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Question: We see numerous instances in Scripture where a person’s name was changed. Some people are then always referred to by their new name, while others are not. A case in point is the way we refer to our Patriarchs in the daily Shemoneh Esreh. Why is that so?

Abraham Goldman



Answer: A similar question was addressed many years ago to my dear uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l. We incorporate his response in our answer to your query. We will conclude with my own novel interpretations that I recently delivered in remarks to an event of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, and repeated again as part of my Shabbos morning drasha in my synagogue, Kahal Bnei Matisyahu. Prejudiced as I am, it was well received in both venues – especially by those named Yaakov like myself.

The Gemara (Berachot 13a) states: Bar Kappara taught that whoever calls Avraham by the name Avram, his former name, transgresses a positive precept, since it is stated (Bereishit 17:5), “Your name shall be Avraham.” R. Eliezer said that a prohibitory precept is transgressed thereby, since it is also stated (ibid.), “Your name shall no longer be Avram.” But if that is so, continues the Gemara, the same should apply to anyone who calls Sarah by the name Sarai, since it is stated (ibid. 17:15), “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.” The Gemara notes that there is a difference in that case, since only Avraham himself was ordered by G-d not to call his wife Sarai anymore.

Similarly, the Gemara then asks: “Does not the same (transgressing a precept) apply to one who calls Yaakov by the name Yaakov, and not Israel, the name given to him by G-d (ibid. 32:29)? The answer is that there is a difference here, since G-d Himself later addresses Yaakov by his former name (ibid. 46:2), “G-d spoke unto Israel in the visions of the night and said, Yaakov, Yaakov . . .”

Maharsha (Berachot loc. cit.) explains that Avraham’s name and his wife’s name were changed so that his mazal, his destiny, would change and he would become the father of a son. At the beginning, he was only a leader in one country, Aram, where he introduced the teachings of G-d. Later he became the leader of a multitude of nations to whom he brought the teachings of G-d. Therefore, if Avraham is called by his former name, it is an insult both to him and to G-d, implying that G-d’s influence is limited to one country only.

Yaakov was given his name because he was clutching his twin Esau’s heel (akev) at birth. The name was also associated with cunning, as Esau complained later on (Bereishit 27:36): “Hachi kara shemo Yaakov va’ya’akveni zeh [p]a’amayim – Is he not rightly named Yaakov? For he has supplanted me these two times …” When his name was changed (ibid. 32:29), Yaakov was elevated to a higher degree: “Ki sarita im Elokim … – You have striven with G-d and with men and have prevailed” (see Rashi ad loc.). Israel represents greatness, and in the future, Israel will rise to great heights despite descending at times to miserable depths.

Thus Ramban (ibid. 46:2) explains the alternate use of Yaakov and Israel in Scripture. When Yaakov was about to go down to Egypt, G-d addressed him by the name Yaakov: “G-d spoke unto Israel in the visions of the night and said, Yaakov, Yaakov.” It was a hint that now he would not prevail (as would be indicated by the name), but would be in a house of bondage. Indeed, several verses later Scripture states, “And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt, Yaakov and his sons . . .” Yaakov was going into exile, although his children would multiply there and become a nation.

We may also remark that a very similar verse starts the Book of Shemot, indicating that at the beginning they were considered important people, the brothers of the viceroy of Egypt, but later they were enslaved.

Ibn Ezra (Bereishit 35:10) points out that Yaakov’s name was not changed, but G-d merely added to it the name Yisrael.

The Kli Yakar notes that the name Yaakov relates to the physical while Israel relates to the spiritual. (See also Or HaChayyim ad loc. and Bereishit Rabbah 78.)

Regarding the names of the Patriarchs in the daily Shemoneh Esreh, we do use the name Avraham while we do not use the name Israel, but say Yaakov instead. One explanation given is that the phrase “Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzhak ve’Elokei Yaakov – G-d of Avraham, G-d of Yitzhak and G-d of Yaakov” consists of 26 letters, which is the numerical value of the Name of G-d. That would not be the case if we used the name “Israel.” G-d hearkens to our prayers when we say these words, for we are, in fact, calling out G-d’s Name (Ta’amei HaMinhagim, p. 42).

The Gr”a notes that there are Divine meanings hidden in our prayers, and offers the following explanation for the specific reference to our Patriarchs by name. We are taught that Avraham established the morning prayer, Shacharit; Yitzhak instituted the afternoon prayer, Mincha; and Yaakov introduced the evening prayer, Ma’ariv. The second letter of each of the Patriarchs’ names points to these prayers. The second letter of Avraham’s name is beit, representing boker, the morning prayer. The second letter of Yitzhak’s name is tzaddi, connoting tzohorayim, the midday prayer. And the second letter of Yaakov’s name is ayin, indicating erev, the evening prayer. Thus, there is an intended symbolism in referring to him as Yaakov.

It is interesting to note that the Gemara (Berachot 13a) does not mention at all the fact that Yehoshua’s name was originally Hoshea [Bin Nun], but once his name was changed, he was always called Yehoshua [strangely enough even before his name change, perhaps because Moshe wrote the Torah]. Nor does the Gemara state that it is forbidden to call him by his former name. Of course, it was Moshe Rabbeinu who changed his name in order to protect him from the wickedness of the Spies with whom he was going to tour the land of Canaan (see Rashi, Bamidbar 13:16, Parashat Shelach). And since the name change was not ordered by G-d, the Gemara does not discuss the case.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.