Why the Sages Add Titles to Biblical Personalities
While there has been much discussion concerning the names of biblical characters, there has been far less analysis of the names and epithets that rabbinic texts give to biblical characters. I will look at epithets that the rabbis give to Abraham, Esau, Joseph, and Moses.1 Exploring why the rabbis added these titles frees us to read the Torah more analytically, with our own eyes, and is an important window into the rabbis’ historical context and their particular exegetical concerns.
Abraham’s role as father of all nations is emphasized repeatedly by God, particularly in Genesis 17, in which God unequivocally elaborates on this unique role, declaring,
You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations(Av hamon goyim). I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages (Gen. 17:4-7 NJPS).
Abraham’s new name is clearly etymologically connected by God to his role as a father of many nations. Yet in the earliest strata of rabbinic texts, Abraham’s name is modified somewhat through the addition of Avinu, Our Father. While God’s changing Abraham’s name in Genesis 15 is connected to his fathering many nations, Abraham’s name modification in rabbinic literature is connected to his being father only of the Jews: He becomes Avraham Avinu, Abraham Our [the Jews] Father.
A second example concerns Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, who is often called in rabbinic literature Esav haRasha, Esau the Wicked. In contrast, according to the Torah, Esau was consistently deferential to his father Isaac. Only after Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, and Jacob had stolen the blessing from Isaac that had been meant for Esau, was he overwhelmed with murderous hatred for Jacob.
The rabbis refer to Joseph as Yosef haTzadik, Joseph the Righteous. This seems innocent enough, except that other seemingly righteous patriarchs are not given this moniker. Isaac, for example, is never referred to by the Rabbis Yitzchak haTzadik.
Finally, Moses is called “our rabbi” in rabbinic literature hundreds of times, yet this term is never used for him in the Bible. The word Rav referring to a religious teacher is post-biblical; in the Bible it is used as a social title to mean master, or expert (as in Rav ha-Tabachim). In fact, the earliest known usage of its meaning “religious teacher” can be found in the New Testament, in reference to Jesus.
Religious Epithets Or Polemical Assertions?
Let’s return to each name and consider why each name was modified:
1. Avraham Avinu
Abraham is called Avraham Avinu by the Rabbis at the same time that Christianity was emerging as a religious community that was in conflict with the rabbinic agenda. Although Christianity did not become a wholly separate religion until about the third century, most members of early Gentile-Christian and Jewish-Christian communities were opposed to a halakhic lifestyle that placed rabbinic authority at the top of the religious and social order.
This view was advanced most strongly by a Jewish-Christian ex-Pharisee, Paul, who at the end of the first century declared that halakha was obsolete since Jewish law had functioned to keep the Jews in line and obedient to God until Jesus came to earth offering a new divine covenant (Romans 2:17-3:31). In order to make these claims, Paul pointed to Abraham as the Ultimate Man of Faith, a person who was characterized not by his halakhic observance but by his unwavering faith in God (Romans 4:1-25). The rabbis responded to this co-opting of Abraham by giving him a name that essentially declared, “You’ve got it all wrong; Abraham belongs to us, not you. He is our father.” He was not a man of faith, but a man of works, a man of law.
2. Esav HaRasha
As noted above, Genesis depicts Esau in a sympathetic fashion; anyone reading the biblical text alone might even come to the conclusion that Esau was truly entitled to both Isaac’s blessing and the birthright. Since Esau represented Rome and Christianity to the Rabbis while Jacob was the father of Israel and the Jews, such a reading of the biblical text would have been disastrous. Therefore, the rabbis clarify that Jacob was the true and legitimate heir to God’s promises by asserting that Esau was wicked. This is why he is called Esav haRasha in rabbinic literature.
3. Yosef HaTzadik
Joseph is consistently referred to by the rabbis as Yosef haTzaddik even though the biblical texts suggests that he assimilates to gentile culture, even marrying the daughter of a priest to the sun-god (41:45). And this is exactly the point: A straightforward reading of Genesis 37-50 would indicate that Joseph, although he ultimately forgave his brothers and reunited with his father “went off the derech,” as some are wont to say.
In addition to marrying an Egyptian woman, he worked in the highest social strata of Egyptian royal life and remained there until his death, upon which he is mummified and given an Egyptian style funeral. The rabbis, wishing to deemphasize this image of Joseph, focus instead on his religious piety.2 Don’t think, they tell us, that Yosef was assimilated. He is the same thing that we are when we find ourselves in alone as a Jewish minority in a larger community: a stranger in a strange land. Like Joseph, the rabbis are telling us, we too can each be a pious tzadik.
4. Moshe Rabbeinu
The dissonance between the Oral Law as preached by the Rabbis and Mosaic law is it appears in the Torah is palpable. This dissonance served as a key element in the anti-Pharisaic and anti-Rabbinic movements throughout history. The Rabbis were well aware of this dissonance. By calling Moses Moshe Rabbeinu, the rabbis defer to Moses as the ultimate religious leader while at the same time, they subjugate him and the unique position that he held as the first and greatest leader of the Jewish people to the rabbinic agenda. By calling Moses a rabbi, the rabbis authenticate themselves as direct descendants of the most prominent leader in Israelite history.
There may be an additional reason for this epithet. Despite the enormous position of respect Moses holds in the Torah, he is one of the most embattled figures in all of Tanach. During his tenure as leader of the Israelites, he was poorly treated much of the time by the Jews, who often undermined his authority or ignored him altogether. The Israelite treatment of Moses must have been a bit of an embarrassment to pious Jews in the ancient world. By calling him “our rabbi,” the Sages finally give him the proper respect that he never was given by the Israelites in his own lifetime; for the Sages, calling someone a “rabbi” – even though the title did not exist during this person’s lifetime – is a high honor.
Torah and The Sages Interpretation
It is well-known that rabbinic midrash often presents a view that differs from what is explicitly stated in the biblical text. These four examples, where special titles were added to the names of biblical figures, is just one way that midrash and other early Jewish sources rework the Bible. Looking at the titles that were added to biblical characters’ names and speculating on the motivation behind them enables us to see the Torah and Chazal (sages) with clearer eyes and to appreciate each on its own merit.
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August 21, 2013
November 22, 2020
Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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