Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How's Nimrod for a Nice Jewish Name? How about Balaam? Call me Ishmael?

Anyone who has read any of my posts probably knows by now that I am fascinated by names, especially Biblical names. Names reveal a great deal about the beliefs, hopes, superstitions and fears of the people that bear them.

With the birth of Zionism and the first and second aliya, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish settlers in Eretz Israel began giving their children names that probably had not been utilized since Biblical times. For the first time in Jewish history since the days of the Bible, nice Jewish boys were walking around with such names as Nimrod (a particularly evil Mesopotamian king who some identify with Gilgamesh), Omri (another evil Israelite king), and Amatziah (an evil Judean king).

But is it true that these names (among many others) were considered non-kosher throughout Jewish history (as Rabbi Avi Shafran would have us believe, see here ) until the Zionist movement made them Kosher again[1]?

Let's first begin with the name Nimrod and its seemingly inexplicable popularity in Israel. The following article sheds some light on that particular phenomenon.

The main founders and leaders of Zionism in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century were mostly non-religious, sometimes anti-religious. Zionist thinkers, historians and writers reinterpreted the whole of Jewish history (including, and especially, the Bible) from a secular nationalist viewpoint considerably different from and sometimes diametrically opposite to the religious Jewish tradition.

Specifically, the search went on for past historical or mythical figures who could be depicted as National Heroes, such as those which inspired the European national movements of the 19th Century. Those fitting the role were often placed on pedestals even when Jewish tradition frowned upon or strongly condemned them (for example King Omri of ancient Israel, which the Bible describes as an evil idolater but which Zionists approved of as a victorious warrior king and the founder of a strong dynasty).

Sculptor Yitzhak Danziger, who was born in Germany and emigrated to the then British Mandate of Palestine, created his statue "Nimrod" in 1938-1939 (pictured top).

The "Nimrod" statue is 90 centimetres high and made of Red Nubian Sandstone imported from Petra in Jordan. It depicts Nimrod as a naked hunter, uncircumcised, carrying a bow and with a hawk on his shoulder. The style shows the influence of Ancient Egyptian statues.

The unveiling of the statue caused a scandal. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem which had commissioned Danziger's statue was not happy with the result and religious circles made strong protests.

Within a few years, however, the statue was universally acclaimed as a major masterpiece of Israeli art, and has noticeably influenced and inspired the work of later sculptors, painters, writers and poets up to the present.

The Nimrod Statue was also taken up as the emblem of a cultural-political movement known as "The Cannanites" which advocated the shrugging off of the Jewish religious tradition, cutting off relations with Diaspora Jews and their culture, and adopt in its place a "Hebrew Identity" based on ancient Semitic heroic myths - such as Nimrod's. Though never gaining mass support, the movement had a considerable influence on Israeli intellectuals in the 1940s and early 1950s.

One tangible lasting result is that "Nimrod" has become a fairly common male name in present-day Israel. In the 1940s, bestowing it upon a newborn child was something of political statement. In the present generation, however, it is taken simply as a name like any other (as English-speaking parents giving their child the name "George" do not necessarily spend much thought on the legendary dragon-slaying saint who bore that name)

An alternate explanation offered for the popularity of Nimrod has to do with the politics of the Yishuv during the British Mandate. The name Nimrod which means "rebellion" was used as just another weapon in the Zionist struggle against British rule.

Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli a senior editor at MEMRI was born in Iraq in 1933. Perhaps his parents gave him the name for the reason mentioned in the article or maybe Nimrod was an acceptable name for a nice Jewish boy living in Iraq in the 30s.

Nimrod as an Insult

In English, Nimrod has a very negative connotation. From the
Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears. Fourth Edition.
2007 :


  1. n.
    a simpleton; a nerd. : What stupid nimrod left the lid off the cottage cheese?

I feel bad for those Israeli expats named Nimrod who now live in LA and Miami....


In 2007, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, Chief Rabbi of the city of Holon and the son of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef came under heavy criticism after he publicized a ruling on his weekly radio show stating that people who possess such"wicked names" as Herzl (in Israel, Herzl as a proper name used to be quite common especially among mizrahi Jews) and Nimrod must change them immediately (see here).

