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Elinoar Bareket





What’s in a Name? The Bible vs. the Middle Ages





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Elinoar Bareket





What’s in a Name? The Bible vs. the Middle Ages








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What’s in a Name? The Bible vs. the Middle Ages

Naming practices in the biblical and ancient Near Eastern cultures differed significantly from those of medieval Jews in Fatimid Egypt (7th-12th cent. CE) as evidenced by the genizah findings. Examining these names presents us with important historical and anthropological data.


What’s in a Name? The Bible vs. the Middle Ages
שלשה שמות נקראו לו לאדם, אחד מה שקוראים לו אביו ואמו, ואחד מה שקוראין לו בני אדם ואחד מה שקונה הוא לעצמו, טוב מכולן מה שקונה הוא לעצמו
“A person is called by three names: One that his father and mother gave him, one that people call him, and one that he acquires for himself. The best one is the one that he acquires for himself.” (Tanchuma, Vayakhel 1, ninth century CE)

Naming as Creating

The act of naming someone was a matter of great consequence in the Bible and in the ancient Near East.[1] Indeed, it was widely believed that the name of a thing reflected its essence and very being; in other words, in some sense, the act of naming something meant creating it.[2]

This is reflected in the opening sentence of the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish:

When the sky above was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name.

The same is implied in the opening creation story in Genesis (ch. 1), in which God names certain elements after creating them (vv. 5, 8, 10) and especially man and woman (Gen 5:2):

זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בְּרָאָם וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָם אָדָם בְּיוֹם הִבָּרְאָם.
Male and female He created them. He blessed them and called them Man, on the day they were created.

Naming as Ownership or Sovereignty

From time immemorial, naming someone demonstrates sovereignty or mastery. Even now, parents name their children, and people name their pets. It is understood in biblical texts that names are generally given by parents. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the Nile, she names him; this is a sign that she is planning to keep him and adopt him.


Since the individual who confers a name is the master of its recipient, Ancient Near Eastern kings would sometimes rename a subject king to demonstrate his total control and mastery of him. A likely example of such a renaming is the case of the Philistine king of Ashkelon, Sharru-lu-dari, whose name means, “may the king live forever” in Akkadian, by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. Sennacherib likely gave him this name when he reestablished him as the king after a rebellion; it expresses Sharru-lu-dari’s loyalty to the Assyrian king, for his new name reflects the idea that Sennacherib should live forever.

The Bible records a clear case of renaming: according to 2Kings 24:17, when Nebuchadnezzar established the Judean king, also after a rebellion, he changed his name from Metaniah to Zedekiah.

וַיַּמְלֵךְ מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל אֶת מַתַּנְיָה דֹדוֹ תַּחְתָּיו וַיַּסֵּב אֶת שְׁמוֹ צִדְקִיָּהוּ.
And the king of Babylon appointed Mattaniah, his [Jehoiachin’s] uncle, king in his place, changing his name to Zedekiah.

Although it is unclear whether this specific name had any significance to the Babylonian overlord, the very fact of renaming demonstrates that Zedekiah is “owned” in some way by Nebuchadnezzar.


A more subtle example of dominance through naming can be seen in the story of Adam and Eve. Adam’s being instructed by to give names to all the creatures demonstrates his domination over them (Genesis 2:19):

…וַיָּבֵא אֶל הָאָדָם לִרְאוֹת מַה יִּקְרָא לוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא לוֹ הָאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה הוּא שְׁמוֹ:
…and He (=YHWH God) brought them (=the animals) to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.

This is also likely the reason for Adam’s naming of his wife:[3]

בראשית ב:כג לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקֳחָה זֹּאת
Gen 2:23 This one shall be called Woman, For from man was she taken.
בראשית ג:כ וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ חַוָּה כִּי הִוא הָיְתָה אֵם כָּל חָי
Gen 3:20 The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.[4]


Finally, when God changes people’s names, God expresses adoption of them and thus dominion over them. For example, God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17:5, 15) as a sign that God has adopted them as His chosen couple. Moses does something similar for his protégé, Joshua (יהושע), whose name according to Num 13:16 was originally Hoshea (הושע).

The Literary Function of Names

In the Bible and the ancient Near East, a person’s name has a meaning. Ancient authors would give characters names that reflect their perception of their character or their role in the story. For example, the author of the Gilgamesh epic (re)names the survivor of the flood “Utnapishtim” (“he who found life”),[5]to emphasize that this person found eternal life, whereas Gilgamesh will not.

The biblical narrator also does this to express his negative opinion about a person, his deeds, beliefs, or life history. Anyone hearing the name would immediately understand the narrator’s negative attitude toward the person and thus be prepared psychologically to disapprove of that individual as well.

