Understanding Names

Ketubot (13:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 15 years ago

The thirteenth and final perek of ketubot opens with mentioning two judges in Yerushalaim and the number of instances in which they differed in their rulings from the Chachamim. The Mishnayot continue by listing each of those cases. The names of these dayanei gezeirot were Admon and Chanan ben Avishalom.

Rabbeinu Tam (Tosfot s.v. shnei) asserts that the name of the second judge must read Chanan ben Avishalom as apposed to Chanan ben Avshalom. The rational presented appears to be as follows: Firstly, according to R’ Meir (Sanhedrin 103b) Avshalom (from sefer Shmuel) has no place in the world to come. This would qualify him as a rasha. Secondly, the Gemara Yoma (38b), quoting the pasuk “The name of the wicked will rot” (Mishlei 10:7) explains that we do not use the names of reshaim when naming children.30 Consequently, the person cited in this Mishnah cannot be named Chanan ben Avshalom.31

At first glance this line of reasoning may appear a little strange. The Rabbeinu Tam stated with absolute confidence as to the correct version of the Mishnah just because it was not appropriate to give a child the same name as rasha? Maybe his parents made a mistake? How could Rabbeinu Tam make this claim with such certainty?

A closer reading of the above Gemara Yoma sheds much light on the reasoning of Rabbeinu Tam and on names in general. There the Gemara continues by questioning this idea that we do not use the names of reshaim when naming children. It follows with a story of an young child name Doeg the same name as the rasha in sefer Shmuel. The response of the Gemara is to focus on the end of the story, where the child suffered an unfortunate end.

Rabbeinu Channanel provides a tremendous explanation to the above dialogue. The Gemara is not telling us that it is not the “proper thing” to give the child the same name as a rasha. Nor is avoiding giving the child that name a round-a-bout way of trying to punish the rasha. Rabbeinu Channanel explains that this Gemara is teaching us that the implication of “the name of the righteous will rot” is that a person with such a name cannot succeed.

In Jewish thought names are not just agreed referential tools. A name rather reveals much about the essence and potential of the named object or person.32 For example, the Ohr Gedalyahu explains that Adam’s task, when naming the animals, was to identify their very essence. Naming a child is a difficult task and heavenly assistance is provided when doing so. Giving a child a name of a rasha, a “rotting” name, would significantly and negatively impact that child.

This explains why Rabbeinu Tam was so adamant that the dayan, this giant in the judicial system, was named Chanan ben Avishalom. For such a position to be held by a person named Chanan ben Avshalom would have been impossible.33


30 This is Rashi’s explanation of the phrase “לא מסקינן בשמייהו”. Rashi also explains that “the names of the wicked will rot” as they will not be used and waste away as an iron utensil slowly rusts away when left idle. The Maharsha explains that the idea presented in the Gemara is learnt since the pasuk after mentioning “the memory of the righteous is blessed” makes reference specifically to the name of the wicked and not just their memory.

31 The Rabbeinu Tam does continue by bringing a source for the name Avishalom.

32 For example, see Gemara Yoma 83b where the R’ Meir was rightly cautious in his dealings with an individual, because of his name. See also Sichat Mussar (60)

33 One could suggest an alternative reason could simply be that as we avoid mentioning the names of reshaim had his name be Chanan ben Avshalam then the Mishnah would have just written the name Chanan. (This is the case on other instances where a parent is a rasha.) Yet this line of reasoning would imply that Chanan’s father would have been a rasha and not simply shared the name with that rasha.

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