What’s in a name? Names as a precious lasting connection with our heritage.


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The history of names is so ancient that no one knows the beginning of the story. As far back as oral history reaches, people have had names and the most ancient written texts and mythologies contain examples of them. Although all cultures use names, naming customs vary greatly from people to people, but in all cases the process of naming leads us to face the same basic and very important questions. First, what is a name? Second, where do names come from and who has the right to give them? Third, do names have meaning? And fourth, what effect do names have on those who use them and bear them? None of these questions are simple or have a simple answer; philosophers from Plato[1] to Bertrand Russell and religious people from the Vedic tradition to the rabbinical literature have attempted to answer them with more or less accuracy or inspiration.

Illustration by Daniella Koffler.

Illustration by Daniella Koffler.

Following the path of the possible inquiries that all these questions raise, in this article we are going to observe, in a very synthetic manner, some of the ways in which names and the process of naming can create and recreate the common perceptions of identity and culture from the ancient religious societies to the modern secular ones. First we will explore the various circumstances under which a person was named in the ancient African tribes, and the different factors that come into play. Later we will examine the importance of names in the formation and transformation of Jewish identity, paying particular attention to the purposes served by the production of culture –namely, the creation of a collective meaning and the construction of a community through mythology and history. Then we will review how names radically change in the Jewish community and in the African-American community as a result of a historical situation of banishment, alienation and estrangement; and finally, we will try to observe the creation of symbolic bases for ethnic mobilization through the recovery of usage of ancient ethnic names.

The idea that a name is an essential part of one’s being plays an important role in the majority of ancient traditions, and many so-called primitive cultures treat names as an essential part of the bearer’s identity, as much a part of the self as hair, nails, and other parts of the body.  The lack of records make it impossible to do more than guess at how the earliest given names were chosen, but is generally accepted that most names appear to have had some sort of original meaning, usually descriptive, rather than being simply a pleasing collection of sounds. Dr. Ashkari Johnson Hodari, an expert in black and African studies, sustain that despite the enormous cultural variety throughout Africa, there are central themes common to African naming. A name evidences the day of birth such as Akua (Wenesday) or Chausiku (born at night). Conditions and circumstances of birth also are taken into consideration, like Alaba (second child after twins) Alfryea (born during good times) or Lesa (child born unexpectedly). Location of birth, season of birth, religious concept, desired characteristics and physical traits are also factors that played an important role in the naming process of the African ancient tribes.

In the Jewish world the importance of the name is emphasized frequently in the Hebrew Bible in the Mishnah and in the Talmud. Throughout the Torah, and particularly in Bereshit, there is great dose of significance associated with names. For the Jewish tradition the capacity to giving names is a foundation stone of humanity. In the Torah (Genesis 2:19) naming is Adam’s “first recorded activity”, the very first human action or at least his first intellectual action[2]. Rabbeinu Bachya on Genesis 2:19 comments that Adam revealed his great wisdom when he named all the species of creation. With his superior intellect, every name that he chose, together with the combination of its letters, defined the nature and characteristic of that creature[3].

In this sense, the Torah clearly points out that at the outset of mankind, to name meant to define, and it was just this kind of definition that Moses sought when he asked God for his name at the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-14)[4]. The response given by God “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (literally translated as “I Will Be What I Will Be”) is one of the most famous verses in the Torah with attendant theological and mystical implications in Jewish tradition. The Torah stresses with this answer the unknowability of the true name of God, which is considered very significant by many Kabbalists, because it is seen by them as a proof that the Torah contains esoteric information about the divine nature of God’s name, a central idea in Kabbalah and to a lesser degree in Judaism in general.

A name is not merely a way to call someone, but rather encapsulates the essence of the individual. Therefore a different name will be used for the same person depending upon the context. We find the two main examples of this rule with the Patriarchs Abram/Abraham (Bereshit 7:5)[5] and Jacob (Yaakov) / Israel Bereshit (Genesis) 32:23-28[6]. The Rabbis detect a distinct pattern in the Torah sometimes choosing to refer to Jacob (Yaakov) by his original name and sometimes by his additional name Israel. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that each of these two names alludes to another aspect of existence: Jacob -deriving from “his hand was grasping the heel of Esau” (Bereshit 25:26) – represents the physical side, and Israel -deriving from “for you have struggled with a Lord” (Bereshit32:29) –the spiritual. The primary side is, of course, the spiritual, but it is nevertheless impossible to exist in this world without the physical aspects as well. This is why the Sages have stated: “The name Israel is not meant to supplant entirely the name Jacob. Rather, Israel is to be the primary name and Jacob the secondary one” (Berachos 13a).

The references to the significance of names in the Torah is so abundant that is not surprising that many passages in the Talmud and Midrash try to delve into this subject and try to look for the best answers to all kind of questions related with it: Are parents prophetically inspired to give their children the correct name?  Do these names reflect a person’s future or ultimate personality?