It was his condemnation of Herzl that aroused the ire of many. Religious Zionist commentator Uri Orbach took issue with Yosef's characterization of Herzl as wicked and accused him of pandering to anti-Zionist Charedim.

The Name Ishmael

One of the stranger recurring names throughout Jewish history is that of Yishmael. In the Bible, Yishmael is considered to the be the wicked son of Abraham and is banished from his household along with his mother Hagar. In later Rabbinic tradition Yishmael is considered to be the ancestor of the modern Arab nation.

In the Midrashic tradition however, Yishmael repented towards the end of his life and reconciled with his brother Isaac thus rendering the name Kosher (?).

The question still remains why the name Yishmael pops up even after the rise of Islam, when the name would probably have taken on a "heavier" connotation. Yet we see at least 2 Yishmaels, one in 18th century Italy (see here) and one in 16th century Egypt (see here) . S. from the onthemainline blog opines that Yishmael was an acceptable name only among Cohanim because of Rabbi Ishmael the High Priest who was martyred in circa 70 c.e. (the aforementioned 2 were indeed cohanim).

The Name Balaam

Balaam son of Beor though a prophet is reviled in the Bible as a "wicked man". Balaam attempted to curse the Israelites after being commissioned to do so by the evil Moabite king Balak. He failed all three tries, each time producing blessings, not curses (Numbers 22-24).

In Numbers 31:7 the text mentions in passing that the Israelites killed him
"They warred against Midian, as God commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain ... and they also slew Balaam the son of Beor with the sword".

Later Rabbinic views are likewise harsh. In Tractate Sanhedrin 2:90A the Rabbis state that he has no share in the world to come.

Given all the above, it is astonishing to find a major Jewish grammarian in medieval Spain by the name of Rabbi Judah Ibn Balaam(!) see his commentary on Judges here


After digging around for some more information. I came across an interesting clue here

את שמו יש לבטא, ככל הנראה, בפתח: אבן-בַּלְעָם; השם 'בַּלְעָם', על פי הידוע כיום, אינו אלא קיצור של אבן-אלעם, שם
המופיע בכמה כתבים שנמצאו בגניזת קהיר.


The name should be pronounced with a patach, Ibn Balaam (and not Bilam with a chirik). Balaam is a shortened version (or a corruption?) of the name Ibn Alam, which appears numerous times among the documents found in the Cairo Genizah

This is all a bit confusing because in the English language Balaam is always pronounced Balaam and never Bilam. However in Hebrew it's always Bilam
בִּלְעָם and never Balaam בַּלְעָם.

The Name Amnon

Amnon is an interesting case. In the Biblical account, Amnon one of King David's sons is portrayed as a rapist and an overall unsavory individual, yet the name does appear sporadically throughout Jewish history (not to mention modern times where it is but another very popular name in Israel among religious and secular Jews alike, examples include Amnon Yitzchak, Amnon Lipkin-Shachak and many others). Among the most notable Jewish figures with the name Amnon was a German Rabbi Amnon of Mainz who is said to have composed the most important prayer of the High Holidays liturgy, namely "unetaneh tokef". Some historians maintain however that this Amnon never existed and he was certainly not the composer of that prayer [2].

The Name Korach

The Biblical Korach is another figure in the gallery of Biblical villains. He was severely punished for daring to foment a rebellion against the leadership of Moses. Some Rabbinic authorities were also of the opinion that he has no share in the world to come. It is perhaps fitting then that the name Korach does not reappear (at least to my knowledge) anywhere in Jewish literature. Well, that's not entirely true, it doesn't appear as a proper name but it does appear as a surname. There is a prominent Rabbinic family of Yemenite origin in Israel with the surname Korach (apparently there are also Ashkenazic Jews with the surname Korach, see here ). The most well known member of this family is Rabbi Shlomo Korach, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak. The tradition maintained in this family of Levites is that they are directly descended of the Biblical Korach.

