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Speaking to the Soul: What’s in a Name?

Speaking to the Soul: What’s in a Name?

by Linda McMillan


Each of us has a name… At least one


So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. Numbers 6


O Lord… how exalted is your Name in all the world! Psalm 8


God… gave him the name that is above every name. Philippians 2


… He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. Luke 2


What’s in a name? A lot, actually. Ephraim Speiser says that among the first humans, “Names were regarded not only as labels but also as symbols, magical keys, as it were, to the nature and essence of the given being or thing.”


Later, kabbalists would explain it by examining the Hebrew word for soul, neshamah, and noting that the two middle letters are shin and mem which make the Hebrew word shem. Shem which is the word for name. Thus, they say that your name is the key to your soul. Additionally, shem has the same numerical value as safer, the Hebrew word for book. So, you could also say that each name is a book about that person. So, even though we no longer have prophets emerging from their caves to predict the future, we still have these little prophecies called names.


I once knew a man who refused to name his son. I am not sure how they handled it with the birth certificate, but for the several years that I was acquainted with the family the boy was called simply, “The Kid.” It was thought that he would choose his own name when he was older. Later a former colleague told me that just before entering kindergarten “The Kid” had chosen the name “Mister Sam” and that — at age six, mind you — he refused to be called anything other than “Mister Sam.” I never found out how they handled that either, but there is a reason we don’t let children name themselves.


Islamic tradition teaches that it is a father’s duty to give his child a good name. Indeed, most parents — not my friend above, but most parents — spend a lot of time thinking about what to name their child. A quick Google search of “Baby Name Books” reveals hundreds of titles. There are specialized titles too, like boy names, and girl names, the meaning of Hindu names, biblical names, Christian  names, and top baby names, because you wouldn’t want to give your child a low-ranked baby name, right? And, Heaven forfend you should accidentally choose a boy name for your girl child or vice-versa. I mean, who ever heard of a boy named Sue?


If your parents didn’t give you a name that seems to fit, you can always change it. Most people know that the heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay changed his name to Mouhammed Ali, but did you know that for awhile he was known as Cassius X? Names are not set in stone. In fact, it’s likely that by the end of your life you will have picked up a few additional names. The Midrash teaches that we have three names:  the one our parents give us, the one that people call us, and the one that we somehow get for ourselves. I remember not knowing exactly how to feel about it when I discovered that some of my students called me Professor McGonnagall  behind my back. She is a witch after all! But, that’s one of the names people call me, albeit behind my back. I remembered that I had named certain of my own teachers and didn’t judge my students too harshly for it. We are namers, after all. It’s in the human DNA.


Naming is one of the unique ways in which humans bear the image of God. No other creature does it, not even angels. It is said that after creating all the animals, God took them to the angels and the angels could not name them. Then he took them to Adam who was able to perceive their essential nature and name them. Women do it a lot too. Even though there are a lot of places in the Bible where the women were not named, there are places where it’s clear that women were the namers.  “Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, the daughter of Shua (Judah’s wife), and Tamar are all involved in the naming of their children. In a number of cases, the child is named after a prophecy or utterance made by its mother.”


Just as God brought order to chaos by naming, so we order our lives by naming, and the names we choose matter. Every day we choose which names we will use for ourselves and for one another. We name our families, colleagues, those in government, and others who have somehow caught our attention. We name them friends, lovers, pals… superstars, traitors, idiots.


When God called the world into being, she named the sea the sea and not the sludge, and the sky the sky, and not the smog. In the same way we can call forth  peace or chaos, integrity or dissolution. We can choose, like Adam, to look into the essential nature of the other and see an image of God, or we can resort to the same old other-naming that has had humanity in knots since the dawning of awareness.


Today we remember the name of Jesus. His life is proof that God is really with us. In humanity, God saw enough of himself that he became one of us. If God — the most different, more other than any other — can find common cause with us, recognizing in us a part of himself, then why can’t we find common cause with one another?


Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents. Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and given by what we wear.
Each of us has a name given by the mountains and given by our walls.
Each of us has a name given by the stars and given by our neighbors.
Each of us has a name given by our sins and given by our longing.
Each of us has a name given by our enemies and given by our love.
Each of us has a name given by our celebrations and given by our work.
Each of us has a name given by the seasons and given by our blindness.
Each of us has a name given by the sea and given by our death. 



(Zelda, “Each Man Has a Name,” as adapted by Marcia Falk in The Book of Blessings, New York: Harper Collins, 1996, p. 106ff.)



Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China. Home of the pufferfish.


Image: letters of the Hebrew alphabet


Some Notes of Possible Interest



There are a couple of these Anchor commentaries that are really worth keeping close by. I like this one, and I also like the three volumes on the Psalter by Mitchell Dahood.


In Islamic tradition children can demand three things of their father:  A good name, a good education, and help in choosing an appropriate mate. Wasail al-shiah, v. 104 (The Wasail al-Shiah is a book of Islamic hadith, or stories. It was compiled in the 17th century. I don’t think you can get it online, but you can read more about it here.)


“A Boy Named Sue” is a song written by Shel Silverstein that was made popular by Johnny Cash. You can hear it here.



Bamidbar Rabbah tells a great story about how God took all the animals before the heavenly hosts and they couldn’t name them, but when he took the animals to Adam he was able to look into their essential nature and come up with a name for them. Then Adam names himself, and he names God too. We might spend a great deal of time thinking about what it means that God is willing to be named by us!
You can read about the three names in Tanhuma, Vayakhel.
Professor McGonnagal is one of the professors in the Harry Potter series of books. She has a stern demeanor, but a soft heart. Oh, and she can turn herself into a cat, which is not a bad trick for a teacher.


The quoted material which begins with a list of women who named their own children is from Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, by Jane Rachel Litman,  Jewish Lights, 1997. Yes, you can get it for your Kindle.

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Leslie Scoopmire

There is a beautiful song similar to the prayer at the end of the post from the album Zero Church by Maggie and Suzzy Roche. The video can be found on YouTube at It’s a fantastic album, by the way.


For future comment approval, please follow the posted comment policy of using your first & last names. -ed

I was named after my father’s former girl friend, whom I did not meet until his funeral. She was a kind, gentle and sweet person.

Nancy Shaw

My best name is when my grandkids call me Nana. I went through a lot to earn this honorific!

Michael Floyd

Just a nit-picking quibble. Hebrew reads from right to left, so the two letters above should be reversed in order to spell out the word for “name.”

David Allen

They are correct because Ann changed the image today. They were reversed originally.

Linda McMillan

The letters above are in the right order.

Ann Fontaine

Thanks I thought I had them that way.

Ann Fontaine

I changed the image – thanks Michael.

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