According to Jewish tradition a person’s name conveys their essence and its meaning represents the parents’ hopes for the child.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
The Torah portion of “Shemot” (Exodus 1:1-6:1) begins the book of Exodus and the story of the enslavement of the Jewish people. The enslavement begins with Pharaoh’s cruel decrees against the Jewish people. It is actually unclear whether this Pharaoh is the same Pharaoh who worked with Joseph and benefited from his counsel and suddenly turned evil or whether it was a new viciously anti-Semitic Pharaoh.
In any event, this Pharaoh commands the Jewish midwives, one who was named Shifra and the other who was named Puah, to kill all the newborn males by throwing them into the Nile. Only the baby girls were allowed to live. According to most accounts, Shifra was actually Yocheved, the mother of Moses, and Puah was Miriam, the sister of Moses. (Keep that in mind, you’re going to need it in a few paragraphs from now.)
It goes without saying that the righteous Shifra and Puah ignored Pharao’s instructions and managed to save many babies. God rewarded them eternally for their efforts. Their descendants became leaders of the Jewish nation.
The question is asked: If these two midwives were really Yocheved and Miriam, why is it that they appear as Shifra and Puah, apparently Egyptian names? Why the change?
It is explained that Pharaoh was no idiot. He knew that Jewish midwives would do everything possible to avoid obeying his decree to kill the boys. So he had an idea: he would change their names to Egyptian names! He believed that by changing a person’s name they would become that person! Hence, instead of Yocheved and Miriam, Jewish names, he changed them to Shifra and Puah, Egyptian names. In this way, there was a chance that these women would see themselves as Egyptian and obey their king. Thankfully the ingenious plan failed.
Why do I call it an “ingenious” plan? It is because Jewish tradition says the same thing! According to Jewish tradition a person’s name conveys their essence. That’s why Jewish names are generally meaningful. There is nothing wrong with the name “Richard”, “Robert” or “Tom” but they don’t have “deeper” meanings in Hebrew than their very letters. They are identifiers.
But Jewish names such as “Ari” (“lion”), “Elimelech” (“my God is king”) and “Shira” (“song”) are Hebrew and are more symbolic, meaningful, and represent hopes for the child who is given such a name.
The midwives Shifra and Puah didn’t fall for the trap. As the verse says: “The midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt told them …. they let the children live.” Even though Pharaoh changed their names, they did not stop being who they truly were: proud Jews.
This is reminiscent of Jews throughout the ages who faced the choice of conversion or death, and usually chose the latter.
You can change a Jew’s name. You can tell the Jew he is of another religion. You can “convince” a Jew to do something he doesn’t want to do. But a Jew, is a Jew, is a Jew.
As they say, “You can take the boy out of Brooklyn … But you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy.” A Jew is forever.
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below:
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