Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemoth

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.

Parashat Shemoth 5759/1999

What's in a Name? --"And These are the Names"

Prof. Elazar Tuito

Dept. of Bible

"A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months" (Ex. 2:1-2). We read these verses and are left wondering: why doesn't Scripture continue, in its usual fashion, "The woman conceived and bore a son, and called him..." How did the mother call her newborn child? And what was his mother's name? And who was his father? Scripture leaves all this obscure.

As the story develops, we realize that his sister, too, is not explicitly named, nor is the woman who saved this Hebrew child from the Nile introduced by name; rather, she is referred to simply as "Pharaoh's daughter." The only explicit name given in the story appears in verse 10: "When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, 'I drew him out of the water.'"

It is highly unlikely that Pharaoh's daughter knew Hebrew, for if so, she would surely have called the child Mashui, using the passive form of the verb 'to draw water', not Moshe (Moses), which is an active form; for the child 'was drawn out' of the water and did not draw out others. Indeed, early commentators (such as Ibn Ezra) as well as modern ones (the Netziv) surmised that Moshe is not a Hebrew word, rather an Egyptian one, and that the Torah found a connection between the sound of the Egyptian word Moshe and the meaning of the Hebrew verb m-sh-h.

Perhaps this can help us understand the purpose of this story. The Bible apparently wanted our first encounter with the person destined to remove his people from the difficult exile in Egypt to be special and focused exclusively on him. As the Torah generally ascribes great importance to the names given to people and to the meaning of names, we should understand that the Bible's disregard of any previous names of Moses and the names of all the other people involved in the saga intends to lay great emphasis on the symbolism of the name "Moses" and the significance of the act of naming itself. This baby had previous Hebrew names (cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 166); his parents and sister had names, of course; but all these names belong to the past, to the period of exile. The Bible wishes to make us sense the future and the approaching redemption; this is accomplished by calling the person destined to liberate the Israelites by a new name which symbolizes the future liberation and redemption: Moses is the man destined to draw his people out of slavery and exile, just as he was drawn out from the water and saved.

The message embedded in the name and in the naming is paralleled further on in our Parasha. When Moses attempted to avoid accepting responsibility for the mission to redeem Israel, he argued, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (Ex. 3:13).

Could Moses have meant this literally, that the Israelites did not know the name of the G-d of their forefathers? Is it conceivable that the Israelites in Egypt had forgotten the name of the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Certainly Moses himself knew the answer to the question the Israelites might ask? Moreover, even if Moses were to utter the name of G-d to the Israelites, would this suffice to convince them that he, Moses, had been appointed to redeem them?

Here, too, Scripture speaks to us in hints and implications. Moses was commanded to answer the Israelites as follows: "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Eh-yeh sent me to you.'" The tetragrammaton or holy name of G-d combines four letters which include the forms of the verb h-y-h, "to be," in the past, present and future: hayah, hoveh, yi-hi-yeh. In G-d's first revelation to him, Moses was told that the Holy One, blessed be He, had decided to switch the course of Israelite history, turning it in a new direction: His relationship toward them would now follow the trait embodied in the name Eh-yeh ("I shall be") based on the future tense: no more of the dreadful past, rather a future bearing the hope of liberation. Both G-d's "new" name as well as that of Moses herald the story of the Exodus in the chapters to come.