For example, the two sons of Elimelech and Naomi are named Mahlon and Kilyon, i.e., “disease” and “annihilation.” Is it any surprise that they die early on in the story? Another example is Abigail’s husband Nabal (1Sam 25:3). Not only does his name mean “boor,” but in the scence in which Abigail must calm David down after he was insulted by her husband, she literally says this:

שמואל א כה:כה אַל נָא יָשִׂים אֲדֹנִי אֶת לִבּוֹ אֶל אִישׁ הַבְּלִיַּעַל הַזֶּה עַל נָבָל כִּי כִשְׁמוֹ כֶּן הוּא נָבָל שְׁמוֹ וּנְבָלָה עִמּוֹ…
1Sam 25:25 Please, my lord, pay no attention to that wretched fellow Nabal. For he is just what his name says: His name means ‘boor’ and he is a boor.[6]

Fateful Event or Decisive Action

The Bible sometimes offers explanations for a particular person’s name based on something that happened to the person (or to his parents). One example is the name Issachar, which means something like “receiving recompense.” The name is alternatively understood as the result of Leah’s hiring out (ש.כ.ר) Jacob from Rachel in return for her son’s mandrakes (Gen 30:16) or as the reward (ש.כ.ר) for Leah giving her maid Zilpah to her husband as a wife (Gen 30:18).


The two implied etymologies of the name Jacob (Ya’akov) likewise reflect fateful events. One etymology is found in Genesis 25:26:

בראשית כה:כו וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב
Gen 25:26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob,

The other appears later in Genesis 27:36:

בראשית כז:לו וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם…
Gen 27:36 And he said: ‘Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he has tricked me these two times…

In both cases, Jacob’s name derives from the root ע.ק.ב; however, the first time it is used in the sense of “a heel,” meaning following someone, whereas the second time the meaning is that of deceiving someone.[7] It is therefore not surprising, that at a certain point in the narrative, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, so that the nation will not bear the name of a swindler.[8] Instead he is given a positive name and importantly, one with a theophoric element, namely with some form of God’s name in it.

Names with Theophoric Elements

In the Bible and throughout the ANE, many names included a theophoric element.[9] For example, the Egyptian name Rameses means “Son of Ra,” while Thutmose means “son of Thoth.”[10] The Akkadian name Sennacherib (Sîn-ahhī-erība) means “Sin sends many brothers” while Nebuchadnezzar (Nabu-kudurri-uṣur) likely means “Nabu protect the crown.”

This type of name was common in the Levant with gods such as Baal and El, as can be seen from documents of Mari (18th cent. BCE), Nuzi (14th– 15th cents. BCE), and the Bible. For example,

  • Jerubbaal (ירובעל) from Judges 9 likely means “Let Baal Contend,” though the Bible offers an alternative less religiously troublesome etymology, “He contends with Baal.”
  • Israel (ישראל) went through a similar reinterpretation. It likely means, “El strives,” though it was interpreted as “He strives with El.”
  • Samuel (שמואל) and Ishmael (ישמעאל) are both versions of “El hears.”
  • Daniel (דניאל)—Danel (דנאל) in Ugaritic—is “El judges.”

Both from biblical evidence as well as archaeological evidence, it is clear that the most popular theophoric element in ancient Israel and Judah was yah or yahu, reflecting the name YHWH. Thus,

  • Yehoshua (“YHWH is salvation”),
  • Yehoram (“YHWH is exalted”),
  • Yehoshaphat (“YHWH has judged”),
  • Ahaziah (“YHWH has grasped”),
  • Eliyahu (“My god is YHWH”), a double theophoric name.

Names Tied to their Meaning

From all of the above, we see the significance of names in ancient times was tied to their meaning, and thus, relevant only to those who speak the native language.

This is very different than, for instance, modern American naming practices, in which the meaning of a person’s name, if there is one, is often unknown or irrelevant to that parents or the individual. Parents who choose names like Scott or Brenda are not thinking about the non-English etymologies, but have other considerations. As we shall see, this is also true of naming practices in later periods of Jewish history, in which the meaning is no longer the driving force behind naming.

Babylonian and Persian Period Names

Not long after the destruction of Israel and Judah, the dominant language in the Cisjordan became Aramaic, and Aramaic names such as Ezra, Gibbar (Ezra 2:20), and Hatitah (Ezra 2:42) begin to appear. We also find a handful of Akkadian names in the Bible. Ezra 1:8 describes Sheshbazzar (perhaps a corrupt form of Shamash-aba-uṣur, “Shamash protect the father”) as a prominent member of the Davidic clan. Nehemiah 2:10 mentions Nehemiah’s arch rival, the leader of the Samaritans, whose name is Sanballat (Sin-uballiṭ, “Sin has saved”). The names of the Persian-Jewish heroes, Esther and Mordechai, are likely derived from Babylonian deities (Ishtar and Marduk respectively).

