What’s In A Name?

My weekly lectures (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת במדבר discussed the legitimacy of the use of non-Jewish names by Jews:

In parashas Bemidbar (1:2), Hashem commands Moshe to count the Jews “with the number of their names”. The Sforno explains that this census (as opposed to the one at the end of chumash Bemidbar) included their names, since everyone from that generation had names that alluded to their personal nature, a distinction that the subsequent generation did not possess.

Elsewhere (Bereishis 29:35), the Sforno opines that the names that Yaakov Avinu’s wives chose for their children were not invented by them, but were preexisting names that they chose due to their linguistic applicability to their personal circumstances.

According to the Sforno, then, Biblical names were not necessarily natively Jewish. The Talmud itself contains a similar opinion about the name Esther. According to one view, Esther’s true name was Hadassah, while Esther was the name that the “nations of the world” called her, alluding to “Istahar” (Megilah 13a), meaning either the moon (Rashi), or the planet Venus (Yaavetz, Targum Sheni Megilah 2:7).

This etymology of the name Esther as being of non-Jewish origin has an important ramification for the law of gittin (bills of divorce). A fundamental dichotomy in these laws exists between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” names, with different rules applying to how they are written in a get, and the question arises as to how to categorize a name like “Alexander”: on the one hand, it is certainly of Greek, and not Jewish, origin, but on the other hand, it was already a common Jewish name in the Talmudic era. One of the classic works on the laws governing the writing of names in gittin, the Get Mesudar (Mavo Shearim, Pesher Davar #2), rules in favor of the view that “Alexander” is treated as a Jewish name, for “even the name Esther did not sprout from holy ground, for it is from the Persian language … but it is nevertheless considered a Hebrew name since it had become common among Jews back when they still spoke the Holy Tongue, and it is also written in the Holy Scriptures, and so too Alexander and similar [names]”.

[We have previously discussed Esther / Istahar / Venus / Ishtar here.]

The earliest halachic discussion of this basic topic of which I am aware is that of Rav Shmuel de Medina (Rashdam):

שאלה אלו האנוסים שבאים מפורטוגל והיו להם שמות כשמות הגוים ואחר שבאו לבקש את ד’ ואת תורתו משנים שמם לשמות בני ישראל ויש להם צורך לכתוב ממקום אשר הם יושבים ביהדותם אל המקום אשר היה להם שמות כשמות הגוים אם לקרוביהם ואם למי שנושא ונתון ממונם אם יכולים לכתוב ולשנות שמם כשמות אשר היו להם בגיותם או אם יש חשש איסור בדבר מפני שנראה מקיים היותו עדין גוי ובלתי מודה בתורת ד’

תשובה אמת כי מדת חסידות לא קאמינא דודאי מדת חסידות הוא להרחיק האדם עצמו בכל מיני הרחקות שאיפשר ובפרט למי שעברו על ראשו המים הזדונים אכן מן הדין נראה בעיני דבר ברור שאין בזה חשש איסור כלל

[ועיין שם שהאריך להוכיח להתיר, ובתוך דבריו כתב:] שמות הגוים אינם אסורים ליהודים וראיה לדבר דאמרינן בגיטין פ’ א’ [פרק א’] … ולא תימא דוקא שמות הרגילים ישראל וגוים יחד אבל שמות מובהקים לגוים לא שהרי מתוך דברי הרא”ש משמע בפירוש שהיו ישראלים נקראים כשמות מובהקים של גוים …1

[I am always struck by Rashdam’s use of the idiom “שעברו על ראשו המים הזדונים” to refer to baptism …]

And while we’re on the topic of the names of Yaakov’s children, I’ll take the opportunity to cite Hizkuni’s utterly charming interpretation2 of Leah’s declaration, upon the birth of her third child, that “הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים”: a woman can manage two children with her two hands, but requires her husband’s help once her offspring number three!

עד עכשיו הייתי מנהלת שני בני בשתי ידי ועכשיו שנולד לו בן שלישי יצטרך אישי לסייע לי לנהלם:3

  1. שו”ת מהרשד”ם יו”ד סימן קצ”ט []
  2. Recently brought to my attention by my friend Y.Z. []
  3. חזקוני, בראשית כט:לד []

Wives, Work and Wages

Over the past couple of years, I gave several lectures, and published a couple of my weekly halachah columns, revolving around the right of a wife to make charitable donations without her husband’s consent:

Vayakhel: Wives, Work and Wages

In the course of its narration of the donations to the Tabernacle, the Torah relates (35:22): “The men came with the women; everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose-rings, rings, body ornaments – all sorts of gold ornaments – every man who raised up an offering of gold to HASHEM.” The Sforno explains that the men needed to accompany the women in order for the officers to accept the latter’s donations, since the halachah prohibits accepting donations larger than a de minimis amount from (married) women (without verifying their husbands’ consent) (cf. Meshech Chochmah beginning of parashas Terumah and Or Ha’Chaim 25:2).

