The Power of a Name

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Sam Englender

In Bava Metzia 58B we find the following statement of Rabbi Hanina:

 כל היורדין לגיהנם עולים חוץ משלשה שיורדין ואין עולין

ואלו הן הבא על אשת איש והמלבין פני חבירו ברבים והמכנה שם רע לחברו

Rabbi Chanina said: All who descend to Gehinnom ascend from there (all wicked individuals who are sentenced to Gehinnom will eventually emerge after the time they served based on their respective sins) besides for three, which are: One who commits adultery with a married woman, one who shames his friend publicly, and one who calls his friend an offensive nickname.

There is a lot to discuss in Rabbi Chanina’s statement: What is the function of Gehinnom? Is it a literal place? Do the three exceptions mentioned above have a thematic connection? I am particularly interested, however, in the final example: What exactly is it about giving someone an offensive nickname that merits such a terrifying end?

First, let’s look at the Shulchan Aruch’s codification of Rabbi Chanina’s statement:

יזהר שלא לכנות שם רע לחבירו אע”פ שהוא רגיל באותו כנוי אם כוונתו לביישו אסור

One must take care not to call one’s friend an offensive nickname. Even if the individual is accustomed to being called this name, if one’s intention is to shame him, this is forbidden. (Choshen Mishpat 228:19)

It seems clear that the Shulchan Aruch sees the core sin to be that of shaming or embarrassing one’s fellow. From this, the last two of R’ Chanina’s statements would really seem to belong to one overarching category. However, if giving someone an offensive nickname is really just a subset of the prohibition of shaming someone, then why did R’ Chanina feel the need to single it out as a separate sin worthy in and of itself of earning the sinner an eternity in Gehinnom?

We may find some help in understanding the seriousness of this prohibition by looking at two other texts in our tradition in which name changes have special significance, one of which connects directly to our parasha.

During a discussion in masechet Rosh HaShannah 16B concerning various aspects of judgment, we find the following statement by Rabbi Yitzhak:

אמר רבי יצחק: ד’ דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם, ואלו הן : צדקה, צעקה, שינוי השם ושינוי מעשה… וכתיב וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתְּךָ֔ לֹא־תִקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ שָׂרָ֑י כִּ֥י שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמָֽהּ וּבֵרַכְתִּ֣י אֹתָ֔הּ וְגַ֨ם נָתַ֧תִּי מִמֶּ֛נָּה לְךָ֖ בֵּ֑ן

Rabbi Yitzhak said: A person’s (punitive) sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions. These are: Giving charity, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds… (an allusion may be found in Scripture for all of them) A change of name: as it is written: “. . . Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her and I will also give you a son from her” (Bereshit 17:15-16)

Rabbi Yitzhak states that changing one’s name has the power to cancel a person’s heavenly decree for the coming year. We might think that changing one’s name is a superficial act, perhaps even a superstitious one. Yet it is clear that our tradition does not see it this way. Through changing one’s name, one makes an active choice to distance oneself from one’s past self. The Rambam makes this explicit when he speaks of the power of a name change in his laws on repentance.

מדרכי התשובה… משנה שמו כלומר אני אחר ואיני אותו האיש שעשה אותן המעשים

Among the ways of teshuva… and to change his name, meaning to say, “I am someone else and I am not the same person who did those things (sinful acts). (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4)

Through this lens, we see that Rabbi Chanina’s prohibition against derogatory nicknames is much more than an example of how someone might embarrass his friend. In calling someone a name that he has not chosen for himself, we impose an identity upon him and take away his own ability to define who he is or might someday be.

In this week’s parasha, we witness the changing of Avram’s and Sarai’s names. This event is a conscious act by G-d intended to introduce Avraham and Sarah into the world in new roles, Avraham as אב המון גוים (the father of many nations) and Sarah as the bearer of Yitzhak, and therefore the progenitor of the Jewish people. It is clear here that a name is of great significance. It is not simply a useful tool to distinguish one person from another, but a powerful marker of identity.

Naming, as evidenced by our Torah, is a G-dly act. This is why Adam HaRishon’s naming of all of the creatures in Gan Eden was such a significant moment; it was a demonstration that just as G-d is able to impart names unto the world, so too can man. So when parents name their children, they are imitating G-d, imparting on their child an identity that will be carried with them throughout their life. And this is the reason why the Talmud tells us that inflicting an unwanted nickname on a friend is such a grievous act, In doing so we are using our God-like ability of creation to form a negative reality.

Sam Englender (SBM 2015) and is a second year Semicha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.



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