The lists of returnees contain a number of foreign names. In addition to some of the Aramic names referenced above, we find among those who return to Judah with Sheshbazzar (Ezra 2:2), for instance, someone with the Akkadian name Bilshan (Bēlšunu, “their Lord”), and another with the Persian name, Bagvai (“baga” means “god” in Persian).

Hellenistic and Rabbinic Periods

After the conquest of Alexander, and years of Greek and then Roman rule, Greek became a dominant language in the Levant. Thus, in the Hellenistic period we begin to see the use of Greek names, such as Menelaus, Jason, Antipater, Aristobolus, etc. We also find some rabbis with Greek names, (Antigonus, Alexandri, etc.), but only infrequently.

Aramaic names, which as stated above, began to appear already in the Persian period, remain part of the repertoire well into the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras, (Abba, Akiva, Nehorai, Chiya, Shemaiah), perhaps even gaining in popularity over time.

Insofar as Hebrew names, certain seemingly central biblical names virtually disappeared (Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses, Aaron), while others remained in use (Judah, Eliezer, Elyakim, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Jonathan, etc.). Non-biblical Hebrew names were also in use (Mattathias, Gamliel, Nahman, Meir).

Fatimid Period Jewish Names

We have a treasure-trove of information about 7th through 12th century Jewish society in Fatimid Egypt from the Cairo Geniza, including thousands of actual names. While studying this material, I recorded approximately 3,000 names cited in about 1,000 Genizah documents such as letters and court deeds, and it is on these findings that I wish to focus in the remainder of this piece.[11]

Intermittency (Paponomy) – Naming after Grandfathers

Beginning already in the Hellenistic periods (the 3rd-1st cents. BCE) and under the influence of this culture, the Jews developed the custom of giving newborn boys the names of their grandfathers, who were still alive, out of a desire to show respect to the older generation, and family tradition. This is how the norm of intermittency – naming the grandson after the grandfather, one generation after the next – came about.[12]

This custom continued long after the Hellenistic period ended, and remains popular among Sephardic Jews to this day. The Geniza preserves numerous examples of intermittency, with the same names recurring in the genealogical records of many families. This brought about the preservation of specific names that were repeated over the generations, while other, new or fashionable names were very rare.

Boys: Dual Hebrew and Arabic Names

Already in the Hellenistic period, we find examples of people who had two names, once Greek and one Hebrew, such as Shlomtziyon Alexandra, Johanan Hyrcanus, Joseph Caiaphas, Yannaius Alexander, etc.[13] In the Fatimid period, the linking of a Jewish with a non-Jewish name became the fashion. At first, the non-Jewish names were used only in relations with non-Jews, but gradually people began to use both their Hebrew and non-Hebrew names without distinction.

Males were given two names,[14] one in Hebrew and one in Arabic, both of which were used concurrently.[15] (This reality should be very familiar to the modern English speaking readers.) There was usually a linguistic or thematic connection between the two names.

  • Someone with the Hebrew name Nathan, Nethanel (“[God] Gave,”) received one of the following Arabic names: Hibba, Hibbat Allah, Wahab, Wahib, Mawhub, ‘Ata, ‘Atia.[16]
  • Someone with the Hebrew name ‘Ovadia, “Worshiper of God,” received the equivalent Arabic name ‘Abdallah.
  • Shemaria (“God preserves”) received the Arabic name Mahfuth, Hafath, from the Arabic root meaning “preserve.”

No ironclad rule seems to have determined when a man would use his Hebrew or Arabic name, although an overall pattern is discernable. The Hebrew name was mostly used for functions that may be defined as religious in nature, such as receiving aliyot and in religious documents such as a ketubah. The Arabic name was mostly used for business and in interaction with the larger (non-Jewish) world.

Biblical-Quranic Male Names for Boys

The most common names used by Jewish society were biblical-quranic (i.e., names of people in the Hebrew Bible and the Quran). This was the practice of the larger Islamic community in which the Jews lived and its reproduction in the Jewish community attests to extensive Jewish social involvement in Islamic society and the strong influence of its customs on the Jewish inhabitants of Muslim areas.

The most popular names, many of which were virtually absent in the previous periods, were those of the major biblical figures also mentioned in the Quran, such as,

  • Abraham – Ibrahim,
  • Itzhak – Isak,
  • Ya’aqov – Ya’qub,
  • Moshe – Musa,
  • Aharon – Harun,
  • David – Daud,
  • Shlomo – Suliman.

