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What’s Your Name?


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Torah Curtain (detail) (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Torah Curtain (detail) (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum



Often in attempting to describe a person we struggle to define his essence, the core basis of his being. A person can have many fine characteristics but ultimately his good name is the sum total of those various traits. Perception is reality. Our reputations and how others perceive us tend to define to the world – and often to ourselves – who we really are.

We are taught in Pirkei Avos that there are three Jewish crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. We are then instructed that a fourth crown supersedes the other three – the crown of a good name.

What is the source for this teaching? It is rooted in a midrash on Koheles. The verse in Koheles teaches “tov shem meshemen tov” – a good name trumps the inaugural oils of the kohen or king. The midrash elaborates on this point through an analogy. Nadav and Avihu, who possessed Torah and kehunah, the “shemen tov,” entered a place of life, the Holy of Holies, and ultimately died there; whereas Chananel, Mishael, and Azaryah, possessing only their good names, entered a fiery furnace, a place of death, and came out unscathed.

The crowning glory of a stellar reputation trumps other religious positions and accolades.

The Rambam describes the three initial crowns as the three qualities that distinguish our people. This point is illustrated in the context of our being adorned with the crown of Torah at Har Sinai when Hashem specifically refers to us as being a “mamleches kohanim,” a kingdom of priests. The three crowns are therefore very much intertwined.

We are actually introduced to this concept earlier in Pirkei Avos. The introductory chapter posits that the world stands on three things: Torah, avodah (service) and chesed (kindness). Torah is God’s ultimate gift to His people; avodah encapsulates the role of the kohanim in the Temple; and kindness is the ultimate kingly trait since with special privilege comes unique responsibility to others. So here too we observe the three juxtaposed and presented together, this time as foundational to the world’s existence.

It is most confounding, then, that despite the life-altering significance of the three crowns, the later mishnah tells us of a loftier fourth crown. The mishnah might be saying that while are three equally significant crowns, there is one that climbs on the back (“oleh al gabehein”) of the other three; i.e. if one has the three specific qualities or crowns, what emanates from them is a “shem tov.” The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This approach can be understood when one reflects on the role of the gabbai in a synagogue. Gabbai has the word gav or “back” as its root and communicates that the individual has the back (as in “I’ve got your back”) of the shul and the rabbi; he supports and looks after both of them.

I have a good friend who does something special every year during the Yamim Noraim when he gets to the part in the Mussaf liturgy about giving a crown to Hashem: He gesticulates the placement of an imaginary crown on an imaginary head. This is his way of concretizing the process of the ultimate coronation in the New Year. It also illustrates what we all should be striving for. We’d ideally like to be crowned with a shem tov and have it publicly displayed for all to see. The expression of our efforts in Torah, avodah, and chesed is the positive name that emanates directly from them.

A good name isn’t always earned. A good name can be inherited and carried through generations but must be continually preserved. It can follow us around, challenge us, and sometimes even be a heavy burden.

Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen

About the Author: Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is director of synagogues for New York and director of community outreach for Yachad, both roles at the Orthodox Union. His popular book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” was published earlier this year by Mosaica Press. It is available at Jewish bookstores and on his website, www.rabbidovidmcohen.com.


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