Parashat Bereishit: What’s In a Name?
Nowadays a name is used as a calling card, a way for others to refer to you and think of you, a label of sorts. Generally our parents either picked out a favorite name of theirs or they named us after someone.
But what is a ‘name?’ A fundamental tenet of study is that to fully understand something one must inspect the source. In many cases this means its original appearance in the Torah.
The Torah is not just any source, but a divine source. To appreciate the instances of ‘name,’ shem in Hebrew, in the Torah, one must understand the divine origins and precision of its text. Like any written work the Torah had many words to choose from. Its choices, especially the repeat ones, reveal added context.
The Stone Chumash reads: “In the Torah’s concept, a name is not simply a convenient convention, but it reflects the nature of each creature and its role in the total scheme of the universe. Thus, as we find over and over in the Torah, the names of people had a profound significance that expressed their mission.”
So, where do we first find the notion of a name in the Torah?
In the Torah, the first human is called ‘Adam,’ derived from the Hebrew word adama, meaning ground or earth. As the Torah states several verses after the creation of the first man:
וַיִּ֩יצֶר֩ יי אֱלֹקים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃
And HASHEM God formed the man (adam) of dust from the ground (adama). He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. (Gen. 2:7)
But Adam is not given a name per se — there is no explicit ‘name,’ shem — rather he is called by something by the Torah, a label to categorize him as separate from other creations.
The reader’s first encounter with shem is actually of the non-human variety. In describing the four rivers that flowed out of the Garden of Eden, the Torah tells us their names.
Humanity’s first encounter with shem follows the recognition that man needs a partner:
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יי אֱלֹקים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃ וַיִּ֩צֶר֩ יי אלקים מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה כׇּל־חַיַּ֤ת הַשָּׂדֶה֙ וְאֵת֙ כׇּל־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיָּבֵא֙ אֶל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם לִרְא֖וֹת מַה־יִּקְרָא־ל֑וֹ וְכֹל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִקְרָא־ל֧וֹ הָֽאָדָ֛ם נֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּ֖ה ה֥וּא שְׁמֽוֹ׃ וַיִּקְרָ֨א הָֽאָדָ֜ם שֵׁמ֗וֹת לְכׇל־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּלְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּלְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּלְאָדָ֕ם לֹֽא־מָצָ֥א עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃
HASHEM God said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a helper corresponding to him. Now HASHEM God had formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man called each ‘living being’ , that remained its name. And the man assigned names to all the animals and to the birds of the sky and to all the beasts of the field; but as for man, he did not find a helper corresponding to him. (Gen. 2:18–20)
How would giving names to the animals help Adam find his mate and and how did he choose their names? Adam had the ability to perceive the basic essence (Radak) or unique characteristics (Sforno) of every animal and name them accordingly. With this intuition, he perceived that none was suitable for him, both physically and intellectually.
We then have the creation of woman and humankind’s next ‘name’:
וַיִּ֩בֶן֩ יי אלקים אֶֽת־הַצֵּלָ֛ע אֲשֶׁר־לָקַ֥ח מִן־הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וַיְבִאֶ֖הָ אֶל־הָֽאָדָֽם׃ וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֮ הָֽאָדָם֒ זֹ֣את הַפַּ֗עַם עֶ֚צֶם מֵֽעֲצָמַ֔י וּבָשָׂ֖ר מִבְּשָׂרִ֑י לְזֹאת֙ יִקָּרֵ֣א אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּ֥י מֵאִ֖ישׁ לֻֽקְחָה־זֹּֽאת׃
And the LORD God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman (isha), for from man (ish) was she taken.” (Gen. 2:22–23)
Like the first man the first woman is not yet associated with ‘name,’ shem, she is only ‘called’ something, a convenient way for others to reference her.
Previously, the Torah gave us the name of the first man, Adam. Here, Adam labels the first woman ‘Woman’ based on labeling himself ‘Man,’ as opposed to ‘Adam.’ So which was Adam’s actual name: Adam or Man? Adam is the one narrated to us by the Torah while Man was coined by the first man as his name for the male human species.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “the name isha does not denote the dependence of the woman on the man, but rather the equality, the togetherness of both, the division of the one unified human task between both sexes.”
Following Adam’s labeling of the woman, the Torah resumes narrating:
עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזׇב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד׃ וַיִּֽהְי֤וּ שְׁנֵיהֶם֙ עֲרוּמִּ֔ים הָֽאָדָ֖ם וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וְלֹ֖א יִתְבֹּשָֽׁשׁוּ׃
Hence a man (ish) leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh. The two of them were naked, the man (adam) and his wife, yet they felt no shame. (Gen. 2:24–25)
The Torah itself assigns multiple names to man: ish and adam. Each name represents a different part of his essence — ish, his spiritual mission and role as husband to his wife; adam, his physical origins from the ground.
