This week we begin reading the second book of the Chumash called Sefer Shemot, “The Book of Names”, and referred to in English as the “Book of Exodus”. It is called Shemot because it starts off with the enumeration of the names of the seventy people who went down to Egypt with Yaakov avinu.

One has to wonder why this book – which deals primarily with such prominent events as the Egyptian exile, the slavery, the story of the Exodus, Keriat Yam Suf, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and the building of the Tabernacle in the desert as a dwelling place for G-d’s Divine Presence – is named after a seemingly minor event as the listing of the names of the Jewish people who went to Egypt. At least let it be called Sefer HaGeulah, the “Book of Redemption”, just as it’s called “Exodus” in English.

The Torah is teaching us here a valuable lesson about Jewish survival and continuity through its choice of name for the second book.  Jewish names are extremely important. In fact, without having distinctly Jewish names, the Jews in Egypt would never have merited leaving Egypt and witnessing the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.

The Midrash[1] teaches that the Jewish people in Egypt were able to maintain their identity and uniqueness even as they were surrounded by a morally depraved culture – thus enabling them to be redeemed as a nation because for all the 210 years that they lived in Egypt they retained their Hebrew names, their Hebrew language, their distinctly Jewish mode of dress, and observed all Jewish moral laws, of which Mikva and family purity are most essential. The Midrash tells us that, during the hundreds of years of the first Jewish exile in ancient Egypt, there was not a single intermarriage, because the Jews of that time observed the aforementioned basic practices. Without these observances, after 210 years, intermarriage might have left no Jews to be redeemed.

So we see how important Hebrew names were during our ancestor’s stay in Egypt as a way of identifying themselves as Jews. And this is equally important in our own times when assimilation and intermarriage are gradually diminishing the Jewish people, and when we have very few guarantees that our own grandchildren will remain Jewish.

So long as we carry our Shem Israel Kadosh – our special, holy Jewish name – we are guaranteed to be constantly reminded of who we are[2] as Jews and of our special Jewish mission and destiny here on earth. And this is especially true if we don’t just “have a Jewish name” that we pull out and dust off when we are called up to the Torah and on other such infrequent occasions, but are actually called by our Hebrew name at all times except when we’re at work when we have no choice but to use the English name that we have. Fundamental respect to Judaism demands using our Jewish name even if we are known by a non-Jewish name. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, gave Yosef an Egyptian name of honor: “Tsafnat – Pe’ane’ach,” nevertheless, Yosef used only his Jewish name[3].

Do you see the difference between the two and how whichever name we go by and identify with can impact greatly on who we are and how we define ourselves?

Unfortunately, many Jews today neglect their Hebrew names entirely (some don’t even give one to their children, and some never got one themselves), and by so doing, have lost a powerful tool in the Torah’s arsenal of weapons in the fight against intermarriage and assimilation, often with tragic results for them and their children. According to federation statistics, the rate of intermarriage in America has jumped from 3% to over 75% in 50 years (these statistics are no better in the rest of the world). At this rate, would there be a Jewish community left in 210 years?

I once read about a rabbi suggesting a novel interpretation of a very strange blessing that we traditionally give the parents of a baby boy who was just circumcised. After the Brit, all who are present say: “K’sheim she’nichnas la’brit … Just as he [the newborn baby] has entered into the Covenant [of circumcision], so may he enter into Torah study, into Chuppah [the wedding canopy], and into good deeds.”

The question is why do we wish the parents this blessing at this particular juncture in the child’s life? Why don’t we say to the parents at the kid’s Bar-Mitzvah: “Just as your son has entered into the age of manhood and obligation, so, too, should he enter into Torah study, etc.?

The rabbi answered that, tragically, for many Jews today, the Brit is the last place that the baby’s Hebrew name will be used – that is, of course, until he dies, when the name will be used again on the coffin and the tombstone. So we wish the parents that just as they “used” the newborn baby’s name today at the circumcision, so, too, should they use it for Torah study, for the wedding (the bride’s and groom’s proper Jewish names are written in the Ketubah, or traditional Jewish marriage contract), and for good deeds – and not for us to have to wait until his death for it to be used again.

May we all merit to use and to cherish our special and holy Hebrew names.


[1] See Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5 and Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:33.

[2] Remarkably our Jewish names tell us also about our very essence and personal characteristics. See Yoma 83b,Midrash Tanchuma Naso.

[3] See Bereshit 41:45.

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