The power of a name

By Candace R. Kwiatek

Children of the Bible Series

Candace R. Kwiatek

In the widely acclaimed musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, lyricist Tim Rice enumerates a well-known series of biblical children, ending with: “Jacob, Jacob and sons, Benjamin and Judah, which leaves only one, Joseph – Jacob’s favorite son…”

As you can imagine, most of the photos in this family’s album focus on the favored Joseph, but it’s a single baby picture of Benjamin that first catches the eye.

The caption underneath reads simply, “(Rachel) called his name Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin (Gen. 35:18).”

Dying in childbirth, Rachel understandably names him “son of my sorrow.” But Jacob creates a different aura by renaming him Ben-yamin, variously interpreted as “son of the right hand,” meaning a favored son; “son of the right side,” reflecting a wish for strength and virtue; and “son of the south,” referring to his birth in Canaan rather than Mesopotamia like his brothers.

Alternately, the Samaritan Pentateuch spells his name Ben Yamim (“son of days”), apparently referring to Jacob’s advanced age when he was born, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia.

This snapshot of baby Benjamin with its single verse caption highlights an important Jewish value echoed throughout the Bible: names are important.

In the beginning, God “names” creation into existence: “Let there be light.” God uses names to show relationships, calling the first human “Adam” to denote his connection to the earth (adamah). God expands Avram’s name to Avraham to reflect the multitudes (hamon) of his future descendants and changes Jacob’s name to Israel (Yisra-el) to reflect his struggle with God.

“(Names) have power,” writes Chris Giovagnoni, author of The importance of names.  “They’re more than a bunch of letters grouped together to sound pleasant to the ear. Names are more than a convenience allowing us to talk to each other…They define things. They define us.”

What comes to mind when you hear the name Dr. Oz?  President Obama? Mr. Rogers?  Princess Kate?

Emotions may kick in. An image forms behind your eyes.  You smile, frown, roll your eyes, sigh. That’s the power of a name.

It “establishes (a) distinctive identity and existence in the scheme of things,” writes Murali Nair in The Importance of Being Known by Your Name.  “Therefore, a name is the very base of the beingness of something.”

So back to the biblical Benjamin. What reaction would the name Ben-oni have encouraged, and what kind of adult might a Ben-oni have become?

Viewed as a poor, disadvantaged, motherless child — to be babied, pampered, and indulged — he might have turned into a self-absorbed, demanding, helpless, pitiable adult.

Instead, he inherited a joyful name that embodied a relationship with this father, a set of positive characteristics, and a connection to the land of his birth. A name embodies one’s very state of being. They should be treated with utmost care.

Names reflect values. I recently met a fascinating man from West Africa who explained the Yoruba tradition of naming by lineage and recent family events.

His name Olatunji reflects his tribal connection (Ola) and the financial revival of his father in the year before his birth (tunji,  everything is back).

Traditional Jewish practice is to give children Hebrew names that reflect lineage to parents (preceded by ben or bat, son or daughter, respectively), to ancestors (through first names), and to tribe, a tradition the rabbis of the Talmud suggest was the secret to Israelite survival as a distinct entity in Egypt.

Names can reflect the importance of historical, cultural, and family connections.

Names can also reflect a desire for peer acceptance, an emphasis on creativity, an expression of personality, a rejection of tradition, or the influence of popular culture.

Names reflect relationships.  When I was growing up, adults were never called by their first names, and that included teachers.

Titles such as Mom and Dad, Mr. and Mrs., and perhaps “Aunt” and “Uncle” for close adult friends were the rule, a tradition I followed with my own children.

Peers were called by their names, first or last, or the occasional nickname. Society’s hierarchy — persons of authority, seniors, adults, and youngsters — was clearly reflected in the language, a significant factor in the cultivation of respect.

Modern monikers — such as the b-word now common between friends, on television, and even in greeting cards — would have been considered degrading and rude. Calling the president of the United States “dude” would have been deemed more than a little insolent.

Names reflect expectations.  You’ve probably heard labels like “the nerd,” “the troublemaker,” or “the wallflower.”

Unfortunately, such epithets become self-fulfilling prophecies. “When you call your child an ‘idiot,’” writes Dr. Debby Hirschhorn in Verbal Abuse & Name Calling Are No Big Deal, Or Are They??, “the child learns, ‘I am an idiot.’ At that moment, all other doors close for that child. The door to success slams shut. The door to happiness slams shut. The door to loving or even liking himself or herself slams shut. The door to being smart, capable, talented, slams shut. You, the parent, shut it. You taught your child that he IS an idiot.”

It’s not that difficult to find a desirable quality in everyone. After all, Jacob managed to do so for his son even while suffering the loss of his beloved Rachel. How are your expectations reflected in the names by which you call others?

A single baby picture. A one-line caption. Two names. What can the infant Benjamin teach us about living, parenting, and relating to one another?

Family Discussion: According to Rabbi Berel Wein in The Importance of Names in Judaism, there is a Kabalistic prayer tradition of reciting a Bible verse containing one’s name or its first and last letters in order to be remembered even in the hereafter: “For in our name lies our soul and self.” What do you think this tradition means?


Literature to share

Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Moinar: Although written for the upper elementary set, Red Sky offers an engaging and informative child’s eye view of an historical era that is sure to please all ages. Memorable characters and vivid imagery make this a book you won’t want to put down – even at the end.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks: The Pulitzer Prize-winning Brooks again turns her focus to America as she weaves her fictional magic around a little-known event of the first Native American’s graduation from Harvard in the late 17th century. Faith, culture, and relationships are all fair game for this masterful storyteller. A perfect summer read.


Candace R. Kwiatek is a writer, educator, and consultant in Jewish and secular education.


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