What Is In A Name? Commentary on Parashat Shemot 5783
By Rahmiel Hayyim Drizin, Professor of Kabbalah

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙

“And these are the names etc…” (Exodus 1:1.)


What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.

– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2


William Shakespeare uses this line in his play Romeo and Juliet to convey that the naming of things is irrelevant. We yidn (ייִדן, Yiddish for “Jews”) hold differently: It’s all about The Name!

Our foremost commentator on the Torah, Rashi explains:


ואלה שמות בני ישראל: אף על פי שמנאן בחייהן בשמותן, חזר ומנאן במיתתן [אחר מיתתן], להודיע חבתן שנמשלו לכוכבים, שמוציאן ומכניסן במספר ובשמותם, שנאמר (ישעיהו מ כו) המוציא במספר צבאם לכולם בשם יקרא

And these are the names of the sons of Israel: Although [G-d] counted them in their lifetime by their names (Genesis 46:8–27), G-d counted them again after their death, to let us know how precious they are [to G-d], because they were likened to the stars, which G-d takes out [from beyond the horizon] and brings in by number and by name, as it is said: who takes out their host by number; all of them G-d calls by name (Isaiah 40:26).*


Names are precious, essential, certainly not irrelevant.

We enter this week in our Jewish lifecycle into a book called by us Jews as Shemot, which means “Names;” that is the name of our book. And the titles of our holy books, which we derive from the first words of our books, reveals their essence. While the Greeks called this book “Exodus,” explaining how we left the slavery in Egypt, we denominate this scroll as “Names.”

To us Jews, a name defines a person’s essence. The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment. A Jewish boy is named at his bris (circumcision), while many Jewish girls have a special naming ceremony in synagogue. The Sages say that naming a baby is a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life. For at the beginning of life we give a name, and at the end of life a “good name” is all we take with us. (See Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7b; and R’ Chayyim Vital, Sha’ar HaGilgulim 24b, in the name of R’ Isaac Luria.)


רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁלשָׁה כְתָרִים הֵם, כֶּתֶר תּוֹרָה וְכֶתֶר כְּהֻנָּה וְכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת, וְכֶתֶר שֵׁם טוֹב עוֹלֶה עַל גַּבֵּיהֶן

Rabbi Shimon would say: There are three crowns—the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty—but the crown of good name surmounts them all. (Pirke Avot 4:13.)


Further, the Talmud tells us that parents receive one sixtieth of prophecy when picking a name. An angel comes to the parents and whispers the Jewish name that the new baby will embody.

Some people are named after a dearly-departed relative. This is a great honor to the deceased because its soul can achieve an elevation based on the good deeds of the namesake. The child, meanwhile, can be inspired by the good qualities of the deceased and make a deep connection to the past (Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, No’am Elimelech on Bemidbar).

I myself can testify to the nevu’ah (נְבוּאָה, “prophecy”) of my parents’ naming me. I was named Rahmiel Hayyim (רַחְמִיאֵל חַיִּים)–Rahmiel for my father’s grandfather who was a rabbi, and Hayyim for my father’s brother Herman, who died in March 1945 in Iwo Jima.

In 1993 when I began studying one-on-one with a mekubbal (מְקֻבַּל, “Kabbalist”), I learned that above there were angels who defended us from accusatory forces. Around the same time, I became a Cook County Assistant Public Defender. When folks asked me how I could represent “guilty” people, I replied, “Just as there are supernal angels who defend us above, so too do we need criminal defense attorneys to do so below.”

Fine. But then I learned what Rahmiel Hayyim means in Hebrew. Rahmiel is an angel name, “The compassion of G-d,” with the root of the key word in the name alluding to rechem (רֶחֶם, meaning “womb”)—the most compassionate place in our universe. And chayyim (חַיִּים, “life”) is the opposite of death; a prison is a confined limited space not unlike a coffin.**

My parents’ prophecy in naming me Rahmiel Hayyim was not realized until I was in my early thirties and took on a career of seeking mercy to those detained and confined in institutions. And that is where I stayed until retiring early this year.

It’s like this: our name defines our job. We cannot say, as did the beloved Freddie Prinze, “That’s not my job!” One could say, on the other hand, as did my Kabbalistic teacher, that our “job” in life is to figure out what is our “name,” our purpose, and to do that as best as we can.

When Rabbi Zusha was on his deathbed, his students found him in uncontrollable tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him that he was almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Avraham, so he was sure to be judged positively in Heaven. He replied, “When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked, ‘Why weren’t you like Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you like Abraham?’ They will ask, ‘Why weren’t you like Zusha?’” Why didn’t he fully live up to his own potential?

So, with due respect to the Bard, we must humbly disagree. Names–and in particular Jewish names—have ultimate significance. A midrash teaches us that, when we were exiled in Egypt, our ancestors did not change their Jewish names. Even though they assimilated into Egyptian culture, the Jews held strong to their names, language, and clothing. This steadfastness would become their weapon in their spiritual battle to preserve their unique identity as the Jewish people (Shemot Rabbah 1:28).

May we learn from their struggle to be true to their names, may we figure out what our jobs are, and may we do our best to fulfill them.


*This and other translations original or adapted from www.chabad.org.

**The Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 5a–b, lists four categories of living people who an early sage considered kemetim (כְּמֵתִים, “as if they are dead”): ani (עָנִי, a person in need); suma (סוּמָא, a blind person); metzora (מְצֹרָע, someone who suffers from Biblical leprosy; and mi she’eyn lo banim (מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ בָּנִים, someone who is childless).