In relation with this last question the Talmud (Yoma 83b) describes the incident of Rabbi Meir and his colleagues Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Yehudah who sought lodging at an inn for the Sabbath. Rabbi Meir would make deductions about a person’s character based on his name, although Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi did not follow his view. The Talmud relates a story which supports Rabbi Meir’s view, and the other sages eventually came to agree with him[7]. In this same third generation of Tanna was R. Shimon ben Gamliel, the president of the Great Sanhedrin, who said that only in the early generations did names have prophetic meaning.  Already in his time, and, consequently, in Rabbi Meir’s time as well, names were merely memories of ancestors and had no indicative significance[8].

What we see so far with this dispute is that in this one generation there were two clear opposing views on this subject.  In this sense, it is important to keep in mind that these are all primarily students of Rabbi Akiva and were witnesses to the devastating destruction of that time.  They saw their saintly teachers and colleagues being murdered and, somehow, managed to remain alive; but more importantly they also witnessed the progressive assimilation of good part of the Jewish society, and assimilation that was reflected in the adoption of foreign names. Is true that after the Exile to Babylon there began to appear a tendency towards the use of foreign names, but this tendency became more and more prominent as time went on. In the Hellenistic period Greek names became quite usual among the Jews, especially those of Alexander, Jason, Antigonus, Alexandra or Priscilla. The same occurs with the Roman names as Antonius, Apella, Drusus, Justinus, Justus, Marcus, Rufus, Tiberius, and Titus.

The Sages would constantly alert against this custom, remembering that, on the most basic level, a Jewish name is a keystone of Jewish identity. The Sages stressed (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:22) that one of the reasons our forefathers merited to be redeemed from Egypt was that they did not change their names and they continued calling themselves Reuven, Shimon, Levi, etc.[9] The population disregarded these warnings, and toward the end of the period, owing to the intermixture of foreign languages, the use of double names for the same person began to be adopted, as in the instances of Simon Peter, John Mark, Thomas Didymus, Herodes Agrippa, and Salome Alexandra. The most striking tendency of the post-Talmudic period is the general choice of local names by the Jews for their civic relations. This led to the adoption of two names, one for civic purposes, known as the kinnuy (probably from the Arabic kunyah), the other (shem ha-ḳodesh) for use in the synagogue and in all Hebrew documents.

As we are going to see, you can find this custom of keeping two different names due to harsh circumstances in two communities as different as the Jewish and the African community. Makes sense that this custom can be reproduced in two communities so different if we consider that the tradition of naming (whether among primitive tribes, religious communities or more modern secular societies) serves a serious purpose: they bind a society, sanction the entry of new members, strengthen historic bonds and ensure their continuation.

In her book “The African Book of Names” Dr. Hodari reveals that enslaved African-Americans often had two names, the ones their masters gave them and the secret names “derived from African words” that family members called them[10]. From the earliest days of American slavery in the 17th century, slave owners sought to exercise control over their slaves by attempting to strip them of their African culture. Slaveholders limited or prohibited education of enslaved African Americans because they feared it might empower their chattel and inspire or enable emancipatory ambitions. In the United States, the legislation that denied slaves formal education likely contributed to their maintaining a strong oral tradition, a common feature of indigenous African cultures. African-based oral traditions became the primary means of preserving history, mores, and other cultural information among the people[11]. One of the most important were those secret or “basket” names because they gave black people in bondage a chance to control at least a part of their lives. In the wake of the non-violent American Civil Rights Movement, from 1960 onwards the Black Power movement asks African descendants to rename themselves and given their children African names. When in 1988 Jesse Jackson officially announced that the members of his race preferred to be called African-Americans the efforts to recover the African heritage inspired by the selection of names with deeper cultural significance was already very popular and spread among the community[12].

In the Jewish community the tendency to change names and to borrow the names of the places that they were settling would continue for 2000 years of exile, making good the sentence “meshaneh shem, meshaneh mazal” (a change of name brings about a change of fate) But at the end of the nineteenth century the nationalistic Zionist movement and the religious and spiritualists movements find a ground of agreement in the value that they gave to Hebrew names. From that moment on, a new tendency of changing their names back to Hebrew names began to develop among the new immigrants that arrive to Palestine. With time, this tendency to erase the remnants of galuti (the exiled life still surviving in their names from other languages) will continue expanding in a much accentuated manner in the land of modern Israel. On the other hand, in the diaspora there continues to be many Jewish people who either do not know their Jewish name, or else are ashamed of it, hiding it behind a non-Jewish name.

There is a great power in naming. Naming is a keystone not only of Jewish identity but one of the basic building blocks of any ethnic identity and culture. Through their names, individuals and groups attempt to address the problematic of ethnic boundaries and meaning. The histories of the Jewish people or the African-American community show us how names can be more than tags, and how they can convey very powerful imagery. Serious studies support the idea that names stereotype as much as skin color and other surface characteristics and it is important to note that the most important aspect of personality affected by names is self-concept[13].

