Multiple Names


Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg


The last of the sons of Yaakov, the tribes of Israel, is born in this week’s parsha. And as we saw by all the other sons of Yaakov, a special name that conveys some idea is attached to this child. Interestingly enough, there is one trend that emerges in the names of the sons of Rochel that we do not find by the other children. Rather than one idea tied to one name, we see two ideas joined to each one. This aberration is one that, with analysis, helps reveal  to a greater degree the distinction of Rochel Imeinu. 

We first see the above with the birth of Yosef (Bereishis 30:22-24):

“God remembered Rochel, and God perceived her [plight] and opened her womb. She conceived and gave birth to a son. She said, "God has removed my shame." She named him Yoseif, saying, "May Hashem add to me another son."”

Rashi explains that her shame was not actually “removed”, rather:  “He has brought it into a place where it will not be seen”. This shame, he notes later, was attached to her being barren. Her prayer for another son, as noted in the second reason for the name, was due to her prophecy that Yaakov would have a total of twelve sons - her desire being that she be the one to bring about the completion of the tribes. 

It is quite intriguing to see Rashi emphasize the fact that the shame of Rochel was not actually removed, only hidden from view. Since she was barren, one would think the birth of a child would erase this stigma of indignity. And yet, it did not. The prayer should also be understood, as why Rochel  was immediately turning her attention to another child.

When it comes to Binyamin, as Rochel emitted her last breaths, we see two names once again, albeit with some differences (Bereishis 35:18):

“As her soul was departing, for she died, she named him Ben Oni [son of my sorrow], but his father named him Binyomin”

In this case, Yaakov offers the second idea, rather than, for obvious reasons, Rochel. We also see no explanation for the second name, that of Binyomin.

The Ramban offers an approach to try and understand the meaning of the two names. The name “Ben oni”, or “son of my sorrow”, refers to her son being “ben aveili”, or “son of my mourning”. Yaakov, however, added another idea. Biyomin, or “ben yamin”, is a reference to his son being a “ben koach”, reflecting strength (as the right is associated with the strength of God ). In other words, according to the Ramban, Yaakov’s intention with the name of Binyomin was to imply that his son would be associated with courage and success. The Ramban further notes that Yaakov’s intent was to keep the name as close as possible to the original name given by Rochel.

We see similar difficulties with the account offered by the Ramban. What was Yaakov adding? Why not leave the name as is? 

As mentioned above, it is possible that the naming of Yosef and Binyomin are offering us insights into the personality of Rochel. We see by Yosef a focus on the emotion of shame being felt by Rochel. One would naturally assume that this shame was centered on her current status as being barren. No doubt, the maternal instinct to have children was quite strong in Rochel, and the inability to accomplish this result can certainly be something that leads to shame. However, if this were all, then her shame would dissipate once she gave birth to Yosef. Instead, Rashi points out that her shame was hidden from view, meaning there was still something there. What was still lingering? Being one of the “mothers” of the future nation of Jews, she was in a prime position to play a pivotal role in its emergence. This could only be accomplished through having children, becoming a participant in its creation. Being barren meant she was closed off from this tremendous opportunity. This could also have been a source of shame, and can be tied into its persistence. There was one obstacle she could never overcome, even with her first child. She was now a contributor to the future of Judaism, so part of her shame was gone. But she would always have a more secondary influence, as Leah had a far greater impact on the nation through her children. Therefore, she acknowledges this reality in the name of Yosef. But that’s not all. One would think this child would bring about a sense of completion and fulfillment – after all, she could never be that dominant progenitor. Knowing full well her role would always be reduced as compared to her sister, she still prayed to have another child. Rather than be content, she realized an additional opportunity presented itself to her, the chance to have another impact on the future nation.  In other words, there was nothing personal in this request, no self-serving purpose. This is reflected in the tefilah, and for this selfless request from God, she merited another son.

This leads us to Binoymin. The first name given to him by his dying mother reflects a state of mourning. Rochel obviously was aware of her own impending death. She could ruminate on the fact that God indeed answered her tefilah with this second child. Yet bringing these children into the world was only one part of her desire. She also wanted to raise them, to mold them into the future leaders of the Bnei Yisrael. And now, as it was clear, she would never partake of this – thus, the sadness evoked in the name “ben oni”. Yaakov saw something else that needed to be emphasized. Understanding the loss of Rochel as not just a loss of his beloved wife, but as the great woman and potential mother to his children, Yaakov knew full well there was a greater risk of his two sons ending up deficient as a result of being raised motherless. He therefore wanted the ideas of strength, courage and success to be part of the identity of his new child during his formative years. When Binyomin would reflect on his name, he would recall the loss of his mother, but he would also be motivated to know more about her, to see the greatness she achieved. This would always be a source of strength and courage, paving the way for his ultimate success.