In the next chapter, immediately following the sin of the forbidden fruit and decrees of punishment, we encounter this:
וַיִּקְרָ֧א הָֽאָדָ֛ם שֵׁ֥ם אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ חַוָּ֑ה כִּ֛י הִ֥וא הָֽיְתָ֖ה אֵ֥ם כׇּל־חָֽי׃
The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she had become the mother of all the living [Eve-conjugation]. (Gen. 3:20)
This is the first time we see the actual word ‘name,’ shem, associated with a human name.
Some questions here, and attempts at answers:
- Q: Why does man give the first woman a second name, after ‘woman’?
A: It wasn’t a new name. ‘Woman,’ the name given by Adam upon first seeing her, was the species name he assigned to female humans based on the name ‘man’ he gave to male human species, just as he had done for the animals. Eve, then, was the unique name given to an individual of the woman species.
- Q: Eve doesn’t have children until later, so why is she being referred to as a ‘mother’ now?
A: Classic commentator Rashi quotes the Talmud that Eve had already become a mother before the sin; the following verses of her giving birth to Cain and Abel are out of order chronologically.
- Q: This sequence of three verses: 1. sin of the fruit 2. Adam naming Eve 3. God making clothes for them (Genesis 3:21)— how does this all flow?
A: 1. The snake tempted Eve with sex. 2. Adam named Eve as the ‘mother of life,’ and sex is how we procreate and how a woman becomes a mother. Adam experienced a deeper connection with Eve and therefore perceived her on a deeper level than their first meeting, just like anyone who is getting to know someone else, and he named her accordingly. 3. Clothes serve to curb one’s sexual passions.
Labeling the first woman was a separate occasion from naming his wife. In labeling the first woman, Adam recognized their physical similarities and her origins, similar to how he deduced the animal species’ labels and his own: ‘bone of bones, flesh of my flesh.’ Now, in naming his wife and partner, Adam recognizes her role in their shared spiritual mission.
Rabbi Reuven Sasson writes: “Adam gave names to animals, but not as individuals, only as a species. Each animal species is unique and distinct from every other species, but within the species, they’re all more or less the same. Not so people. Every human being is an absolutely unique and special individual. In all of history, there will only be one of each of us, and in some way, names touch upon that unique, even transcendent essence. That “I” that occupies a critical place in the multi-layered grandeur of creation.”
Next, we are given the names of the first humans born Cain and Abel:
וְהָ֣אָדָ֔ם יָדַ֖ע אֶת־חַוָּ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וַתַּ֙הַר֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־קַ֔יִן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת־יי׃ וַתֹּ֣סֶף לָלֶ֔דֶת אֶת־אָחִ֖יו אֶת־הָ֑בֶל וַֽיְהִי־הֶ֙בֶל֙ רֹ֣עֵה צֹ֔אן וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have acquired [Cain-conjugation] a man with the help of the LORD.” She then bore his brother Abel; Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. (Gen. 4:1–2)
Neither Cain nor Abel are associated with shem. They also aren’t even named directly by their parents; they are merely born and given their name by the Torah. Cain, though, is named based on Eve’s saying. Notice also we now have occupations associated with names.
Our next encounters with shem are in Cain’s lineage:
וַיֵּ֤דַע קַ֙יִן֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד אֶת־חֲנ֑וֹךְ וַֽיְהִי֙ בֹּ֣נֶה עִ֔יר וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הָעִ֔יר כְּשֵׁ֖ם בְּנ֥וֹ חֲנֽוֹךְ׃
Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. And he then founded a city, and named the city after his son Enoch. (Gen. 4:17)
Enoch was born without an explicit naming or even calling card, just like Abel. Determined to leave a legacy, Cain names a city after his son. Cain demonstrates a human exercising its dominance over nature and then preserving that legacy through their offspring.
Among Cain’s descendants there were a few generations born without the explicit shem, then the verses about Lamech and his family:
וַיִּֽקַּֽח־ל֥וֹ לֶ֖מֶךְ שְׁתֵּ֣י נָשִׁ֑ים שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ עָדָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית צִלָּֽה׃ וַתֵּ֥לֶד עָדָ֖ה אֶת־יָבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י יֹשֵׁ֥ב אֹ֖הֶל וּמִקְנֶֽה׃ וְשֵׁ֥ם אָחִ֖יו יוּבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י כׇּל־תֹּפֵ֥שׂ כִּנּ֖וֹר וְעוּגָֽב׃ וְצִלָּ֣ה גַם־הִ֗וא יָֽלְדָה֙ אֶת־תּ֣וּבַל קַ֔יִן לֹטֵ֕שׁ כׇּל־חֹרֵ֥שׁ נְחֹ֖שֶׁת וּבַרְזֶ֑ל וַֽאֲח֥וֹת תּֽוּבַל־קַ֖יִן נַֽעֲמָֽה׃
Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. And the name of his brother was Jubal; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah. (Gen. 4:19–22)
Two women associated with shem — unclear from the text if they are descended from Cain — marry Lamech, a known descendant of Cain. One son alone, Jubal, is associated with shem.
