Recently, I purchased a used copy of the Kaganoff book and am rediscovering all the "factoids" that continue to fascinate me. From time to time, I will explore the Jewish naming traditions described by the author and discovered in my own family.
Just to start off: inherited family names are a fairly recent convention, spurred by the bureaucratic need to keep track of people, often for nefarious reasons. In more primitive times, such as in the early Biblical period, Jews, like people in other ancient societies, had no surnames. So in the Torah, we meet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah, no last names needed. Clans were small in a very small world so people were not confused if someone mentioned he had met Abraham on the road somewhere. No one asked, "Abraham who?"
In the Biblical period, when names changed during a person's life, it signaled a major change in the person's role. Abraham was originally Avram. At the age of ninety, the Lord visited Abram and told him he was to be the father of a great people: Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee (Bereshit 17:5). So a name change was signaled by a spiritual awakening and the appointment to a serious leadership position.
Not long after in the Torah's verses, but ten years later in the lives of Abraham and his wife Sarai, Hashem announces another name change. Sarai has become despondent. Abraham's concubine, Hagar, has borne a son, called Ishmael. Since Sarai remains barren, Abraham believes Ishmael will be the son who founds a great nation as foretold in the vision described above. But Hashem now informs him that it was time to change Sarai to Sarah, because " I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.' 100 year old Abraham laughs at the thought but it does come to pass Their son Isaac (from the Hebrew, "He laughs") is born when his mother is 90!
In the next generation, there is another significant name change. Isaac has twin sons, Esau and Jacob (Yaakov, from the word meaning "heel." Yaakov was the second of the twins to be born. He emerged holding on to the heel of his older brother.) Jacob, as the second born, follows his mother's orders to use trickery to obtain his blind father's blessing as his "heir." But then Jacob must flee since Esau did not take kindly to being cheated out of his birthright (the porridge must not have been that tasty!).
Many years later, in the desert, Jacob has a vision. He is visited by a holy being with whom he wrestles successfully.The vision announces, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men and have prevailed' (Genesis 32:29). Scholars note that this marks another turning point. Up to then, Jacob has followed the orders of others such as his mother, Rebecca, and his uncle Laban. Now he will be a leader of his people and his new name, Israel, will become the name for their nation.
In a similar fashion, my ancestor, Judah Halevi Hassan, decides to sever his connections with the passivity espoused by his father. He aligns himself with the assertive actions taken by the Nokmim, the Revengers, and in doing so, he accepts a new family name to symbolize his new allegiance. For more of that story, read You Shall Know Our Names.
The family tree pictured here was selected because it shows the old and new names of the figures in this blog.