As we could see the relationship among name, namer, and named is a complicated one involving privilege, ownership, and freedom. Names do indeed have meaning. Even if they don’t enclose meaning in the denotative sense, as a word in the lexicon, they always have meaning in the connotative emotional sense. The names we give people also reveal the ways that different communities and societies feel about themselves and how they relate towards other people and other communities and societies.  Therefore naming –proposing, imposing and accepting names- can be seen as an individual spiritual expression as much as a cultural and political exercise. A proper name is a child’s lasting connection with his heritage and it has to be given and be perceived as a precious life lasting gift.

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[1]One of the earliest analytical written discussions of naming is Plato’s “Cratylus,” which questions the relationship of a name to the thing named. In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates moderates an argument between two friends: Cratylus insists that a name is inherently appropriate to the thing named, and Hermogenes believes that names are purely conventional. Cratylus claims that, in some distant past, legislators who understood the true nature of things gave names that accurately reflect reality, and any name in existence in the present that does not accurately represent the thing named has suffered from language corruption. Hermogenes, on the other hand, argues that names are but puffs of air and that one name is as good as another. While the arguments on both sides often seem exaggerated, the conclusion seems to suggest that there is some truth to both sides, and the question of whether the nature of a thing is comprehended in its name was debated for centuries. Platón (2003). Diálogos. Obra completa en 9 volúmenes. Volumen II: Gorgias. Menéxeno. Eutidemo. Menón. Crátilo. Editorial Gredos. Madrid.. ISBN 978-84-249-0887-4.

[2] In the second chapter of Genesis, just after the description of the Garden of Eden (and of the four rivers that flow out of it) and before Eve is cloned from Adam’s rib, the narrator tells us that God created animals and birds “and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air” (Genesis 2.19-20).

[3] Rabbeinu Bachia explains, for example, that he named the lion “Aryeh.” The letters Yud-heh – which are part of the name of God, the King of kings and Ruler of the universe – represent the lion’s role as king of the jungle. Another example: Adam named the ordinary weak-minded donkey “Chamor,” a word that is cognate with “chomer” – simple elementary matter. “Chomer” is also a measure of volume (see Hoshea 3:2), signifying the load which the donkey forever carries on its back. Bachya Ben Asher, Torah Commentary  by Rabbi Bachya Asher” Urim Publications, May 1, 1998

[4] Exodus 3:13. And Moses said to God, “Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”

Exodus 3:14. God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be),” and He said, “So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.'”

[5] Bereshit 7:5 “Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee”.

[6] Bereshit 32:23-28   “After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

[7] Rabbi Meir was known to pay close attention to a person’s name. Upon learning that the innkeeper’s name was Kidor, he refused to entrust his valuables to him, for the name Kidor brought to mind the phrase: “for they are a generation (ki-dor) full of changes, children in whom there is no trust.” (Deuteronomy 32:20) Nevertheless, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi, who did not pay heed to names, entrusted their money to the innkeeper. Subsequently, the innkeeper denied taking their money from them for safekeeping, and it was lost. Rabbi Meir’s money, however, was spared. The Talmud’s story supports Rabbi Meir’s view, and the other sages eventually came to agree with him. Along the same lines, Rabbi Yitzchak says, “The spies [who brought back a bad report about the land of Israel] had names that reflected their deeds.” Conversely, the Midrash tells us (Numbers Rabbah 16:10) that there were people who led righteous lives despite having been given names with negative connotations. This demonstrates that it is possible for one to rise above the negative disposition that a name might otherwise have given him.

[8]Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said: The ancestors who used the power of Divine Inspiration drew names out of (future) events; we who do not have access to Divine Inspiration, draw names from our forefathers (Genesis Rabbah 37.7).”

[9]  As it is written in Numbers 1:18  the rabbinical interpretation tell us that although more than two centuries of exile and slavery had all but assimilated the Children of Israel into the pagan society of Egypt, they remained a distinct entity because they retained their Hebrew “names, language and dress,” and thus merited their miraculous redemption. This explanation borrows and expands the tannaitic claim found in the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Pis’ha 5, that the Israelites changed neither their name nor language, practiced neither sexual perversity nor evil speech. Neusner, Jacob “A Theological Commentary to the Midrash: Mekhilta attributed to Rabbi Ishmael” University Press of America 2001 Pisha Chapter Five p.9: “How do we know that they had not changed their name? “For just as their genealogies when they went down to Egypt (consisted in the names) Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah, so their genealogies when they came up out of Egypt involved the names Reuben, Simeaon, Levi and Judah” “So Scripture says: “And they declared their pedigrees after their families by their fathers’ Houses’ (Numbers 1:18)

[10] Askhari Johnson Hodari “The African Book of Names” HCI; 1 edition (January 5, 2009)

[11] Maggie Papa, Amy Gerber, Abeer Mohamed. “African American Culture through Oral Tradition”. George Washington University.

[12] Ben L. Martin “From Negro to Black to African American: The Power of Names and Naming” Political Science Quarterly Vol. 106, No. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 83-107 Published by: The Academy of Political Science

[13] Martin E. Ford, Irene Miura, John C. Masters Effects of Social Stimulus Value on Academic Achievement and Social Competence: A Reconsideration of Children’s First Name Characteristics, Journal of Educational Psychology 1984, Vol.76, No.6, 1149-1158 American Psychological Association.

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