Sunday, March 3, 2013

Naming a Daughter: Aspiration, Recognition & Feminism

My wife and I were blessed with a baby daughter last Friday, after having five sons. In Jewish teachings there is a connection between the name and character[i]. In selecting a name for our daughter we wanted something distinctive but traditional that would connect her to a biblical role model. Personally, I was also concerned about the way that women are often thought of as the wife of this great person or the mother of another, rather than a person in their own right. I also don’t like the way some girls’ names reflect a view of girls being pretty little things rather than full human beings. Traditionally one consideration in selecting a name is to honour and remember family members, but with four grandmothers between the two parents, we could not honour all of them.

Shifra – Heroic Career woman or Mother?
One strong female characters in the Torah is the Egypt-wide chief midwife for Hebrews[ii] Shifra, who along with her colleague Puah defies the Pharaoh when he commands them to murder the Hebrew male babies[iii].  This courageous choice is the first and perhaps the only example of civil disobedience that resists racism in the Torah. The name is also related to the Hebrew word Shfoferet, a tube because Shifra would resuscitate babies who had stopped breathing by blowing through a tube[iv]. While many sources identify Shifra as being Jochebed, the mother of Moses[v], other texts identify her as a convert[vi], and as an Egyptian[vii], whose children or husband remains unknown and irrelevant to her identity, just as they are absent in a plain reading of the Torah text itself.  

I wonder about what message there is in the commentary that links Shifra with Jochebed. Is it about the greatness of Moses’ lineage, or reflecting a view that a great and complete woman is not just one who interacts with a monarch and defies him but also one who is a mother as well? There is a moving prophecy that reassures men who have no children “let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree”. For so says the Lord to the eunuchs who will keep My Sabbaths and will choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, "I will give them in My house and in My walls a place and a name, better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued[viii]." Surely we can read this passage as saying there is a value to a woman beyond motherhood. Equally, I ask myself whether my own interest in the less prominent commentaries that could be interpreted as positioning Shifra as a career woman rather than a mother reflects a lack of recognition of the importance of motherhood for women and its contribution to the wellbeing of children and to society generally.

To be Named Or Not to be Named
Our daughter’s second and third names were given to her to be named after my paternal grandmother Golda Kastel A.H.[ix] and my wife’s maternal grandmother Bracha Stark A.H., both very strong women who managed to both support their husbands and shine as people in their own right.  In selecting two grandmothers, we highlighted two out of four.  

The issue of whether names are acknowledged or not mentioned is a significant one in the Torah reading, Tetzaveh [x], which was read on the Shabbat on which our daughter was named. The special clothing worn by the high priest in the temple worship included diamonds in which the names of each of the twelve tribes of Israel were engraved “before God, on his two shoulders, as a remembrance[xi]. The names would also be carved a second time into twelve precious stones on a breastplate worn by the high priest[xii].

The opposite side of the equation is also found in this portion. It is the only portion in the Torah that occurs during the life time of Moses[xiii], where he is not mentioned. According to commentary this reflects a selfless choice by Moses, in which he offers a desperate plea to God to forgive the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses says to God, “And now, (God) forgive their sin, and if not, erase me please from Your book (the Torah) that You wrote[xiv].”  While God essentially forgives his people, the words of Moses about being erased from the “book” are still partially fulfilled in his absence from this portion[xv].

Not Named But Still Present
The absence of Moses’ name in the Torah portion does not mean he is not present. One way of thinking about it is that his role is more of a background role. Moses might have felt disappointed when, as the sanctuary for God begins to come together, the prominent roles are filled by others - Betzalel is the architect and chief designer while Aaron will perform the key rituals. Where is Moses in all this? To comfort him, without altering the reality of his less overtly prominent role, God tells Moses three times “and you[xvi]” will command the people relating to the olive oil, draw Aaron close and instruct the designers of the priestly clothing. The Torah has a special tune or accent in which it is traditionally read, with louder and longer pitches or intonation for emphasis, all three times the words “and you” have these strong accents[xvii].  Suggesting the importance of Moses’ role in the sanctuary, the spiritual illumination symbolized by the oil and the worship by Aaron[xviii].

Applying the same principle to our question of the names not given to our daughter, I think our daughter can draw strength and inspiration from the two grandmothers after whom she has not been named. Their lives, character, choices and guidance have indirectly helped shape the person she will become, by their parenting of Shifra’s own grandparents.

Names matter. Names can mean a lot of different things, depending on how they are interpreted. The name Shifra also means beautiful or to make beautiful, for example. I trust that our Shifra Golda Bracha will find her own way to construct her identity and draw some strength from great women and men who came before her. This will involve prioritising between public and private roles, at home and/or at work. It will also require recognition that recognition itself is far from the only criteria of value. As my third “honorary grandmother” Stella Cornelius used to say “you can accomplish a lot if you don’t care who gets the credit”. Welcome to our world, Shifra Golda Bracha Kastel.

[i] There is a story told about a student at the House of Torah study whose name was Chatfa which means to grab. After something went missing in the Yeshiva, this student wiped his wet hands on another student’s clothes, which showed a lack of respect for the property of others.  When he was confronted about this he admitted to the theft. This vindicated the view of Rabbi Meir about the link between names and character. I have been unable to find the source of this story.
[ii] Ibn Ezra
[iii] Exodus 1:15-21
[iv] Torah Shlaima p38, note 165, also saw elsewhere but can’t find the source
[v] Sifre, Talmud Sotah 11b, Rashi
[vi] Yalkut Yehoshua cited in Chumash Torah Temima
[vii] Midrash Tadsheh, end Chapter 1 21, Imre Noam, Paaneach Raza, R. Y. of Vienna, the latter two suggest it is would be implausible for the Pharaoh to demand Jewish midwives murder the babies because according to Jewish law one must be prepared to sacrifice one’s life rather than take an innocent life,  all cited in Torah Shlaima, p.38
[viii] Isaaia 56:3-5
[ix] Alehah Hashalom, upon her, peace.
[x] Exodus 27:20- 30:10
[xi] Exodus 28:9-12
[xii] Exodus 28:21
[xiii] The middle three books of the Torah, the last book Deuteronomy is almost entirely the words of Moses himself. 
[xiv] Exodus 32:32
[xv] Midrash Hane’elam Zohar Chadash 6b, cited in Torah Shlaima p.139
[xvi] Exodus 27:20, 28:1 and 28:3
[xvii][xvii] The accents are called, Gershayim, Pazer and Reviee
[xviii][xviii] Alshich, cited in Leibowitz, N, New Studies in Shemot p.526


  1. Given that my daughter Lisa and her husband Adam now have a six-week-old son called Micah Isidore, their third son, I read your commentary with great interest. Thank you for this thoughtful and erudite insight into the significance of names, which I found most enlightening.

    1. thank you very much Anne. Micah is a name with a great personality behind it.