Rabbi Michael Rosenfeld-Schuerer
A biblical character’s name often denotes meaning and symbolism. Sometimes, the narrative will explain the background or reason for each name, and at times there is more ambiguity or the commentaries offer insight. For example, Abraham’s name change is broken down to “father of the many” which signifies his vital role in teaching ethical monotheism. As there is a custom of reading the book of Ruth on Shavuot, this discussion will focus on the names in the book of Ruth.
The recurring theme of names in Ruth is noteworthy. Yeal Ziegler’s Ruth (2015) notes that the word name is mentioned repeatedly in the story – seven times in chapters one and two and seven times in chapter four. The repetition of any word seven times in a biblical narrative more than subtlety indicates to the reader to take notice and contemplate its significance.
The opening to the book of Ruth begins with nameless individuals- “And a certain man of Bethlem in Yehuda went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons” (Ruth 1.1). Perhaps this is to draw the reader’s attention to the theme of the name. There is a certain element of irony in the place of Bethlehem, which literally means house of bread, experiences a famine.
Naomi is one of, if not the most central character in the book of Ruth. The etymology of her name initially seems positive and similar to that of Na’ama, Noah’s wife. It means beautiful and pleasant; however, Naomi herself reflects “And she said to them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1.20). Mara means bitter, which teaches us that names can contain both an element of positive inspiration alongside a healthy dose of critique in reaching a didactic conclusion.
The rabbinic literature also provides some criticism of Naomi. For example, Ruth Rabba (2.12) is critical of Naomi’s choice to abandon those depending on her wealthy family in Bethlehem and the rabbis also view her return to Bethlehem with reproach. “’And they [Ruth and Naomi] walked on the road to return to the land of Judah’ (Ruth 1.7). Rabbi Yohanan said, they transgressed the way of the Torah and walked on the Festival. Another explanation, “they walked on the road” means the road narrowed for them and they walked alone.” While the first explanation indicates Naomi’s blatant trampling of the true, proper and correct path of Torah which includes not travelling on the Sabbath or Festival. The second explanation highlights the physical and emotional distance that Naomi places between her and her daughters-in-law.
The above discussion of Naomi propels us to consider our own names as well. Have we changed our names? Do we identify with our name’s meaning? What are the layers in our own life’s narrative, our own story?