To Donate Click Here

Choosing a Name


Names occupy a part of this week’s parasha, where we encounter the names of the seventy members of Yaakov’s family. How should one choose a name for a child? May one name a child for a wicked person? The name Shaul appears as the name of both wicked and good people. Why was it used to name King Shaul, and may it be used today? The same is true for Yehudit a name which was first used for Eisav’s wife, as well as names like Bosmat, Zerach, Chanan, Matan, and Elon.

It’s all in the Family

Of the seventy names mentioned in this week’s parasha on the list of people that traveled to Egypt, three appear both in both Yaakov’s and Eisav’s families.

Shaul – Shimon called his son Shaul (Bereshis 46:10) and Eisav’s family had a king by that same name (Bereshis 36:37). Later on, King Shaul carried that same name, as well as one of the Levites (Divrei Hayomim I, 6:7-9).

Zerach was Yehuda’s son (Bereshis 46:12) and also Eisav’s grandson, born of his son, Reuel (Bereshis 36:17). This name appears again in the Levite family of Gershon (Divrei Hayomim I, 6:6), and the wicked Zerach the Kushite who waged war against Asa, the king of Yehuda (Divrei Hayomim II, 14:8).

Zevulun named his son Elon (Bereshis 46:17). Elon the Hittite was also Eisav’s father-in-law (Bereshis 26:34). Later on, Elion the Zevulunite was one of the Judges (Shoftim12:11) and Eilon of Beit Chana was one of the twelve ministers appointed by King Shlomo (Melachim I, 4:9).

Yitzhar, Levi’s son named his son Korach, the Levite who ended up being swallowed into the pit after rebelling against Moshe Rabbenu. Eisav also had a son by that name (Bereshis 36:5).

Chazal tell us that all of Eisav’s family were wicked and the Gemara (Yoma 37b) tells us that naming a child for a wicked person is forbidden. Therefore, how is it possible that the same names appear both in Yaakov’s Avinu’s family, and later on in the Jewish nation, as well as in Eisav’s family and his descendants?

Several other names that are not mentioned in this week’s parasha but belonged to wicked historical figures, also find a place of honor in the Jewish nation’s name book:

The first woman who we know carried the name Yehudit was Eisav’s wife, a woman who caused aguish to Yitzchak and Rivka, Eisav’s parents (Bereshis 26:34). Yet, the Chashmonaim, much later in history, called their daughter Yehudit (famous for her part in the miracle of Chanukah). Later, Rabbi Chiya’s righteous wife was also named Yehudit (Yevamos 65b). This name has been used in the Jewish nation and remains in popular use.

Bosmat is another such name. Two of Eisav’s wives carried it – Bosmat bas Eilon the Hittite (Bereshis 26:34) and Bosmat bas Yishmael (Bereshis 36:3). Later on, Shlomo Hamelech named his daughter Bosmat (Melachim I, 4:16). The name has recently made a comeback in Israel. Is it a proper name to use?

Knaz was Eliphaz’s son (Bereshis 36:11), and later on, father of the Judge Osniel ben Knaz (Yehoshua 16:17).

Chanan is the name of one of the kings of Edom (Bereshis 36:38, see Ramban) and yet it appears as the name of many righteous figures in the Tanach as well as several Tananim and Amoraim.

How can this question be settled?

Using Names of Wicked People

The Gemara (Yoma 38b) writes that one must not name his son for a wicked person and if one does it leads to undesirable consequences. This derived from the pasuk (Mishlei 10:7): “The mention of a righteous man is for a blessing, but the name of the wicked shall rot.” Chazal learn here that we must ensure the names of wicked people are erased from the world, i.e., not make current use of them. In light of this instruction, we will present the various halachic opinions and try to set down the rules for names in Judaism.


The name Shaul is quite common, even today. Is it the name of a righteous person or a wicked one?

Four different figures in Tanach carried that name:

  1. The first was Shaul, Shimon’s son. He is called “Son of the Canaanite” because his mother, Dina (whom Shimon convinced to leave Shechem’s home with a promise to marry her) had been abducted by a Canaanite.
  2. The sixth king of Edom is Shaul of Rechovos Nahar. We don’t have the exact history of his life and times, but Chazal tell us that all of Edom’s kings rose and fell before there was a king in Yisroel. We can safely assume that this king ruled approximately during the times of the Judges.
  3. Shaul, the first King of Yisroel, who is called by Shmuel the prophet “Shaul, the chosen of the Lord” (Shmuel II, 21:6). He was so accomplished, that the Navi describes him as, “young and handsome, there being no one of the children of Yosroel handsomer than he…” (Shmuel I, 9:2).
  4. Shaul was also one of the Levites mentioned in Divrei Hayomim (I 6:7-9).

