A popular name with a religious meaning: Michael means, “Who is like God?” Image via etsy.com.
Every language has its charms. And every time a person learns a new language, a window opens onto new ways of perceiving the world and new ways of thinking.
One of the charms of Hebrew, for me, is its delightful trove of personal names. Growing up in America, I generally experienced names as proper nouns, labels specific to individuals, and therefore something to be taken, simply, for granted. At age 20, though, when I began to study Hebrew, I discovered a world brimming with meaning and teeming with life. Visiting Israel in the 1970s, on any given day I was likely to meet figures from the animal kingdom—people named wolf, bear, bee, bird, ewe, lion, or cub (Zeev, Dov, Devorah, Tzipora, Rachel, Arieh, or Gur). Joining these were all manner of graceful horned creatures, including deer, fawn, ibex, and gazelle (Tzvi, Ofer, Yael, and Ayalah). I was surrounded, too, by a profusion of flowers and trees: not only dahlias, susans, myrtle, laurel, roses, irises, and lilies (concepts familiar to me from English, and in Hebrew called Dahlia, Shoshana, Hadas, Dafna, Vered, Iris, and Lily), but also Tamar, Savyon, Havatzelet, Rotem, Ilan, Ilana, Alon, Alona, Nitza and more. Many names prevalent in Hebrew at the time had been self-consciously chosen to denote flora and fauna of the land of Israel, reflecting Zionist love of the land.
Similarly, names reflecting religious belief proliferated, often as part of deliberate attempts to reinvigorate Jewish identity. There were names that directly expressed faith: Emunah (faith), Geulah (redemption), Nissim (miracles), and those that referred to God, such as Nehemiah (God comforts) and Azaryah (God helped). Most striking to me as a Hebrew learner were names perennially popular in English, but whose meaning often remains obscure to English speakers and yet patently obvious in Hebrew. Among them are Daniel (God is my judge), Raphael (God healed), Michael (who is like God?), Nathaniel (God gave), Yoel (that is, Joel: the Lord is God), Yohanan (John: God’s grace), Yonatan (Jonathan: God gave).
Identification with the biblical past gave rise to many Israeli names with secular rather than religious intent. Some names recall ancient heroes (such as Gideon, from the root indicating “to hew, cut down”; and Yair, from the root “to shine”). Some, highly traditional, recall characters whose names are the subject of etymological discussion within the biblical text itself. Think of Avram/Avraham (father of multitudes), Shimeon (Simon, having to do with hearing), and Reuven (perhaps indicating “God saw my misery” or, perhaps, “Look, a son”).
If names favored by a society indicate important cultural values, consider how many forms of happiness Hebrew celebrates. In English, to be sure, we have Joy and Felicity. Hebrew, though, is overflowing with possibilities: Ron, Rona, Rina, Yaron, Simcha, Sasson, Asher, Yizhak, Aliza, Gil, Gila, Gayil, Hedva, and Edna, for example, each with its own nuances. What vitality! Not to mention, Hayim (“life” itself) and Havah (also “life”).