Rabbi Eldad Zamir
Former shaliach in Cape Town (1997 -1998)
Currently Senior Instructor at the Nativ ’Giyur” program in the IDF


Jewish Names

“’That they did not change their names’ – [As] Reuven and Shimon, they went down [to Egypt], and [as] Reuven and Shimon they left [Egypt and returned to Eretz Yisrael]. Reuven was not called ‘Rufus’; Yehuda [was not called] ‘Luliana’; Yosef [was not called] ‘Listas’; Binyamin [was not called] ‘Alexandra’.” (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32)

“…Alternatively, vichamushim (literally, ‘were armed’, Shmot 13:18) [implies that] one in five went up [out of Egypt]. Alternatively, one in fifty. And some say, one in five hundred! R’ Nehorai says, ‘[During] the labor, not one in five hundred went up, as it says,

“Myriads, like the plants of the field…” (Yechezkel 16:7)

And it says,

“The children of Israel were fruitful and teemed,” (Shmot 1:7)

That they bore six children at each birth. And you said [that] one in five hundred went up. And when did they die? During the three days of darkness, as it says,

“No man could see his brother,” (Shmot 10:23)

That they would bury their dead and gave thanks and exalted that their enemies did not see and rejoice at their downfall.’” (Yalkut Shimoni – Shmot 13 – 227)

Here is an interesting tidbit: In the Jewish school in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, I taught a boy called Chris, another one named Muhammad, and a third known as Yassin. Meanwhile, in the same school’s kindergarten, my son had a classmate named Baal Krishna!

A great miracle occurred, and Bnei Yisrael were indeed liberated from Egypt. They were rescued, despite being submerged up to their necks in the 49 shaareitumah(gates of impurity). What was their merit? According to the famous Midrash, one reason was that “they did not change their names.”

How many Jews were submerged over their heads?How many lost their ways and forgot about their Jewish identities? What was the exact percentage of the chamushim who went up from the house of slavery? The Midrash does not provide an explicit answer.

3,500 years have since elapsed. Is today’s Jewish world in better or worse shape than the generation where only a minority had light in their dwellings?

On one hand, in Egypt, the vast majority were not liberated. Of course, in our generation, many Jews ape their non-Jewish neighbors in terms of dress, speech and names. However, much of world Jewry does have Jewish names – either first names or last names. In fact, when a person hears these names, he immediately and instinctively stands up and goes up to get an aliyah to the Torah… Furthermore, upon arriving in Israel, many new olim (immigrants) switch to Hebrew, Biblical, or Israeli names (depending on their preferred social milieu). Thus, we appear to be in relatively better shape than our forefathers.

Yet, on the other hand, the Midrash emphasizes that Reuven was not transformed into Luliana, etc., and that is why they were liberated. However, in chu”l today, most Jews use non-Jewish first names. (And even here in Israel, certain individuals make a point of choosing “universal-sounding” names.) Moreover, non-Jewish dress and language are very common. So, perhaps, we are actually worse off today.

In reality, a portion of modern Jewry is submerged even lower than that. Unfortunately, some Jews are ashamed of their Jewish names and are “meticulous” about never using them during their lifetimes. The neglected Jewish names are reserved for posthumous use; they are engraved on gravestones and recited during Yizkor. As the pasuk says:

“They call by their names on plots of land.” (Tehillim 49:12)

In other words, their true names are only used on the gravestones sitting over their cemetery plots.

Many times, we had to resort to detective work in Port Elizabeth, in order to figure out the Jewish name of the deceased. Sadly, we were not always successful. The painful truth is that these Jews are so deeply submerged that only a miracle could save them.

But miracles do occur.

I once officiated at a highly unusual wedding: an 82-year-old Jewish man – who had been married twice before – was marrying a 75-year old Jewish woman, for whom this was her fifth wedding! South Africa’s beit din (rabbinical court) insists that an engaged couple take a brief course on Jewish married life. (And despite the fact that there is less cynicism and hatred in chu”l, the rabbanitmust still employ the utmost delicacy and choose her words very carefully when discussing mikvah and an ideal Jewish way of life.) In any event, the older gentleman and I became quite friendly, and he started coming to shul regularly – even on weekday mornings.

During one of our discussions, he told me about a Jewish woman who lived in his neighborhood with her son, who was approaching his bar mitzvah. My friend eventually persuaded them to come to shul, and I learned first hand that some Jews are incredibly submerged and far from their heritage. In due time, the mother agreed to enroll her son in the Jewish school, and I had to teach him literally from scratch. Although he refused to undergo a hatafat dam (to transform his circumcision into a kosher brit milah), he let us give him a Hebrew name. Since his name was Jason, we decided to call him Yosef.

In another case, we transformed a Jared into a Yered (based on the translation rules used by the Septuagint).

And now back to our original question. When did Am Yisrael lose more souls: during the Egyptian plagues or in our own generation?

Using names as our sole criterion, we are in better shape now than we were during the period when we became a nation.

“And these are the names of the Children of Israel.” (Shmot 1:1)

Only those who adhered to the names of those who had gone down to Egypt 210 years earlier were liberated and left the Land of the Nile alive. The vast majority – whether it was 80% or 98% or even more – submerged and were not privileged to be liberated.

At this point, I must confess that I left out a significant detail above: Although Yassin, Muhammad, Chris and other similarly named students attend the Jewish school, neither they nor their parents consider themselves descendents of Yaakov Avinu. Their only connection to Yiddishkeit is that they choose to study at a Jewish school, because it is deemed to be one of the best schools in the city.

Presumably, in Egypt, many Jews had comparable names. But even in the remote city – in Jewish terms – of Port Elizabeth, we never encountered Jews with non-Jewish names that were as jarringly “non-Jewish” as these.

Needless to say, we must not rest on our laurels and assume that their less discordant names mean that they act in accordance with Jewish norms and refrain from closely associating with their non-Jewish peers. However, we can derive small comfort from the fact that we have not yet descended to the lowest level. The nose has not yet been submerged beneath the waters of the shaarei tumah, and therefore, there is still hope.

In conclusion, I should note that this entire piece was an exercise in extremely subjective onomastics (The linguistic study of proper names – of people and places). This a priori empiricism cannot be used to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the actual and authentic status of world Jewry during any particular era.