What’s in a Naming? by Rabbi Ezra Wiener


In Parashat VaYeitzei, Leah gives birth to four sons: Reuven, Shim’on, Leivi, and Yehudah. Rashi (BeReishit 29:34 s.v. HaPa’am Yilaveh Ishi) explains the significance of the names Leivi and Yehudah. He says that all the Imahot – matriarchs – are prophetesses and therefore know Ya’akov is destined to have 12 sons. Having four wives, that means three sons from each wife. When Leah gives birth to her third son she uses the language, “HaPa’am Yilaveh Ishi Eilay Ki Yaladeti Lo Sheloshah Vanim,” “This time my husband will be joined unto me, for I bore him three sons” (29:34). The significance of “three sons” somehow making Ya’akov “joined unto” Leah is due to the fact that she is meant to bear three sons to Ya’akov and has now done just that. She therefore names her son from the word “Yilaveh,” and calls him Leivi. On the other hand, when she bears him a fourth son, she expresses her joy by saying, “HaPa’am Odeh Et Hashem,” “This time I shall praise Hashem [for he has given me another son]” (29:35). She recognizes she has given birth to more than her share of Ya’akov’s sons and expresses her gratitude by deriving his name Yehudah from “Odeh” – I will praise.

There is, however, an incongruity in Leah’s naming of her children. When naming Reuven and Shim’on, the Torah uses the language “VaTikra” (with an Alef at the end) while when naming Yehudah it uses “Kare’ah” (with a Hey at the end). Even stranger, the language describing the naming of Leivi is “Al Kein Kara,” “He was therefore called” (29:34). Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Kara Shemo Leivi) explains the masculine/feminine discrepancy between the language used for Leivi and Yehudah, respectively, by explaining that the angel Gavriel brought Leivi the 24 gifts of Kehunah, and it was he who named Leivi, necessitating the masculine form, whereas Leah named Yehudah, hence the feminine form.

Rav Hirsch offers a more apt reading of the Pesukim that describe the naming of the first four sons of Leah. He argues that the names of Reuven, Shim’on, and Leivi reflect Leah’s dejection and her prayers that she be loved and cherished by her husband. In fact, she repeatedly declaims that the reason for her newborn son is because she is hated and hopes that perhaps this time Ya’akov will love her. Leah sees Ya’akov’s lack of response after Reuven’s birth; she then prays for a response after Shim’on’s birth, anticipating a greater degree of love. This love again fails to manifest until the birth of Leivi. As Leah declares at his birth (29:34), “Now my husband will be [finally] joined unto me.” Ya’akov at last gets the hint and pledges his love to Leah by naming her child Leivi on his own, hence the masculine “Kara.” Likewise, the declaration of gratitude in the name of Yehudah, Rav Hirsch argues, is not because Leah has received more than her share, as Rashi suggests, but rather due to a revitalization of her relationship with Ya’akov.

These Pesukim, interpreted in the manner above, provide a profound message concerning the relationship between husband and wife or parent and child by reminding us of the sensitivity we must feel and the empathy we must exhibit. This message of “Bein Adam LaChaveiro” is equally important as the message of “Bein Adam LaMakom.”

How often do we receive gifts from Hashem and neglect to express our sincerest gratitude? Hashem, so to speak, feels as Leah does with respect to our marriage to him: Maybe with this gift I have bestowed my children will at last join me in Tefillah, and perhaps even in Talmud Torah. As Leah recognizes, our children are our most precious gifts and when Hashem gives them to us he desires that we grow closer to Him as well.

Let us learn a lesson from the names of Leah’s sons and hope that we improve our appreciation and empathy toward one another and also revitalize our relationship with the Ribono Shel Olam. With this may Hashem be pleased with our gratitude for all that He has given us.

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