The Mishnah (Ketubot 104b) discusses two prominent judges in Yerushalayim who issued decrees with which the Chachamim disagreed. Their names were Admon and Chanan ben Avishalom. Fascinatingly, Tosafot (ibid. s.v. “Shnei”) cites a Gemara (Yoma 38) to address the latter’s name. The Gemara, based on the Pasuk of “VeSheim Resha’im Yirkav,”“the name of the wicked shall rot,” (Mishlei 10:7) explains that people should not be named after the wicked. Thus, the judge was named Avishalom instead of Avshalom, an individual known to have been categorized as a Rasha. (As per the opinion of R. Meir that he does not have a portion in the World to Come.) Thus, we see that names are significant.
In Parashat Va’era, the Torah states, “UBnei Shimon Yemu’el Ve’Ohad VeYamin VeYachin VeTzochar VeShaul ben HaKena’anit Aileh Mishpechot Shimon,”“the sons of Shimon: Yemu’el, and Ohad and Yamin and Yachin and Tzochar and Shaul the son of the Cana’anite, these are the families of Shimon” (Shemot 6:15). Targum Yonatan Ben Uzziel (ibid.) comments that “Shaul the son of the Cana’anite” was actually the Nasi of Shimon, Zimri Ben Salu, who was later killed by Pinchas for having relations with Cozbi in Sefer BeMidbar. This has basis in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 82b), which explainsthat Zimri was called Shaul because he lent himself to sinful matters, and “Ben HaCana’anit” due to the fact that he performed a “Ma’aseh Cana’an” (the Canaanim were known for their licentiousness).
Given the concept of “VeSheim Resha’im Yirkav,” how was there a king named Shaul later in Tanach? Many Acharonim attempt to answer this question. R. Aharon Shmuel Assad zt’l answers, based on the Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 98), that Shaul HaMelech was named Shaul due to the fact that his Malchut was “She’ulah,” “borrowed.” (It would eventually be replaced with the Malchut Yehuda.) He was not named after the Shaul in Sefer Shemot. However, R. Yehuda Assad zt’l, the son of R’ Aharon Shmuel Assad, takes issue with his father’s approach; after all, Shaul’s father could not have known that Shaul’s Malchut would be “borrowed.” R. Yehuda Assad proposes a different solution. The concept of “VeSheim Resha’im Yirkav” was introduced only in Sefer Mishlei, during the era of Shlomo HaMelech. This rule did not apply to prior generations.
Another approach is suggested by the Or HaChaim Hakadosh (BeMidbar 26:13). The Torah (BeMidbar 25:14) records that “VeSheim Ish Yisrael HaMukeh Asher Hukah Et HaMidyanit Zimri Ben Salu Nesi Beit Av LeShimoni,” “the name of the Yisrael who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, leader of a house of Shimon.” This implies that Zimri was forgiven-- he is referred to as an “Ish Yisrael.”Thus, it is completely permissible to name a child “Shaul.”
However, the Chatam Sofer views the name Shaul in a negative light. In his Sefer “Tiv Gittin,” he documents a personal custom to replace the name “Shaul” on a Get (divorce document) with “Sho’al.” (Note from Rabbi Jachter: This is not the practice of contemporary Get administrators.) The Chatam Sofer cites I Shmuel 1:20, where Chana names her son Shmuel. Her stated reason for her choice of name was “Ki MeiHashem She’iltiv,” “I asked Hashem for him.” Now, if that was really Chana’s reason for naming her son Shmuel, why wouldn’t she name him Shaul, a more direct conjugation of the root “ask.” Why did she opt to insert a letter ‘Mem’ into his name? The Chatam Sofer explains that she could not have named him Shaul due to the fact that the name once belonged to a Rasha.
Overall, the entire discussion sheds light on the importance of names throughout the Torah. A name is a person’s identity and reputation. May we merit living up to our names and reputations.