Pinchas: What’s in a name?

By Cantor Don Croll
Parashat Pinchas

This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas. It’s quite an exciting parasha. A lot of important things happen in this story:

Perhaps the most interesting narrative is about the daughters of Zelophehad. After a census is taken and G-d lays down the law of the land’s division, come five women: the daughters of Zelophehad, a deceased and sonless member of the Manasseh tribe. The sisters demand a landed inheritance alongside the newly-numbered men. They cry, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:4) This, of course, is outrageous — women asking for land that G-d decreed could go only to Israelite men. The daughters plead with Moses, who presents their request to G-d. Surprisingly, G-d decides in favor of the women and says, “If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughters.” (Numbers 27:8)

Also in this portion, Joshua is chosen to be Moses’ successor (Numbers 25:16-18) and the sacrificial ritual for festival occasions is described in detail (Numbers 28:1-30:1).

But, the portion isn’t called Joshua or Zelophehad; it’s called Pinchas.

Pinchas is the grandson of Aaron, rewarded by G-d for killing an Israelite man who was sleeping with a foreigner, a Midianite woman, something that G-d had explicitly forbidden. Pinchas is the model of a zealot — a person who is a fanatically committed person. Pinchas was so passionate about what G-d had decreed that he stabbed the Israelite and the Midianite woman in the belly, and for this G-d ends a plague placed upon the Israelites because of their blaspheming, makes Pinchas an example and rewards him and his descendants with the priesthood forever. Thus, the parasha is called Pinchas.

So, what’s in a name? That is the famous question from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” spoken by Juliet in Act II, Scene II.

What about the name Pinchas? I think it is a funny-sounding name. I can only think of one person named Pinchas: The violinist Pinchas Zukerman. By the way, some scholars believe the name is based on an Egyptian name, “Panehasi.”

In English Pinchas is translated as Phineas, like Phineas T. Barnum, the circus showman, or Phineas T. Bluster, the resident skinflint mayor of Doodyville and enemy of Howdy Doody (I think I just dated myself).

I forgot: I do know another person named Pinchas — my late brother-in-law, Philip Gartenberg.

Philip and his family made aliyah in 1985 and joined a haredi community. He had three children at that time: Shirili, his oldest, a daughter, and Ziv and Tzlil, his sons.

When they arrived in Israel the children felt uncomfortable in school because their given names weren’t common Israeli names … so Shirili became Chavi; Ziv became Yisrael; and Tzlil became Shimi.

After Philip died and his children married and had offspring of their own, they each followed the Ashkenazic custom of naming their firstborn son after their late grandfather. Within the Gartenberg family there are three boys named Pinchas: There’s Chavi’s son Pinchas Chayim (whom everyone calls Pini); Yisrael’s son, Pinchas Ariei; and Shimi’s son, Pinchas Yitzchak. All are named after their grandfather, who was a learned and beloved member of the Gartenberg family.

So “what’s in a name?” A lot, it seems, if you’re Jewish. Hebrew names maintain tradition and keep the memories of our Jewish ancestors alive. The entire history of the Jewish people is recreated and continued with a simple thing … a name.

There is a Hebrew saying, recorded in the Bible, to indicate that a person’s name can illustrate his or her character: kishmo ken hu — “Like his name, so is he” (I Samuel 25:25). If, for example, a woman’s name is Rinah, meaning “song” or “joy,” and she is a musical person, one might use this saying to indicate how appropriate her birth name is in retrospect.

Names in the Bible can also be seen to predict at birth what that person’s character will turn out to be. For example, the name of the patriarch Jacob, or Yaakov, means “usurper”; it describes both how he tried to usurp his brother Esau’s prior exit from the womb by grabbing his heel during birth (Yaakov in fact derives from ekev, “heel”) and how he ultimately usurped Esau as the heir of their father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. Similarly, the name of the prophet Samuel, or Shemu’el, means (according to some scholars) “the one about whom God heard me,” referring to his barren mother’s prayer for a child.

As was stated before, Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe had a strong tradition that dictates that a baby be named after a beloved deceased relative.

For instance, I’m named after two late great-uncles: Dovid and Avram. The usual explanation for this practice is that the parents hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in his or her life the virtues of the deceased namesake. For some, it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name.

Sephardic Jews give their children the names of living grandparents in a way to honor them.

Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families.

Many Sephardic grandparents look forward to being honored with grandchildren who bear their own names while they are still alive to see it. In Sephardic families this procedure often has the effect of strengthening ties between grandfathers and grandsons, and between grandmothers and granddaughters. It is important to understand that these are traditions, and not Jewish law.

Frequently, Jewish parents give their child both a Hebrew name and a secular name for use in general society. Among East European Jews, the Hebrew name would be accompanied by a Yiddish one, again often with a similar meaning. Thus the name Dov, meaning “bear,” might be followed by the Yiddish name Ber. Hence, a man would be known as Dov-Ber, both formally and even in ordinary conversation. If a diminutive were to be used, it was usually based on the Yiddish name alone; hence, Dov-Ber would be called Berl as a nickname, or Zev-Wolf would be Velvel.

American Jews, most of whom are descended from Ashkenazic immigrants, have generally followed the East European custom of making some connection between the two names given a child at birth, but more often than not the link is a phonic one rather than one based on meaning. Thus, if American Jewish parents give their child the Hebrew name Sarah after a grandmother of that name, they are usually only interested in an English name beginning with “s,” so a female named Sarah in Hebrew might be given the English name Samantha. Even though my Hebrew name is Dovid Avram and my English name could have easily been David Abraham, my parents gave me the name Don Alan.

Currently in the United States biblical names are enjoying great popularity, and many American Jews are giving their children Hebrew baby names that have English equivalents. Thus a child might be given the name Yaakov after his grandfather and be called Jacob in English, though that namesake might also have been named Yaakov in Hebrew but have been called something like Jerome in English. Then too, the new Jewish self-awareness occasioned by the successful revival of the Hebrew language in the State of Israel has led to the growing popularity of new Israeli names —Ari, for instance, or llana — not only for Israeli children but for American Jewish children as well.

Considering the importance of a name to the overall identity and ideals of a child, many Jews feel that it is important for Jewish parents to select names for their children that will strengthen ties to family and reinforce the historical continuity of the Jewish people.

Questions you might ask yourself are: Do you know what your Hebrew name means? If you have a biblical name, do you know the story connected to the name? (I have great names: David, a king of Israel, and Abraham, the father of a nation.) Do you know who you were named after? Do you know what they were like? Are you living the life your parents wanted you to reflect in your Hebrew name? I believe one of my great-uncles had a beautiful voice. (I am a cantor.)

Those of you who chose your own names, do you remember why you chose that name and are you living up to the ideals that the name stands for?

What’s in a name, your Hebrew name, chosen carefully by your parents or by you, whether it’s Pinchas or Dovid or Yoseph or Ilana or Chaya Rochel? Certainly Pinchas (Philip) Gartenberg will be remembered by his children and his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren ad infinitum. They have much to live up to if they are to emulate this beloved man. May we all know whom we were named after, who they were and how we can, in some small way, keep their memory alive.

Don Alan Croll, the cantor emeritus of Temple Shalom, is currently the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El Binah and a member of RAGD, the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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