The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 25 December 2021 / 21 Tevet 5782

Moses Many Names

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

An obscure passage in the Book of Chronicles discusses Caleb’s children sired through his “Jewish” wife. She was said to have given birth to Yered, the father of Gedor; Chever, the father of Socho; and Yekutiel, the father of Zanoach (I Chron. 4:18, according to Radak). However, rabbinic tradition tells us that the entire Book of Chronicles is meant as fodder for exegesis and should not be read literally (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3). In that spirit, the Midrash interprets all of the names listed above as references to none other than Moses (Moshe). This assertion is bolstered by the appearance of Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah at the end of the passage in question.

Drawing from the above verse in Chronicles, the Midrash asserts that Moses had six names:

  1. Yered refers to Moses for one of three reasons: According to the first two explanations, this name is derived from the Hebrew verb la’redet (“to descend”) and either refers to Moses bringing down the Torah from the Heavens above, or to his bringing G-d’s Holy Presence down to Earth. The third explanation connects Yered to the Hebrew verb l’rdot (“to lord over”), and refers to Moses’ role as the king/leader of the Jewish people (see Zevachim 102a). The Talmud (Megillah 13a) adds that Moses was called Yered because the manna “descended” from the heavens in his times (and, actually, in his merit, according to Taanit 9a).
  2. “Father of Gedor,” or Avigdor, is related to the Hebrew word geder (“fence,” “boundary”) and refers to the fact that although the Jewish People merited many fence-makers — that is, important Sages who “built a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1) to distance people from sin — Moses was the “father” of all such leaders. The Talmud (Megillah 13a) clarifies that Moses rectified the Jews’ breaches by establishing the “boundaries” of law.
  3. Chever refers to Moses in one of two ways: First, the Midrash links this word to the Hebrew word chibbur (“connection,” “bond”), explaining that Moses served as the impetus for connecting the Jewish People to G-d. The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) explains that Moses did this by presiding over putting up the Mishkan. Second, the Midrash links the name Chever to the Hebrew root AYIN-BET-REISH (presumably, by way of the interchangeability of CHET and AYIN), which means “to pass.” The Midrash cryptically says that this refers to Moses causing punishments and retribution to be “passed over,” which I think refers to his pleading with G-d to not punish the Jews for the Golden Calf.
  4. “Father of Socho,” or Avi-Socho, is understood by the Midrash as related to the Hebrew word sochech (“gazer,” “seer”), which is a codeword for prophecy. The Midrash thus explains that Moses is called Avi-Socho because he was the “father of prophets” in the sense that he reached a level of prophecy unparalleled by all his future successors. The Talmud (Megillah 13a) adds that Moses was like a succah (“protective hut”) for the Jewish People, because his merits were so plentiful (see Targum Rav Yosef to I Chron. 4:18). The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) clarifies that this refers to Moses protecting the Jewish People from punishment after they complained at Taveira (see Num. 11:2).
  5. Yekutiel is expounded by the Midrash as though it were derived from the Hebrew word mikaveh/tikvah (“waiting,” “hoping”), in reference to Moses’ role in establishing G-d’s place as the Great Hope of the Jewish People. The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) explains that Moses achieved this by serving as the reason for the manna to fall every morning, thereby giving the Jews a reason to look forward to G-d’s bounty daily.
  6. “Father of Zanoach,” or Avi-Zanoach, is seen by the Midrash as related to the Hebrew root ZAYIN-NUN-CHET, which means “to forsake/reject/leave.” In this sense, Moses was the father of “the rejecters,” because under his leadership the Jewish People “rejected” idol worship. The Vilna Gaon (to I Chron. 4:18) asserts that this refers to Moses helping the Jews achieve Divine atonement after the sin of the Ten Spies.

After explaining these six names, the Midrash lists another four names that were given to Moses based on other sources:

  1. Toviah (Tobias) — because when Moses was born, the Bible says (Ex. 2:1): “And she (Moses’ mother) saw him, that he was ‘good’ (tov).” Nowadays, most people pronounce this name as Tuviah even though in the Bible it is vowelized as Toviah. Dr. Alexander Beider notes in his Dictionary of Ashkenazi Given Names that scholars do not know what caused the vowel shift in this name. The name Toviah appears several other times in the Bible, seemingly in reference to other people, including the father of a family that returned to the Holy Land with Zerubabel (Ezra 2:60, Neh. 7:62), a kohen in the early Second Temple period (Zech. 6:10, 6:14), and an Ammonite slave who tried to thwart Nehemiah’s efforts in rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh. 2:10–19, 3:35, 4:1, 6–7, 13:4-7).
  2. Shemaiah (see I Chron. 24:6) — because G-d “heard” (shema) Moses’ prayers. This name is understood as a reference to Moses because the person in Chronicles who bears this name was said to have played a role in establishing the 24 Kohanic Shifts, which is an institute that dates back to Moses. This name also appears several other times in the Bible in reference to other people: a legitimate prophet in the time of Jeroboam (II Kings 12:22, II Chron. 12:5-15), a false prophet in the time of Jeremiah (Jer. 29:31-32), and various other Levites and Israelites.
  3. Ben Netanel (see I Chron. 24:6) — because Moses “gave” (natan) over the Torah from G-d to the Jewish People.
  4. Levi (see I Chron. 24:6) — because Moses was a grandson of Levi.