We see more professions associated with people’s names and now acclaims as well. The beginnings of ‘name’ as one’s reputation.
Then the naming of Seth with an explicit derivation:
וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹקים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃
Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me [Seth-conjugation] with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him. (Gen. 4:25)
Then Seth’s child Enosh, along with a strange twist that has frustrated translators. Two translations:
וּלְשֵׁ֤ת גַּם־הוּא֙ יֻלַּד־בֵּ֔ן וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱנ֑וֹשׁ אָ֣ז הוּחַ֔ל לִקְרֹ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יי׃
And to Seth, in turn, a son was born, and he named him Enosh;
It was then that men began to invoke the LORD by name
Then to call in the name of God became profaned.(Gen. 4:26)
Now for the first time the word shem, name, is associated with God. However, it’s used in rebellion against God. There is now a clear corruption of shem.
Next we are given the primary lineage of humankind spanning the 10 generations from Adam to Noah, which starts with:
זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹקים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹקים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם׃ וַֽיְחִ֣י אָדָ֗ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וּמְאַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בִּדְמוּת֖וֹ כְּצַלְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵֽׁת׃
The two references to shem here are associated with Adam and Seth.
The former is interesting in that it includes both the first male and female, indicating the species-level name given to the first man. This also speaks to the equality of the sexes.
Generations pass with no mention of shem until Noah, when we encounter both shem and a naming rationale:
וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֞֠ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖ה ּיי
And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief [Noah-conjugation] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.” (Gen. 5:29)
How did Noah provide comfort? and how did his father know he would? Noah is credited with inventing farming tools, which helped to finally mitigate the land’s barrenness from the curse decreed upon Adam (Rashi). Additionally, there was a tradition from Adam to his descendants that the curse on the earth would be in effect only during his lifetime. Noah was the first listed person born after Adam’s death, so the curse’s power was anticipated to decline in Noah’s generation and his father named him with this in mind. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer; Abarbanel)
Then, one of Noah’s three sons is named Shem, the word itself.
וַֽיְהִי־נֹ֕חַ בֶּן־חֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֣וֹלֶד נֹ֔חַ אֶת־שֵׁ֖ם אֶת־חָ֥ם וְאֶת־יָֽפֶת׃
When Noah had lived 500 years, Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Gen. 5:32)
Noah keeps shem close the surest way he can.
Lastly, in the continued downfall of humankind leading to the Flood, we encounter shem for the final time in parashat Bereishit. This one begets some non-conventional translations:
הַנְּפִלִ֞ים הָי֣וּ בָאָ֘רֶץ֮ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵם֒ וְגַ֣ם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֗ן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָבֹ֜אוּ בְּנֵ֤י הָֽאֱלֹקים֙ אֶל־בְּנ֣וֹת הָֽאָדָ֔ם וְיָלְד֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם הֵ֧מָּה הַגִּבֹּרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר מֵעוֹלָ֖ם אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַשֵּֽׁם׃
It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth — when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of name / renown [elsewhere translated as ‘devastation’]. (Gen. 6:4)
So now shem is associated with one’s reputation, though that reputation has negative connotations. We are not given names of people here, just the word shem, devoid of the individual. So they were ‘renown’ in their times perhaps, but anonymous in the Torah text. The Torah could be hinting that their self-aggrandizement caused them to lose themselves as part of a group; their actual, individual names failed to be immortalized in the Torah.
Earlier, shem was corrupted by man against God. Here, shem is corrupted by man against man.
In summary, we’ve seen that the notion of names permeates through the parasha. A name in the Torah is no simple convention, rather it captures the essence of its owner and their place in history.
At the beginning the first man and woman are without unique names, only labels, similar to the categorization of animal species. Then, Adam names his wife Eve and we learned that a unique individual name facilitates, or at least indicates, a greater connection between people. Adam’s naming rationales indicates that the Woman label speaks to her physical characteristics and compatibility, while the Eve name speaks to her spiritual characteristics and compatibility.
We noticed that some people are only ‘called’ something with no explicit name, shem, while others are merely ‘born’ and given a label by the Torah.
Then shem starts taking on a new dimension. Reputations began to be associated with names by listings occupations and noteworthy achievements, and Cain naming a city after his son speaks to his concerns about lasting reputation, or legacy.
Then shem is used corruptedly— first for idolatry and the denial or profanity of God, then for humans exploiting other humans.
Between those two corruptions, though, we read of Noah’s son named Shem. Noah recognized this distortion of shem and emerged as humankind’s new hero. In next week’s parasha, Noah, we will BH encounter names again.