Our sages teach that when a person leaves this world, “the Angel of Death smites his grave and says: ‘Arise and tell me your name.’ If he has forgotten it, he is placed on trial.”

This account gives rise to a number of questions. Why doesn’t the Angel of Death ask what the deceased accomplished during his life? Why doesn’t he examine the quality of his deeds? Why is recalling one’s name so crucial? And what could cause the deceased to forget his name?

To answer these questions, we must first embark on a fascinating journey into the exciting world of Hebrew letters and words. Hebrew names are not merely combinations of letters, but rather intricately designed conveyors of Divine emanation. As the deeper meanings of these remarkable entities are revealed, breathtaking panoramas unfold and vast storehouses of knowledge open before us.

The Divine Nature of Given Names

The Zohar mentions the rule known as “names have an effect,” either positive or negative. The letters of the names not only conceal supernal secrets, but they themselves may bring about the revelation of these secrets.

The Gaon of Vilna explained this rule to mean that one’s name affects the nature of his predetermined mission. This insight is very important, because once a person understands that his name is Gd-given, and corresponds to his particular characteristics and mission, he will have a permanent sense of his identity, and never worry that others might encroach upon his domain.

That a person’s name is predetermined does not, of course, affect his free will. The very principle of free will is an integral part of Hebrew linguistics. Many Hebrew words contain the same letters, but assume opposite meanings and connotations when the order of their letters is changed.

The Midrash takes us a step further, offering us an even deeper insight into the principle of free will. The Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Vayakhel) informs us that every human being actually has three names: “One name is that which was given to him by his parents. The second is the one by which his friends know him. The third is that which he acquires on his own, and is superior to all his other names.” In other words, the “name” formulated by his actions is more significant than any other name by which he may be known.

The Importance of a Name

Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson wrote a notable treatise on the topic of Pesah, in which he elaborates on the import and significance of a Hebrew name. These are his words:

The main life-force of a person is via his name, and derives from his name. It is true, of course, that one does not consciously recognize the connection between himself and his name, and it seems to make no difference to him if his given name is Reuven or Shimon. The truth is, however, that there are inner and essential consequences of different names. The name Reuven, for instance, was originally given by Leah to her and Yaakov’s oldest son because [she said], “Gd has seen my affliction” (Beresheet 29:32), while the next son was named Shimon on account of [her saying], “Gd heard that I was hated” (ibid. 33). Just as the sources of their names are so different, the service of Gd that is expected of them, or of anyone with those names, is inherently different. The way of Reuven is through love and devotion, deriving from the clarity that comes from “seeing the glory of the King.” This is a service of Gd that is carried out from “up close,” so-to-speak. Shimon, on the other hand, serves Gd through fear and awe, from afar, as is implied by the act of hearing. This difference between them is intrinsic to their very natures… Furthermore, the life-force of a Reuven, representing “vision,” derives from the aspect of knowledge (hochmah), while the source of Shimon‘s vitality is in the trait of understanding (binah). It is thus clear that one’s name is intrinsically bound with one’s source; his name is given him in accordance with his essential nature, according to which is his form of service to Hashem.

Biblical Names

Kabbalistic writings teach that individuals who are named after our forefathers share certain characteristics with them. Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch, addressed this point in his work Maggid Mesharim:

The Talmud (Berachot 7b) teaches that there is great significance in Biblical names, such that one who is named Avraham inclines towards deeds of kindness, while one named Yosef may be either one of great self-control, or one who supports others, etc. Even a wicked person who has the name of a tzaddik has a tendency towards the positive traits exemplified by that righteous individual.

The saintly Noam Elimelech explains how one of the prime factors in an individual’s spiritual level, which may even determine whether he can become a tzaddik, is his name:

Hashem has decreed that there be a certain amount of Reuvens in the world, a certain amount of Shimons, etc. When one gives his son the name of a tzaddik of previous generations, the light of that tzaddik shines in the upper worlds, and causes the newly-named child to be similarly righteous.

Our sages teach us that a Heavenly Voice called out that a man named Shemuel would arise who would achieve the level of prophecy. Although this referred to the prophet Samuel, many newborn sons were thereupon named Shmuel, all of whom later reached the level of prophecy. In fact, these were the band of prophets with whom the future King Shaul joined in prophecy (Samuel I 10:10). This shows us how a common spiritual source can be traced to a common name, signifying a particular trait of the higher spheres.

Rav Menachem Schlesinger, in his work Hidon HaGeulah, continues this thought and points out that throughout the generations, certain individuals have arisen who have attempted to rescue Israel from their troubles, but the only ones who achieved any success were those whose names were David. As examples, he mentions David Alroi (12th century, Kurdistan) and David Reuveni (16th century, Venice). Furthermore, David ben Gurion, who certainly did not have the merit of Torah observance on his side, scored great political and military success on behalf of the Jewish people by virtue of his name David. How much more so can we expect the Messiah David himself to perform great miracles on our behalf!