Based on these additional names, the Midrash asserts that, all in all, Moses had ten names. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3 and Shemot Rabbah 1:26) concludes that of all the various names that Moses had, the Torah chose to refer to him as Moshe, the name which was given to him by Bithiah, as reward for the kindness that she bestowed upon him by adopting him and raising him. And even G-d called him Moshe and not any of his other names.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979) explains that each of Moses’ ten names reflects a different facet of his personality and teaches us something different about his greatness. The name Moshe, in particular, teaches us that from a young age Moses was instilled with the concept of giving up one’s life to do kindness to others, just as his foster-mother Bithiah had risked her life by taking in a Jewish child simply in order to help the baby survive. We see this aspect of Moses’ personality when he later defended the Jewish People following the sin of the Golden Calf and even requested to be “erased from Your book” (Ex. 32:32) in pursuit of saving the Jews from punishment.

Either way, the Midrash’s conclusion implies that only the name Moshe was given to him by Bithiah, while Moses’ other names were given to him by others. Indeed, the apocryphal Midrashic work Divrei HaYamim Shel Moshe (see Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein’s Otzar Midrashim, page 358) explains that Moses received each of his names from a different person: Bithiah called him Moshe, Amram (Moses’ father) called him Chever (because for Moses’ sake he reunited/reconnected with his previously-divorced wife to sire this son), Yocheved (Moses’ mother) called him Yekutiel, Miriam (Moses’ sister) called him Yered (because she “went down” to the river to see his fate), Aaron (Moses’ brother) called him Avi-Zanoach (because his father had initially “forsaken” his mother by divorcing her), Kohath (Moses’ grandfather) called him Avi-Gedor (because through Moses’ birth the decree to throw all Jewish boys into the river was repealed), Moses’ wet-nurse called him Socho (Zayit Raanan notes that even though Moses’ mother nursed him, she apparently hired a wet-nurse as well), and the Jewish people called him Shemaiah ben Netanel, and this tradition is also cited by Sefer HaYashar and Yalkut Shimoni to Exodus 166. However, see Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 2:22, 4:20) who dismisses Divrei HaYamim Shel Moshe from being a reliable source because it does not come from the prophets or Chazal.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 15a) claims that Heiman (found in Psalms) is also another name for Moses. That name literally means the “trustworthy one.” The Talmudic identification of Heiman with Moses might be the basis for the Zoharic appellation Raya Mehemna (“the trustworthy shepherd”) that is also applied to Moses.

Rabbi Gedaliah Ibn Yachya (1515-1587), in his work Shalsheles HaKabbalah, cites a tradition that claims that Moses' original name was Tamar/Tamur, which means "raising" (as in "raising" an adopted child) in Egypt. To the best of my knowledge, this name is not mentioned in any other source.

Interestingly, the poem Yetziv Pitgam (customarily read on the Second Day of Shavuot) refers to somebody named “the humble man Yehonatan.” Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841) claims that Yehonatan is actually one of Moses’ ten names, but his grandson-in-law Rabbi Chanoch Henoch Teitelbaum (Mayer) of Sassov (1884-1942) points out that there is no rabbinic source that claims Yehonatan as one of Moses’ names.

I would note, however, that the name Yehonatan is essentially the same as the name Netanel, as both names are comprised of a cognate of natan (“give”), plus a theophoric element that refers to G-d. In Yehonatan, that theophoric reference is the prefix yeho- which represents the first three letters of the Tetragrammaton, while in the case of Netanel the theophoric element is the suffix -el, which also refers to G-d. What’s fascinating is that the Bible (Judges 18:30) relates that the priest at Micah's idol was named Yehonatan, son of Gershon, son of Menashe, with the letter NUN in the name Menashe superscripted as though it were not part of the actual text. Based on this, the Rabbis (see Bava Batra 109b-110a) explain that the idolatrous priest Yehonatan was none other than a grandson of Moses (because Menashe sans the NUN spells out Moshe, and Moses had a son named Gershon). So even if Yehonatan is not explicitly mentioned as an alternate name for Moses, it is certainly the name of one of his grandsons who may have been named after his illustrious grandfather.

For more discussion of whether the name Moses is a Hebrew translation of the Egyptian names Monius or Mosh, see “Appendix B: Egyptian Names in the Bible” in my book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press).

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