The Panim Yafos, on the other hand, while also understanding the Biblical text to imply the necessity of the husbands’ consent, nevertheless limits this to the donations of jewelry that are the subject of this verse, since a wife cannot sell her jewelry without her husband’s consent. When the Torah subsequently relates (35:25): “Every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands; and they brought the spun yarn of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, and the linen”, no mention is made of the husbands, since although a wife’s earnings belong to her husband, this is a rabbinic institution, and had not yet been established.

The Talmud explains that a husband is granted his wife’s earnings in exchange for the obligation to maintain her (Kesubos 47b). The halachah follows the view that this arrangement is for the wife’s benefit, and she therefore has the right to opt out and declare: “I decline to be supported [by my husband] and I will not work [for him]” (ibid. 58b). Some maintain that a wife who makes this declaration is merely exempt from the duty to earn money for her husband, but is still obligated in the housework duties enumerated in the halachah (such as cooking and laundering – see ibid. 59b), while others rule that she is exempt from all labor on behalf of her husband. Since the question remains unresolved, a wife who has declined support cannot be compelled to perform any work for her husband (see Rema EH 80:15; Chelkas Mechokek s.k. 27; Beis Shmuel s.k. 21; Piskei Din shel Batei Ha’Din Ha’Rabaniim Be’Yisrael, Vol. 2. p. 3).

Terumah: Charitable Contributions From Married Women

Parshas Terumah begins with Hashem instructing Moshe to accept donations “of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart”. The Meshech Chochmah explains that donations could only be accepted from men, but not from [married] women, as reflected in the Talmudic prohibition against accepting large charitable contributions from married women (Bava Kama 119a). Classic halachah assumes that husbands and wives retain individual ownership of their respective assets, so a wife may not on her own authority donate her husband’s assets to charity (nor, presumably, may a husband donate his wife’s). Nevertheless, some halachic authorities have argued that in contemporary times, donations may be accepted from married women, for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • The Raavan (end of Bava Kama) declares that “contemporary” (twelfth century German) women have the status of “guardians” (apotroposos) over their husbands’ assets (i.e., they are generally so entrusted by their husbands, but cf. Yam Shel Shlomo ibid. Ch. 10 #59).
  • The standard text of the traditional engagement contract (tenaim) includes the phrase “[the spouses] shall rule over their assets coequally”. R. Yechiel Michel Hibner (Mishkenos Ha’Ro’im, Kuntres Eis Dodim p. 13) argues that this constitutes an explicit contractual stipulation that the spouses shall have equal control over all their assets. R. Shlomo Kluger (Shut. Tuv Ta’am Va’Da’as 3:181) strongly disagrees, arguing that the phrase in question is not legal language, but merely a blessing for marital harmony, to the extent that the spouses shall willingly share control over their assets.
  • R. Yehuda Leib Graubart (Shut. Chavalim Ba’Ne’imim 5:34) argues that since modern secular law treats wives as partners in their husbands’ assets, this becomes the prevailing custom, and husbands therefore tacitly accept this arrangement when marrying (but see the sharp dissent in Shut. Va’Yevarech David, Even Ha’Ezer #127, and cf. R. Chaim Jachter’s “Bittul Chametz and Contemporary Financial Arrangements”).

My lectures on this topic are available at the Internet Archive:

Qui facit Per Alium Facit Per Se

My weekly halachah column for parashas Korah:

In parashas Korach, we are commanded to support the Cohanim (priests) and Leviim (Levites) by the donations of terumah and ma’aser respectively, and the Leviim in turn are commanded to give a tithe of their ma’aser to the Cohanim. This latter injunction is expressed by the words (Bemidbar 18:28): “So shall you, too, raise up the gift of Hashem from all your tithes that you accept from the children of Israel”. While the simple sense of the phrase “you, too” apparently refers to the parallelism between the initial ma’aser (tithe) of the Israelites and the “tithe from the tithe” of the Leviim, the Talmud (Kidushin 41b) understands it hermeneutically as an allusion to the possibility of agency: a Levi may either separate his “tithe from the tithe” himself, or he may appoint an agent to do so on his behalf. This is one of several sources for the halachic doctrine of agency.

One exception to this doctrine is where the task being delegated to the agent is sinful. A principal is not liable for the criminal consequences of his agent’s action: “There is no agent for a sinful matter”, since “the words of the master [i.e., Hashem] and the words of the disciple [i.e., the human principal], to whose words does one listen?” This seems to imply that halachah has no notion of criminal conspiracy, and indeed, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch CM 348:8 and 388:15) rules that one who merely commissions a theft or other tort but does not participate in its actual perpetration has no liability. He does, however, allow for certain exceptions, such as where the agent has an established history of engaging in the sort of tortious conduct in question, since in this case “it is widely known that he does not listen to the words of the master”. The Shach (CM siman 182 s.k. 1, siman 348 s.k. 6, siman 388 s.k. 67), however, disagrees, repeatedly insisting that as a matter of normative halachah, the inapplicability of agency to sinful conduct is absolute and without exception.

My weekly parashah lectures (with accompanying handouts), on the general topic of agency in halachah, are available at the Internet Archive.