Moshe Maimonides, known as the Rambam, is another perfect example of a man who, with the help of his name, was able to reach extraordinary achievements. It was aptly said about him, “From Moshe [Rabbenu] until Moshe [the Rambam], none arose like Moshe.” His magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, is similar to the life-work of Moshe Rabbenu, in that they are both clear presentations of the laws of the Torah.

Some seven centuries after the Rambam, a great rabbi by the name of Moshe Sofer (the renowned Hatam Sofer) arose as a leader of the Jewish people. It was then said about him, “From Moshe [the Rambam] until Moshe [Sofer] none arose like Moshe.” Similarly, the greatness of the famed Ben Ish Chai, named Yosef Chaim, has been partially attributed to his namesake, Yosef haTzaddik. Many great rabbis through the generations have been named Moshe, Yaakov, Aharon, and the like, passing down the greatness of their namesakes through the generations.

The Prophecy in a Name

In Sefer Hagilgulim, the Arizal says that the name a person is given at birth is the name written on the heavenly Throne of Honor, from which his soul was hewn. He further explains that the name given to a child is not a random choice, but is rather purposefully placed in the mouths of his parents by Hashem, and is the name of the child’s pure soul.

The Arizal also writes, however (and this concept also appears in several contexts in the Zohar), that every individual has an additional name which stems from the forces of impurity. He is bidden to identify this evil force and to remove it from his pure soul. There are those who earn the merit to know their negative names; meaning, they recognize their faults and know what they must combat within their personalities. Others, however, are oblivious to their task in life, and are punished at their graveside for not “knowing their name.”

The Bene Yissaschar elaborates further on this second name given to each Jew:

In addition to the name that each Jew receives in holiness, the “sitra ahara” (the Satanic forces of the “other side”) gives him another name. For a person is pulled in the direction that his name leads him. The name is like the handle of a jug; just as the vessel follows in the direction in which the handle is pulled, so, too, the name that is given will determine the direction of the whole body, including its strengths and tendencies.

Similarly, the Agra d’Kála (Lech Lecha 83a) writes:

Every soul which descends from heaven into a body is accompanied by an animal-like soul. Every man has a name, which corresponds to that of his Divine soul, and is the one Gd causes his parents to select. He also has a name which corresponds to that of the sitra ahara, and manifests itself in a different letter combination or order.

When a person is drawn to his pure soul, its name becomes his main one, and will not separate from him even after he dies. But if he is pulled towards his animal-like soul, then the negative aspect of his name gains primacy. During his lifetime, he recalls the holy name given to him by his parents, but forgets it immediately upon his death. But he does not know his other name either, because he never heard it used during his lifetime. That is why he cannot answer the question of the Angel of Death.

The righteous, who can transform bitter to sweet, can similarly cause their animal-like soul to become totally good, and their negative name to make way for the positive one. Hashem alluded to this in His blessing to Avraham, “I will enhance your name” (Beresheet 12:2). Furthermore, this is the inner meaning of the sages’ remark that the Children of Israel did not change their names while in servitude in Egypt.

Many of the nations who hosted us during our exile were only too aware of the power of our names, and tried unyieldingly to force us to change them to their advantage. Pharaoh, for instance, changed the name of his viceroy, Yosef, and Nevuchadnetzar gave Daniel a Babylonian name. The Tanhuma explains that the name of the architect of the Tabernacle, Betzalel, implies that he was in the “shadow of Gd,” and therefore knew the secrets of building the holy structure (Berachot 55a). By virtue of his actions, he merited the privilege of “acquiring” the name that was given him at birth in its deepest sense.

Choosing a Name

The Talmud (Yoma 38b) teaches that one should not give a child the name of a wicked person. The story is recounted there of a certain child named Doeg – the same name as an evil man who lived during the time of King David – and the child was cruelly killed. Some later authorities extended this recommendation to other names with negative implications. The Maharshal, for example, wrote that one should not give his child the name of anyone who was tragically killed, and thus the name Yeshaya – the name of the  prophet who, according to tradition, was executed by King Menashe– should not be given unless the letter vav is added (to form “Yeshayahu”). The Bet Shemuel wrote that one should not spell his name Akiva with the letter alef at the end, as this is the spelling of the name of the great Talmudic figure Rabbi Akiva, who was tortured and executed by the Romans.

Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid writes of the profound effect that one’s name has upon him:

One’s name can act powerfully upon him, both positively and negatively. Anyone who is named after certain people will attain great heights and enjoy success, just as Yaakov blessed his grandsons, “Let my name, and the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak, be called upon them” (Beresheet 48:16). It is similarly written, “Just as the new skies and the new earth which I have created stand before Me, so shall your seed and your name” (Yeshayahu 66: 22). It is further written, “I have called you by your name; you are Mine” (ibid. 43:1).

We thus see that anyone carrying the name of certain worthy people will live and have generations of descendants. But there are those of the opposite quality… One should therefore pray that anyone who is named for him should have positive traits.

(Sefer Hassidim, 244)

Changing a Name

It is possible for one to reverse a decree of death to change his fate by changing his name. The Sefer Hassidim continues:

If one was decreed to die, even if he has reached the gates of death, he may be given a new name and then live. For instance, the son of Boaz and Ruth was called “son of Naomi” in the belief that because the previous sons of Boaz had died, a different name would enable the newborn to escape the decree. Similarly, if one’s son is dangerously near death, it is permissible for a friend to symbolically “buy” the son for a token price, as if to say he is no longer the son of X, but of Y, and to thereby cause one’s evil decree to be annulled; this is not considered forbidden superstition or magic.

The concept of changing one’s fate by changing his name appears already in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b):

Rabbi Yitzchak said: Four things cause one’s evil decree to be annulled: charity, prayer, change of name, and change in deeds. We learn that a change of name affects the decree from the verse, “Gd said to Avraham: Sarai, your wife, shall no longer be called Sarai, but rather Sarah.”

The Semag writes that a penitent may change his name to make the statement that he is no longer the person who sinned, but rather a new person. This is also cited in the name of Rabbenu Nissim. A new name for a penitent or for one who was ill was customarily chosen by opening a Torah scroll or Bible, and picking the first name written on the right side of the page. Rabbi Yossi MiTrani, in his 17th-century work of responsa, wrote that one should not choose a name from before the times of Avraham. Rabbi Yishmael of Bruna exhorted against selecting the name of a wicked person. In general, the custom is to choose a name that reflects concepts such as peace (Shalom), life (Haim), health (Rafael), and Divine sustenance (Azriel).

When a person’s name is formally changed, the following prayer is recited:

If an evil decree was issued upon [the old name], it was not decreed upon [the new name],  for he is someone else, and not the one who was called by his old name. Just as his name was changed, so may the decree upon him be altered, from justice to mercy, from death to life, from sickness to complete recovery…

I recall a moving incident from my days in Yeshivat Knesset Chizkiyahu in Kfar Hassidim. The Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Mishkovski zt”l, had taken sick, and the doctors could not determine the cause of the illness. Rav Eliyahu Lopian zt”l, the mashgiah (spiritual mentor) of the yeshivah, decided to change the Rosh Yeshivah’s name, and a short while thereafter, we received word from the hospital that the doctors had finally made a diagnosis and were treating the illness. The Rosh Yeshivah fully recovered and enjoyed over 20 more years of vital, fruitful activity in the yeshivah and in the community.

An enlightening story regarding this issue appears in the work Aseh Lecha Rav by Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi zt”l, former Chief Rabbi ofTel Aviv. A woman wrote him a letter explaining that she was born into an extremely secular kibbutz family but had become a baalat teshuvah (newly observant), and she was about to be married to a young religious man. She had a dream in which her grandfather, who was a devoutly religious man, appeared to her, pleading with her to change her name to Leah. She asked the rabbi whether or not she should change her name on the basis of this vision. Rav HaLevi answered her in the affirmative, writing that her grandfather was likely telling her that she was destined to be childless, but that if she would change her name to Leah, she would be blessed, as our matriarch Leah was, with many children.

When one changes his name, his essential nature – even his very soul – changes right along with it, and he thus becomes a new person, with new missions to fulfill.

It must be emphasized that one should not change his or her name without careful forethought. In this vein, Reb Michli of Zlotchov wrote:

Heaven forbid that the name of an ill person should be changed, unless he is one whose every action is governed by the Divine Spirit (or nearly so). For the name given a person at his birth is practically a direct lifeline with the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it is his name in heaven, and that from which he has derived his life-force throughout his days. One who is ill certainly requires extra strength, and oftentimes the source of greatest strength is the very name with which he was born…

When a man walks in the path of Torah and mitzvot, in accordance with his original mission as described by his name, he merits the true “acquisition” of his name and all that it stands for. The name that is given is his name in heaven, and the name from which he derives his life-force.

Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson studied at Medrashiat Noam in Pardes Chana and at various yeshivot, including Kfar Chassidim, Ponievez, and Chevron. Today he is involved in teaching and lecturing at various institutions.