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 82b) tells us that the first original Shaul had several names: Zimri, Ben Salu, Shaul, ben HaKnaanite, and Shlumiel ben Tzurishadai. Seemingly, this son enjoyed exceptional longevity, leaving Egypt after the 210 years of slavery. He was then appointed Prince of Shimon, and his name was changed to Shlumiel, but forty years later, at the end of parashas Balak he sinned with Kosbi bas Tzur and killed by Pinchas. In the end of his life the Torah uses his name Zimri.

Since the first two figures who carried the name were wicked, how, asked the Chasam Sofer (volume IV, 22), could a righteous person be named Shaul?

The Gemara (ibid) continues and tells us that the original Shaul did not use his name Shaul as his main name, but as an indication to his actions. Shaul is the name that describes how he was [מושאל] – he lent himself to sin. If the name Shaul connotes negative behavior, how could it have been used among the righteous people in Yisroel?

Not Yet Forbidden

The Chasam Sofer answers that while using the name Shaul is prohibited, the earlier generations didn’t know of the prohibition. Only later King David announced in Divine inspiration: “Go and see the works of the Lord, that He has wrought devastation [שמות] [names] in the earth” (Tehilim 46:9). This pasuk teaches us that one’s name can influence his personality and future, and one who gives his son the name of a wicked person starts his child out on the left foot. Rabbi Yehuda Asad (Yehuda Yaa’le I, Orech Chaim 199) adds that the prohibition was only introduced when Shlomo Hamelech said in Mishlei: “The mention of a righteous man is for a blessing, but the name of the wicked shall rot” (10:7). Before King David and Shlomo’s times this prohibition was yet unknown. King Shaul’s tragic end was rooted in his name, despite his father’s lack of intention. The same is true for Korach – he was swallowed up in the pit because of his wicked name.

As proof to this the Chasam Sofer quotes from Rabbi Efraim Zalaman Margolis (Tiv Gittin, shin:1) who writes that in his times people who named Shaul would call their child Shuel, presumably since the original King Shaul was dethroned and eventually killed, just as many people call Yeshayahu ‘Yeshaya’ because the prophet died a violent death. According to the Chasam Sofer, the custom to change the name Shaul is because it was also the name of two wicked people early in the history of the Jewish nation.

In light of the above, the Chasam Sofer explains why Chana the prophetess called her son Shmuel in commemoration of her asking him from Hashem: “She called his name Shmuel, because (she said); ‘I asked him of the Lord.’” (Shmuel I, 1:20). If the purpose of the name was to commemorate her prayer, she should have called him Shaul. He explains that Chana, was divinely inspired not to name her child after a wicked person, therefore, she changed the name and added the mem to make it Shmuel.

Another example mentioned by the Chasam Sofer is the name ‘Zima’, a name used by several Levites (Divrei Hayomim I, 6:5; 6:27-28; II 29:12). While unquestionably carrying a negative gist (connoting immoral behavior), before the influence of a person’s name was known, people used it freely. Only after the prohibition was introduced — obviously with the Divine inspiration — the name must not be used.

The Righteous Shaul

In light of the above mentioned Chasam Sofer, it is, indeed, improper to give a child the name Shaul. The accepted custom, however, does not follow this opinion, and we will attempt to explain why.

Rabbi Yehuda Asad, the Chasam Sofer’s disciple, writes (Yehuda Ya’ale, Orech Chaim 199) that we must say that there was a righteous Shaul before King Shaul’s times, or a Shaul who was one of Levi’s sons. Therefore, if there was also a righteous person who went by that name, there is no problem using it, even if there were wicked people who were also called by that name. He proposes that while Shaul son of the Canaanite was indeed a wicked person, we have no information about Shaul the Edomite king, who may have been a righteous king who kept the Seven Noahide Laws, and was therefore successful. The same, he writes, is true for the name Chanan – while he was an Edomite king, we don’t know anything about him and perhaps it was used in our nation through the generations because he was a righteous king.

