What’s in a Name?


The world was created with ten [divine] utterances.

Ethics of the Fathers, 5:1

G-d formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.

Genesis, 2:19

Says the Midrash: “When G-d came to create man, He consulted with the angels…. Said they to Him: ‘This man, what is his worth?’ Said He to them: ‘His wisdom is greater than yours.’ G-d brought before them the beasts, the wild animals and the birds and asked them, ‘This, what is its name?’ and they did not know. He then brought them before man… and man said, ‘This is a shor (ox), this is a chamor (donkey), this is a sus (horse) and this is a gamal (camel)….’ ”[1]

Naming things seems easy enough. One selects a syllable or two, coins a word and attaches it to an object. If one wants to be scientific about it, one selects a distinctive feature or two, transfigures them into a Latin-sounding name of eight or ten syllables, and—presto!—one has a name. Why, then, is the ability to name names indicative of a wisdom greater than that of the angels? And why does the Creator consider this ability on the part of man as the one thing that most characterizes his worth as a human being?

A World of Words

The world was created by divine speech. G-d said, “Let there be light… oceans… trees… fish…” and these words came to constitute the essence of every created entity. In other words, what we experience as physical light is not merely something that the divine words “Let there be light” caused to come into being; it is the very word light being continually articulated by the Creator as a verbal expression of the desire that it exist. The same is true of all other creations: a cow, a fish, a tree, a stone—these are all our physical perceptions of the divine words they embody.

[The “ten utterances,” which are quoted in the Torah’s account of creation, actually specify only the names of a few primary creations (light, water, land, etc.) and several general categories (stars, trees, fish, birds, etc.). But these elementary creations contain within themselves—on both the linguistic and physical levels—the myriad particulars of the created existence. Ultimately, every created thing has a name in the Holy Tongue, a name that, if not explicit in the “ten utterances” of the first chapter of Genesis, is nonetheless implicit therein, by the means of gematria or one of the several other systems of letter transfiguration of the Hebrew language.] [2]

Therein lies the difference between the Holy Tongue (lashon hakodesh) and other languages. In all other languages, a word is assigned to an existing entity. If there was a reason why a particular word was originally married to a particular object, this is not a matter of great relevance. If the English word ox were to be chosen for that obstinate, silly-looking animal with the long ears, while the word donkey referred to the heavy-set fellow with the horns, this would not make a whit of difference. Language would still be performing its commonly assumed function: identifying objects by some agreed-upon arrangement of verbal sounds and letters. But language, in its truest, “holy,” sense, is far more than that. In the Holy Tongue, a word precedes its subject, creates it, and constitutes its very being. It articulates the divine desire that it be, expressing its Creator’s perception of its qualities and function—of the end toward which He created it.[3]

So for Adam to call even a single creature by its original, quintessential name, he had to know it utterly. He had to possess the wisdom and insight to penetrate its external form and recognize the “holiness” within—the divine utility and purpose that lies at its heart.[4]

Calling Forth

This ability to recognize and name most expresses the role of man in creation. Every creature possesses the potential to articulate its Creator’s goodness and perfection. But it is man who actualizes this potential through his development and utilization of his fellow creations and his incorporation of them in his service of the Almighty. Only man has been imbued with the essentially divine quality of “free choice”; thus, only his actions have moral significance. All of creation can, therefore, realize its divine purpose only through him.[5]

This is the deeper significance of the Hebrew word vayikra, “and he called,” used by the Torah in describing Adam’s calling the name of every creature. As its English counterpart, the Hebrew word kara connotes both “calling” and “calling forth”; Adam’s calling of names was a demonstration of his ability to call forth and bring to light the “name” and essence of every created thing, by recognizing and developing its potential to serve him in his service of G-d.

When man harnesses the ox to the plow and uses the proceeds to perform a self-transcending act such as charity, prayer or Torah study, every element of creation that was involved in this act—the energy of the ox, the vegetative potential of the soil, the nourishing water and sunlight—achieves something it could never have on its own. It transcends the limits of its own external being and realizes the purpose for  which it was created.

This is an excerpt from “Beyond the Letter of the Law” by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life Center.


[1] Midrash Rabba, Bereishit 17:5.

[2] See Tanya, part II, ch. 1

[3] The same is true of a person’s name: it forms the channel through which his soul radiates life into his body, doing much to define his nature and character. In the words of Elazar ben Pedat, “One’s name has an influence on one’s life” (Talmud, Berachot 7b). Our sages have therefore said that parents’ naming of their child is “a small prophecy.”

[4] The angels may have been able to know the essence of a creature from the perspective of the spiritual realm they occupy. But to relate to a fodder-chomping ox and discern the way in which its physical, animal qualities can be directed to serve the divine purpose in creation was beyond their spiritually defined (and confined) abilities.

[5] In the words of the Talmud (Kiddushin 82a): “The entire world was created to serve me, and I was created to serve my Creator.” Chassidic master Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk thus advised: “A person should always have two pockets in his garment: in one he should keep the verse, “I am but dust and ashes,” and in the other the talmudic adage “For my sake was the world created.”


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