The Jewish people’s third patriarch had three names: Yaakov, Yisrael, and Yeshurun.
“Yaakov” is derived from the root ayin-kuf-bet, which means heel; the Torah tells us that he received this name because he was born holding onto his older brother heel (Genesis 25:26).
He later received the name Yisrael from Eisav’s angel, who was forced to bless him. The angel said Yaakov’s name would be Yisrael because he successfully lords (“sar”) over angels (“elohim”) and man (Genesis 32:30). G-d Himself later confirms this blessing by bestowing upon Yaakov the name Yisrael (Genesis 35:10).
Although the Torah seems to use Yaakov and Yisrael almost interchangeably, many commentators offer explanations for why a particular name is used in a particular context. Many, including the Maharal (1520-1609) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), explain that the Torah uses “Yaakov” when referring to Yaakov as an individual and “Yisrael” when referring to Yaakov in the context of his role as the progenitor of the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1786) argues that “Yaakov” and “Yisrael” are placeholders for two different approaches to worshipping G-d. “Yaakov” alludes to fear of G-d, and “Yisrael” alludes to love of G-d.
The Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743) maintains (and systematically demonstrates) that the Torah uses “Yaakov” when describing Yaakov in a downtrodden state and uses “Yisrael” when describing him in a happy and peaceful state.
Yaakov’s third name, Yeshurun, appears only four times in the entire Bible – three times towards the end of Deuteronomy (32:15, 33:5, and 33:26) and once in Isaiah (44:2).
How do we know that Yeshurun is Yaakov? One place where the equivalence is clear is a passage recited before the morning prayers. In it, the Jewish people are described as follows: “the congregation of Your [G-d’s] firstborn son Yaakov, whom from Your love that You loved him and from Your happiness that You were happy with him, You called his name Yisrael and Yeshurun.” (The earliest source of this prayer is Tanna DeVei Eliyahu [Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, ch. 21].)
(Interestingly, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk [1843-1926] notes that, leaving this prayer aside, the Jews are almost never referred to as “Yeshurun” in the liturgy.)
What is the meaning and implications of the name “Yeshurun”?
Esav claimed that the name “Yaakov” was related to the other meaning of ayin-kuf-bet: “deceit or trickery” (Genesis 27:36). To counter Eisav’s false assertion, G-d gave Yaakov the name Yeshurun, which is derived from “yashar” (straight), says Nachmanides (to Numbers 23:10 and Deuteronomy 2:10; 7:12).
A complementary tradition points out that “Yeshurun” is a portmanteau of the phrase “yashar v’naeh” (straight and fine) and actually equals that phrase in gematria (if “Yeshurun” is spelled with two vavs). This explanation is cited by Rabbi Avraham ben Ezriel in Arugos HaBosem, Periush HaRokeach to the siddur, and Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialystok in Eitz Yosef.
Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that “Yeshurun” is related to “shur” (gaze) and recalls the fact that the Jews were the people who came closest to gazing upon G-d’s holy presence when He revealed Himself to them at Mount Sinai.
The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) argues that “Yeshurun” is a cognate of “shir” (song), an allusion to the praises of G-d that the Jews sang after the Exodus. Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that “Yeshurun” alludes to the idea that the Jewish people were the only ones to accept the Torah, which is called a “shirah” (Deuteronomy 31:19).
The Zohar (Vayechi 222a) states that “Yisrael” connotes a higher spiritual level than “Yaakov,” and “Yeshurun” connotes an even higher level (Vayishlach 177b). How so?
The Arizal (1534-1572) teaches that G-d’s influence filters down through four worlds: Atzilut (Emanation), Briyah (Creation), Yetzirah (Formation), and Asiyah (Action – the world we occupy). Rabbi Nosson Nota Shapiro (1585-1633) writes in Megaleh Amukos that the names of the angels in Briyah end with an “el” suffix (e.g., Raphael, Michael, and Gavriel), while angels in Yetzirah end with an “on” suffix (e.g., Metatron and Sandalphon). So “Yaakov” represents his place in Asiyah, “Yisrael” represents his place in the higher world of Briyah, and “Yeshurun” represents his place in the even higher world of Yetzirah.
According to the Talmud (Yoma 73b), the kohen gadol’s breastplate was inscribed with the names of the three patriarchs, the 12 tribes, and the phrase “The Tribes of Yeshurun.” The Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) to Yoma 73b writes that only Aharon’s breastplate had this phrase. Subsequent breastplates read “The Tribes of Yisrael.”
He explains that “Yisrael” implies that the Jewish people reached their level through divine assistance as it is a portmanteau of “yashar” (straight) and “Kel” (a name of G-d). “Yeshurun” implies people who are inherently straight and is used to describe the Jewish people at their pinnacle – when they reach their peak spirituality entirely through their own efforts.
Interestingly, the Maharsha (1555-1631) maintains that “Yeshurun” is actually another name for G-d, a view he ascribes to Rashi. The late Rabbi Nosson Kamenetsky (1930-2019) penned an exhaustive essay exploring the Maharsha’s view and the Noda b’Yehudah’s understanding of it (see Noda b’Yehudah Tinyana, Orach Chayim §126).