect among the Arameans; whereas the name-change to “Abraham” assured him that through Sarah’s promised son he was to become the universal “father of many nations.” The implications of those two names are therefore mutually exclusive, and the bestowing of the new one necessarily involved the total retiring of the old.
Another intriguing solution to these difficulties may be found in an exposition by the illustrious Polish preacher Rabbi Ephraim Luntshits in his Keli Yaḳar. The starting point for his interpretation is the prophecy of Jeremiah who offered hope and reassurance to his exiled brethren, promising them that redemption would eventually arrive, and that the glories of that ultimate redemption will be so great that they will eclipse our previous paradigm, that of the exodus from Egypt. “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say: the Lord lives, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” The Talmud explained that the prophet was not suggesting that the exodus will be entirely forgotten or dismissed, but rather that it will henceforth be perceived as subordinate to the perfect redemption that will prevail in the messianic era.
Rabbi Luntshits proposed that there exists a crucial thematic analog between the two redemptions and the dual names of our ancestor. Developing a line of interpretation suggested by Rabbi Jacob Ibn Ḥabib, he pointed out that the name “Jacob,” bestowed upon the infant when he was born clutching his twin brother’s heel, has connotations of subterfuge or crookedness, traits that sometimes characterized the patriarch’s ways of dealing with the conflicts that he encountered throughout his life.
So too, the exodus from Egypt, for all its great wonders, was not always accomplished by means of frontal shows of national strength against the oppressor. The Hebrews had not yet amassed sufficient spiritual merit for that, so they initially had to bargain with Pharaoh, requesting his permission to observe a limited religious celebration, and then they snuck out in haste in the middle of the night. This remained a typical survival strategy of the Jewish nation in their subsequent exiles, to live by their wits while avoiding direct engagements with their oppressors.
The future redemption—that of Israel—will be of a decidedly different kind, corresponding to the name of Israel which means, “you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Once the people have overcome their spiritual deficiencies, they will be restored to their glory and pride in the full light of history, as the prophet declared, “for you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight.”
Thus—concludes Rabbi Luntshits—although the ultimate redemption will be far more glorious than the exodus from Egypt, the earlier exploit will not be deleted from our historical consciousness. We will continue to recall it, if only to instill an awareness of the crucial differences between those two events and of the moral states from which they derived.
By the same token, the continued use of the lesser name “Jacob” reminds us of how far we will have progressed when we eventually achieve the ideals that are embodied in the name of “Israel.”
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