by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita
It is written, “Vayikra [And he called] his name Jacob” [Toldot 25:26]
Who called his name Jacob?
According to the Ohr HaChaim, the term vayikra refers to the Holy One, blessed be He, Who personally named the newborn child. Other commentators believe that Jacob’s name was given to him by his grandfather Abraham. For Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, the identity of the name-giver has no particular importance.
The situation is entirely different for Esau, whose name was given to him by the people, as clearly evidenced by the expression: “They called his name Esau” [Toldot 25:25]. In other words, everyone recognized his character and specific traits, and thus his name was in accordance with his deeds and characteristics.
The name given to a child at the time of his circumcision constitutes somewhat of a spark of Ruach HaKodesh, a spark that manifests itself for a few moments in the hearts of the parents when they decide upon the name that will accompany their child for his entire life.
(It is said that the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Alter, was once asked by one of his chassidim to choose a name for his newborn son. With surprise accompanied by a smile, the Rebbe replied: “The little Ruach HaKodesh that you have, you want to give it to me?”)
Influencing a Person’s Life
In ancient texts we find, “Tell me your name, and I will tell you who you are.” A person’s name encapsulates his personality, virtues, and potential, as well as the role assigned to him in this world.
After 120 years on earth, when a man arrives before the Celestial Court, he will be asked to present himself by name. Hence the famous custom, at the end of Shimoni Esrei (before saying Yiheyu le’ratzon imrei phi [“May the words of my mouth”]), of reciting a verse whose first and last letter are the same as the first and last letter of the person’s name. This is a segula for not forgetting one’s name before the Celestial Court.
At a somewhat deeper spiritual level, we find that a person’s life unfolds according to the letters that form his name, especially in light of the possible combinations of these letters. A person’s name can influence his destiny and future for good or bad, as emerges from the Zohar: “[T]he name is of great significance and potency, and the combination of letters with one another works either for good or bad. Connected with this mystery is the combination of the letters of the holy Names, and even the letters in themselves can be made to reveal supreme mysteries” (Zohar II:179b).
The Midrash also warns us in this regard by stating: “We should always be extremely careful about the names we give to our children, for sometimes a name can have a good or bad influence, as we see with the spies” (Tanchuma, Ha’azinu 7).
This warning and advice are quite useful for someone who is well-versed in the deep mysteries of the holy letters, someone who knows how to combine the letters of a name in a positive way. Yet what can be said for us, we who have no knowledge of the secrets of the letters? How should we choose names for our children?
The holy Tanna Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel already looked into this question and said, “The Ancients, because they could avail themselves of Ruach HaKodesh, named themselves in reference to [forthcoming] events. Yet we, who cannot avail ourselves of Ruach HaKodesh, are named after our fathers” [Bereshith Rabba 37:7]
This means that we name our children after our holy ancestors, having faith that just as the names of the Ancients helped them to succeed, these holy names will also help our children to succeed in life.
A Segula for Longevity
As we have said, a person’s name testifies to his character and inner nature. In the Gemara we find that Rabbi Meir would commonly examine each person according to his name. After a certain incident, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yossi were also careful to evaluate each person according to his name, just like Rabbi Meir. From this comes the custom of naming a child after one of his holy ancestors, people who were righteous, pious, and holy.
In halachic literature, we find several customs in regards to this issue. For example, in Chochmat HaNefesh the Rokeach cites his teacher, Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid, who in his testament warns against naming one’s son Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, or even Moshe, for otherwise he may die, fall ill, lose his mind, or other things of this nature. However the book Brit Avoth believes that what he meant is that one must not give his three sons the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although he does not know if it means that these names must not be given in succession, meaning one after the other. Whatever the case, in Responsa Minchat Yitzchak we find that if a person does not heed this warning, then of him it is said: “Hashem protects the simple” (Tehillim 116:6).
The book Brit Olam discusses the custom of not naming one’s son after oneself. It also mentions a custom practiced by the Sephardim of Jerusalem, who regard it as a segula for longevity for a father to name his son after himself. This custom is also cited in the book Even Sapir, which states that in Yemen, when a man has had sons who died in their youth, it is considered a segula to name his next son after himself.
An extraordinary story is told about Rabbi Yaakov of Lissa, the author of Netivot HaMishpat, who carried the name of his father while his father was still alive. After Rabbi Yaakov was born and it came time for his circumcision, his father, who was known for his great diligence in Torah learning, was completely immersed in a difficult sugia. When the mohel reached the words, “His name in Israel shall be,” his father believed that he was being asked for his own name, and so he said “Yaakov.”
Each time that the author of Netivot HaMishpat was called up to the Torah, and the shamash summoned “Rabbi Yaakov ben Yaakov,” the congregants tried hard to understand how this had happened. They were then told this unusual story regarding the great diligence of Rabbi Yaakov’s father.