The Vilna Gaon has a different approach. While both the Chasam Sofer and Rabbi Yehuda Asad assume that Shaul son of Shimon was a sinful person, the Vilna Gaon (Haksav V’Hakabala, Bereshis 46:10) understands that the Gemara in Sanhedrin 82b (mentioned above) in no way indicates that he and Zimri ben Salu who was killed by Pinchas were one and the same. He understands the Gemara only means that the souls of Shaul son of Shimeon and Zimri were spiritually connected.

A similar idea appears with reference to Efraim. When Yaakov was on his deathbed, he found it difficult to bless Efraim because he foresaw Yerovam ben Nevat descending from him, despite the fact that Efraim himself was a tzaddik. The souls of Shaul the son of Shimon and Zimri were similarly connected.

In light of this opinion, it could very well be that Shaul son of the Cannanite was also a righteous man, and even if the king of Edom, Shaul, was wicked, we can say there was a wicked Shaul and a righteous one, and therefore naming children ‘Shaul’ is permitted.

Rabbi Yitzchak ZiIberstein (Chishukei Chemed, Yoma 38b) explains in a similar way: in Divrei Hayomim (I, 5:10) we find that: “And in the days of Shaul, they made war with the Hagarites.” The Midrash (Bereshis Raba 98:15) explains that this was Yehoshua, who was also called Shaul. Since the Tosefos maintain (Yoma 38b) that a name used for both a righteous and wicked individual is not prohibited, the name Shaul can be used.


According to the Chasam Sofer one should refrain from using the name ‘Shaul’. Nevertheless, he admits that the name is used. He does, however, mention that people distort the name to ‘Shuel’, in which case there would be no problem using the name. (The same would be true for other nicknames such as Shauli, Shuli, etc.)

His disciple, Rabbi Yehuda Asad opines that the fact that the name was used for both righteous and wicked people renders is permissible. While this explanation may not have been true when Shaul king of Yisroel was born, today, whereas there were a great many pious Shauls who filled the pages of Jewish history, since there are both righteous and wicked people by that name, using it is not prohibited. This is the accepted practice.

Bosmat and Yehudit

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky settled the question of these two names (quoted in Mishmar Helevi, Kiddushin 15) according to the Chida (Shem Gedolim, Alef, 33) who writes that if the meaning of the name is positive, the fact that wicked people also used it is of no significance. This is also how the Chida explains the name ‘Yishamel’ which was apparently common during Mishnaic times (Yishmael the High Priest was a famous figure by that name). Since the meaning of ‘Yishmael’ is ‘G-d should hear’, there is no prohibition against using it. Therefore, using the names of Eisav’s wives is not prohibited. On the contrary, the Midrash writes (Psikta Zutra 26:34): “Yehudit and Bosmat, their names are beautiful and their deeds are ugly.” Yehudit was a name that Eisav used specifically to trick his father into thinking she was a pious woman. Therefore, there is no prohibition in naming a child these names.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, though, adds a restriction: today, whereas we don’t have the Divine inspiration necessary for introducing new names, we must only use the names of our forefathers, as we don’t know if the name we introduce will be a good one or not (according to Midrash Raba Bereshis 37:7). Today, one should only name his child a name that has become accepted in the Jewish nation or that has been the name of a tzadik in the past.

An interesting anecdote to illustrate this point: Parents came to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky after having named their son Matan, connoting G-d’s gift to them in this child. Rabbi Kanievsky told them to change his name to Natan because the only place the name Matan is mentioned in Tanach is Matan a Ba’al priest (Melachim II 11:18) who was appointed by Atalya the wicked queen. This Matan was killed when the Mikdash was purged by Yehoyada the high priest.


One must not name his child for a negative figure in Jewish history or in modern times. This also helps to save the child from undesirable consequences. Where there was both a righteous and a wicked person by the same name it may be used, with intention that it should be in memory of the righteous person.

A name that appears in Tanach with a negative connotation but positive meaning: while in the past people had the Divine inspiration to know how to choose ‘good’ names, today, where we lack that inspiration, the Midrash tells us to stick to the names of our forefathers, and refrain from using beautiful names that were borne by wicked people.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *