Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

An obscure passage in the Book of Chronicles discusses Caleb’s children sired through his “Jewish” wife. She was said to have given birth to Yered, the father of Gedor; Chever, the father of Socho; and Yekutiel, the father of Zanoach (I Chron. 4:18, according to Radak). According to rabbinic tradition, however, the entire Book of Chronicles is meant as fodder for exegesis and should not be read literally (Vayikra Rabbah §1:3). In that spirit, the Midrash interprets all of the names listed above as references to Moses (Moshe). This assertion is bolstered by the appearance of the Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah at the end of the passage in question.

Drawing from the above verse in Chronicles, the Midrash asserts that Moses had six names:

  1. Yered refers to Moses for one of three reasons: According to the first two explanations, this name is derived from the Hebrew verb la’redet (“to descend”) and either refers to Moses bringing down the Torah from the Heavens above, or to his bringing G-d’s Holy Presence down to Earth.
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The third explanation connects Yered to the Hebrew verb l’rdot (“to lord over”), and refers to Moses’ role as the king/leader of the Jewish people (see Zevachim 102a). The Talmud (Megillah 13a) adds that Moses was called Yered because the manna descended from the heavens in his time (and, according to Taanit 9a, in his merit.

  1. “Father of Gedor,” or Avigdor, is related to geder (“fence,” “boundary”) and refers to the fact that although the Jewish people merited many fence-makers (important Sages who “built a fence around the Torah” as described in Avot 1:1 to distance people from sin), Moses was the father of all such leaders as fence-makers. The Talmud (Megillah 13a) explains that Moses rectified the Jews’ breaches by establishing the boundaries of law.
  2. Chever refers to Moses in one of two ways: Firstly, the Midrash links this word to the Hebrew word chibbur (“connection,” “bond”) and explains that Moses served to connect the Jewish people to G-d. The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) states that Moses accomplished this by presiding over the erection of the Mishkan.

Secondly, the Midrash links the name Chever to the Hebrew root ayin-bet-reish (presumably, by way of the interchangeability of chet and ayin), which means “to pass.” The Midrash cryptically says that this refers to Moses causing punishments/retribution to be “passed over,” which I think refers to his pleading with G-d not to punish the Jews for creating the Golden Calf.

  1. “Father of Socho,” or Avi-Socho, is understood by the Midrash to be related to the Hebrew word sochech (“gazer,” “seer”) – which is a codeword for prophet. The Midrash thus explains that Moses is called Avi-Socho because he was the “father of prophets” in the sense that he reached a level of prophecy unparalleled by all his future successors. The Talmud (Megillah 13a) adds that Moses was like a sukkah (“protective hut”) for the Jewish people because his merits were so plentiful (see Targum Rav Yosef to I Chron. 4:18). The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) clarifies that this refers to Moses protecting the Jewish people from punishment after they complained at Taveira (see Num. 11:2).
  2. Yekutiel is expounded by the Midrash as though it were derived from the Hebrew word mikaveh/tikvah (“waiting,” “hoping”), in reference to Moses’ role in establishing G-d’s place as the great hope of the Jewish people. The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) explains that Moses was thus described because he was the reason that the manna fell every morning, thereby giving the Jews a reason to look forward to G-d’s bounty daily.
  3. “Father of Zanoach,” or Avi-Zanoach, is seen by the Midrash as related to the Hebrew root zayin-nun-chet, which means “to forsake/reject/leave.” In this sense, Moses was the father of “the rejectors,” because under his leadership the Jewish people rejected idol worship. The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) asserts that this refers to Moses helping the Jews achieve Divine atonement after the sin of the Ten Spies.

After explaining these six names, the Midrash lists another four names given to Moses based on other sources:

  1. Toviah (Tobias) – because when Moses was born, the Torah says (Ex. 2:1): “And she [Moses’ mother] saw that he was good (tov).” Today most people pronounce this name as Tuviah. Dr. Alexander Beider, in his Dictionary of Ashkenazi Given Names, notes that scholars do not know what caused the vowel shift in this name. The name Toviah appears several other times in the Bible, seemingly in reference to other people, including the father of a family that returned to the Holy Land with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:60, Neh. 7:62), a priest in the early Second Temple period (Zech. 6:10, 6:14), and an Ammonite slave who tried to thwart Nehemiah’s efforts in rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh. 2:10–19, 3:35, 4:1, 6–7, 13:4–7).
  2. Shemaiah (see I Chron. 24:6) – because G-d “heard” (shema) Moses’ prayers. This name is understood as a reference to Moses because the character in Chronicles who bears this name was said to have played a role in establishing the 24 Kohanic Shifts, an institute that dates back to Moses.
  3. Ben Netanel (see I Chron. 24:6) – because Moses “gave” (natan) over the Torah from G-d to the Jewish people.
  4. Levi (see I Chron. 24:6) – because Moses was a grandson of Levi.

All in all, Midrash asserts, Moses had ten names and that the Torah chose to refer to him by Moshe, as a reward for the kindness that Bithiah bestowed upon him by adopting him and raising him. Even G-d called him Moshe and not any of his other names.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979) explains that each of Moses’ ten names reflects a different facet of his personality and teaches us something different about his greatness. The name Moshe teaches us that from a young age Moses was instilled with the concept of giving up one’s life to do kindness to others, just as his foster mother Bithiah had risked her life by taking in a Jewish child in order to help the baby. We see this aspect of Moses when he later went to bat for the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Midrash’s conclusion implies that only the name Moshe was given to him by Bithiah, while his other names were given to him by others.

For a further discussion of whether the name Moses is a Hebrew translation of the Egyptian names Monius or Mosh, see “Appendix B: Egyptian Names in the Bible” in my book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press).

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.