These given names remain popular in present-day Arabic society, alongside traditional-religious Arabic names such as Muhammad or ‘Ali.

Alternatively, names of obscure figures in the Bible, and those that do not appear in the Quran, such as Adonia, Assaf, or Paltiel, were not used by the Muslims, and only rarely by the Jews. It was not Jewish tradition that determined the popularity of a particular name, but an aspect of the influence of the Muslim culture in which the Jews lived.

Giving children Arabic and quranic names was not indicative of conversion to Islam. In fact, Jews generally refrained from providing their offspring with Muslim names with obvious Muslim religious connotations.[17] In other words, giving one’s children biblical-quranic names points to the Jews’ desire to integrate into the society in which they lived, at least partially, with respect to the aspects of daily life, but not to the religion.[18]

Girls: Only Arabic Names

Females played no role in synagogue life and had no practical need for a Hebrew name (even on the ketubah). Thus, girls were given only one name, usually a common Muslim one with no connection to either the Bible, the Quran, or Jewish tradition or history, and even their mothers or grandmothers.[19] Most female names describe certain characteristics or physical qualities, such as

  • Sa’ida – happy,
  • Na’ima – soft and gentle,
  • Mubaraka – blessed,
  • Faiza – winner,
  • Maymuna – happy.

I found only a few female Hebrew names, and these, too, were apparently originally Arabic names that had been given a Hebrew form, like the Hebrew name Malka from the Arabic name Malika, which means “queen” in both languages. I have not found any biblical names such as Sarah, Rivka or Leah.

Not Addressing a Woman by Her Name

One common practice was to address a woman, after her marriage, not by her given name but by a title based on the word sitt, which means lady, such as in sitt al-bayt (lady of the house), or sitt al-dar (lady of the family). People referred to a woman as a lady of the house rather than an individual who participate in social, economic, or political life. This was intended to emphasize the fact that women did not take part in the world outside their homes, in the street or commercial life, but to reflect a literal (and rabbinic) interpretation of the verse “In all glorious things the king’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:14).[20]

What Names Teach Us About the Social and Legal Status of Women

That women did not get Hebrew names and were not even addressed by their given names after marriage fits with their social and legal status in this culture, which was identical to that of their Muslim sisters, who were controlled and managed by men, with defined tasks in her home. Women’s domination by men lasted throughout every stage of their lives: as children, by their fathers; as young women, by their husbands; and in old age, usually by their first-born son. Not many women managed to achieve independent status, other than widows, divorcees, or single women with no men at their side.

The Jewish Success of Integrating into the Muslim Society

The Jewish naming pattern for girls and boys in medieval Islamic societies is part of the overall historical picture. As a rule, the Jews were almost fully integrated into the surrounding society. This was both their aim and coincided with the goals of the Fatimid rulers of eleventh-century Egypt.[21] The Geniza records suggest that the Jews enjoyed full integration into the commercial and economic life of the country and to a large extent, the political activities of the kingdom as well.[22]

Many of the letters written by Jewish merchants attest to this, and mention business partnerships with Muslims, collaborations with clerks working for Muslim merchants, and even very friendly social relationships with Muslims. Other letters, of a public nature, demonstrate repeated political cooperation, when Jews needed the help of senior Muslim officials, and even vice versa, when influential Jews were able to help out Muslim acquaintances in need of their aid. In fact, Jews (and Christians) reached senior positions in the Fatimid administration – almost every Fatimid imam had a Jewish physician or financier.[23]


Exploring the nature and conduct of a society by given names offers an important historical and anthropological tool. As we saw, in the ANE, including ancient Israel and Judah, most names had meaning in the native language and names were chosen for this meaning, and this seems to hold true for the naming of boys and girls. The concept of naming after a relative is unattested.

A major shift begins in the Hellenistic era, in which the dominant culture has different practices and speaks a foreign language (Greek), and the specific meaning of the name becomes less important. By the time we get to Jewish society in Muslim society in the Middle Ages, all meanings are gone.[24] In place of naming for meaning we have a practice that treats naming as a selection from a menu or inventory book of important people from the past, whether in the Bible or in one’s family.


December 12, 2016


Last Updated

February 13, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Elinoar Bareket is a Senior Lecturer at Achva Academic College, where she serves as the head of the History Department. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Tel Aviv University in Jewish History. Among her books are, The Jews of Egypt 1007-1055, based on Documents from the ‘Archive’ of Efraim ben Shemarya [Hebrew], Fustat on the Nile; The Jewish Elite in Medieval Egypt, and The Gaonite Era; Jews Under Islamic Rule During 7-12 Centuries.