In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But in Jewish tradition the name has greater significance, reflecting not only a person’s destiny but his essence. There is a well-known expression in the story of Naval the Carmelite, when his wife Abigail says, “Ki kishmo kain hu, Naval shemo u’nevala imo” (“He is like his name; his name means fool, and folly goes with him”) [I Samuel 25:25].

In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob’s first 11 sons are named and each name is accompanied by the reason.

All of Jacob’s sons are considered to be righteous, but we will focus just on two of them: Simeon (Shimon) and Judah (Yehuda). The former was quite problematic, while the latter became the outstanding leader of his family.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 4:14 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 28:10-32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Sephard); 12:13-14:10 (Ashkenaz)
Havdalah: 5:15 p.m.

Jacob comes to the house of Laban, and falls in love with his younger daughter, Rachel, “beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance.” Jacob, wanting to marry Rachel, is tricked into first marrying Leah, her older sister, with Laban’s rationale is that is not customary to “give the younger before the elder.” Only after may Jacob marry Rachel.

Leah, who is said to have “weak eyes,” feels unloved, hated by comparison. God, seeing that Leah was hated [Genesis 29:31],  allows her to be fertile while Rachel remains barren. Leah, upon giving birth to her second son, declares, “Ki shama Hashem ki snuah anochi … vatikra shemo Shimon” (“Hashem has heard that I am hated … and she called her son Shimon”) [Gen. 29:33].

When Leah has her fourth son she says, “Hapa’am odeh et Hashem, al kain kar’ah shemo Yehudah” (“This time let me gratefully praise Hashem, therefore she called his name Yehuda”). The Talmud acknowledges her exemplary gratitude: “From the day the Holy One Blessed-be-He created the world, there was no one who offered thanks to Him [as did] Leah [when she] thanked Him, as it says, ‘This time let me gratefully praise Hashem’” [Gen. 29:35; Berachot 7B].

One son will go through life with the burden of a name that reflects his mother’s sense of her hated status. The other’s name reflects his mother’s totally different and positive response, that of gratitude and praise to the Creator.

Let us now view the life experiences of these two sons, much of which is found in the Midrash. We first encounter Simeon at 14 when he and his brother Levi, 13, enter the city of Shechem after their sister Dinah was kidnapped and raped by Shechem’s leader. Simeon and Levi, through an act of deception, massacre all the male inhabitants and plunder their households. They are harshly rebuked by Jacob.

Later on, when Joseph (Jacob’s favorite, causing much envy and jealousy among his brothers), approaches his brothers, it is Simeon who proposes that Joseph be killed. Simeon is the one to throw Joseph into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions. Years after, when Joseph is the viceroy in Egypt, he has Simeon held as a hostage [Gen. 42:24].

Later in the Torah, a large part of what had become the Tribe of Simeon is involved in the idolatry of Baal Peor, causing a large loss in their population as punishment. At the end of the Torah, when Moses blesses each of the tribes, he omits the Tribe of Simeon. And when the tribes are allocated lands in Canaan, Simeon is given living space within the area of the Tribe of Judah.

Contrast this with Judah. He is honored more than any of his brothers. The descendants of the Children of Israel are called Yehudim — Jews, from the name Judah (Yehuda). His brothers appoint Judah as their leader. At the pit, he saves the life of Joseph, thwarting Simeon’s plan. Judah confesses his relationship with his daughter-in-law Tamar which he could easily have concealed, sparing her from an unjust death. He is sent ahead by his father to Egypt, where Rashi tells us he established a house of study in Goshen. Jacob, in his final blessings to his sons, says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.” Centuries later, ten of the tribes disappear into exile, leaving only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. King David descended from Judah and all the future kings (including the Messiah) will come out of this dynasty.

When a family is blessed with a newborn, traditionally a name is given within the first eight days. Often a name of a relative or an admired person is given with the hope that this child will carry some of the positive aspects of the one for whom the baby is named, while the child at the same time carves out his/her unique gifts given by the Creator. However, we have all witnessed the giving of a name that appears to be totally inappropriate and thoughtless. The stories of Judah and Simeon may give pause to those taking that path. 

Fred Ehrman has held leadership positions in various Jewish organizations, is honorary vice president of the Orthodox Union and is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily study of the Talmud.