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Monday, February 24, 2020

Part 1

When did the Jewish practice of naming children after someone begin?

The practice seemed to have been instituted in Judea sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple (or possibly during the end of the First Commonwealth). Before that period, children were generally named after a significant event or occurrence in the life of the parent (e.g., Moses giving his son the Hebrew name Gershom—ger: stranger, sham: there—to signify his sojourn in a foreign land).

In Genesis Rabbah 37:7 we see:

“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said, the first ones were endowed with Divine inspiration; therefore they named their children after an event. However, we who do not possess that quality, we name after our ancestors.”

While classical personages from Tanach remain unique in the sense that nobody named their children after them, I have noticed one early case in Tanach where someone was named after a dead ancestor, albeit with a slight variation: one of Cain’s descendants was apparently named after him, namely Tuval Cain, thus indicating that the practice of naming sons after dead ancestors and relatives may be much older than previously thought.

Here’s another example: David named one of his daughters Tamar, quite possibly after the female progenitor of the kingdom of David (i.e., the wife of Judah).

While, as mentioned, the names of the three patriarchs are not repeated anywhere in Tanach, some of the names of the 12 sons of Jacob are. Here’s a partial list that I found of interest:

There is a Bohan, son of Reuben, in Joshua 15; a Shimon in Ezra 10; there are four Judahs in Nehemiah and one in Ezra; there is a Isaachar, son of Oved Edom, in Chronicles I, 26; a prophet named Gad mentioned in Samuel and Chronicles; a Yigal, son of Joseph, mentioned in Numbers 13; a, Asaf, son of Joseph, mentioned in Chronicles I, 25; and two more Josephs: one in Ezra and one in Nehemiah, respectively. The name Yoel appears 11 times throughout

Tanach. (I am always incredulous when people say that the name Yoel is in any way uncommon or unique. It is in fact the third most common name in Tanach preceded by Zachariah and Meshulam—which are interchangeable names according to the Talmud.)

Notice that quite a few of them are from the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, i.e., Second Temple.

The Name Menashe/Manasseh

A name that is of great interest to me—and relevant to the recent Torah portion—is Menasheh/Manasseh. In Genesis 41, Joseph’s wife Osnat, daughter of Potiphera, gives birth to two sons. Joseph is said to have named the firstborn Menashe (etymologically derived from the Hebrew word “nasha,” which means to forget, and it was commemorating the fact that Joseph “forgot his troubles”), and the younger one he named Ephraim (etymologically derived from the Hebrew word “poriah,” which means to be fruitful).

However, at least one of these names can also mean something else in the Egyptian language.

One wonders at the outset why Joseph would have “burdened” his children with such explicit Hebrew names. Why would he want to remind them of his foreign origins (Joseph himself, incidentally, was known by his Egyptian name Tzafnat Paneach)?

Let us take a look at a similar example of a name whose etymological root is given as Hebrew but also has a meaning in Egyptian, namely Moshe/Moses. In Exodus 10, he is said to have been named Moses by the daughter of Pharaoh, “ki min hamyaim meshitihu,” literally because he was pulled from the water. The obvious problem with this explanation is how could Pharaoh’s daughter have known the Hebrew language? And even if she did, why would she give him a Hebrew name? An additional problem lies in the fact that we don’t see the word masha (as in pulling) anywhere else in Tanach (other than one obscure passage in Psalms 17: yamsheini mimayim rabim).

Strong’s Concordance gives the name Moses as from the Egyptian mes ses.

In Egyptian, the name “Moses” means mes (birth) ses (protect), so named by Pharaoh’s daughter after she had pulled the infant from the banks of the river. (Shemot Rabbah 1:26, Chasidah p.345) Further, Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, which also shows deliverance out of water. Josephus also cites this etymology.

Some medieval Jewish scholars like the great Abraham Ibn Ezra suggested that Moses’ actual name was the Egyptian translation of “to draw out”, and that it was translated into Hebrew, either by the Bible or by Moses himself later in his lifetime.

Some modern scholars had suggested that the daughter of Pharaoh might have derived his name from the Egyptian name element mose, which means “son” or “formed of” or “has provided.” As a famous example, “Thutmose” means “son of Thoth,” and Rameses means “Ra has provided (a son).”

Interestingly, according to Islamic tradition, his name, Mūsā, is derived from two Egyptian words: Mū, which means water, and shā, meaning tree (or reeds), in reference to the fact that the basket in which the infant Moses floated came to rest by trees close to Pharaoh’s residence.


The author is an independent researcher of Jewish history and culture. He is also a freelance translator of Hebrew text. He can be reached at [email protected]