By the way, I should point out that in Rabbinic sources, the sons of Korach are said to have repented and they hold an exalted position in the Jewish narrative. Many of the compositions found in the book of Psalms are attributed to the sons of Korach.

Here is a video of Rabbi Korach:

A Tosafist Rabbi named Peter?

I may as well also direct the interested reader to a fascinating post by my good friend S. over at onthemainline blog regarding the use of the (christian) name Peter among Jews.


If the reader thinks that Nimrod is a strange choice for a Jewish name, see here for an example of 14th century Polish Jews with names like Canaan(!) and Jordan.

[2]. Thank you to Professor Menachem Kellner and Menachem Butler from the Seforim Blog for posting the following wealth of sources on Rabbi Amnon and "unetaneh tokef".

For a useful discussion of what is actually known about the poem (as opposed to what we have all been taught about Rabbi Amnon), see Ivan G. Marcus, "Kiddush HaShem in Ashkenaz and the Story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz,” in Isaiah M. Gafni and Aviezer Ravitzky (eds.), Sanctity in Life and Martyrdom: Studies in Memory of Amir Yekutiel (Jerusalem; Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1992), 131-147 (Hebrew); Menahem Shmelzer, “Sefer Or Zarua and the Legend of Rabbi Amnon,” in Adri K. Offenberg (ed.), Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana: Treasures of Jewish Booklore: Treasures of Jewish Booklore Marking the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Leeser Rosenthal, 1794-1994 (Amsterdam University Press, 2003), available online; David Golinkin's discussion online; as well as Jacob J. Schacter's lecture, "U-Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Ha-Yom: Medieval Story and Modern Significance" (sources [PDF]).

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Hebrew Sources on the Location of Moshe Rabbenu's Burial Place


בספר התמונה [מיוחס לתנא רבי נחוניא בן הקנה ופירושו למקובל מן הראשונים] כתב שהמלאכים העבירו את משה רבינו למערת המכפלה וז"ל: [מהדורת קארעץ, תמונה ג' אות ר' דף ס': "וה' זוגות נקברו במערה; ג' נגלות וב' נסתרות, הגלוים הם: אברהם ושרה, יצחק ורבקה, יעקב ולאה. והנסתרות הם: אדם וחוה, משה וציפורה".

"ואע"פ שנא' במשה [דברים לד, ו] "ויקבור אותו בגי", זהו למשל. כי הנה פסוק אחר יש בזה שאמר [שם] "ולא ידע איש את קבורתו". [פירוש, וקשה שבתחילה כתוב שקבור ב"גיא", ואח"ז כתוב שלא יודעים היכן קבור? והתשובה:] "אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים, - אמת שלא ידע איש את קבורתו, אבל המלאכים יודעים. והראיה, שהכתוב אומר [דברים לב, נב] "כי מנגד תראה את הארץ ושמה לא תבוא" [פירוש, וקשה שהיה צ"ל ושמה לא תהיה וכדו', ומה זה "לא תבוא", אלא:] כלומר, לא תבוא בעצמך אלא יביאך במהרה. וזהו למה, ששם נקבר משה על ידי המלאכים". [פירוש, שאומנם בתחילה נקבר ב"גיא" אולם אח"כ העבירו אותו למערת המכפלה]. ועי"ש עוד, עכ"ל.

ובילקוט ראובני [פר' וזאת הברכה ד"ה ה' זוגות] הביא את דברי ספר התמונה הנ"ל.

וכן כתב בעל "מגלה צפונות" [מגלה צפונות דף קמד ע"ש]: "המלאכים העבירוהו למשה רבנו ע"ה למערת המכפלה, וז"ש "לא ידע איש את קבורתו", אף משה אינו יודע מקום קבורתו, כיון שנקבר מול בית פעור ורואה עצמו במערת המכפלה איננו יודע עיקר מקום קבורתו היכן".

ו"הרוקח" לרבנו אליעזר מגרמייזא, מגדולי הראשונים אומר שאומנם משה רבנו קבור במערת המכפלה, אבל הוא הגיע לשם דרך מנהרה שעברה מקברו בעבר הירדן עד לחברון, וז"ל: "ה' אמר אלי לא תעבור את הירדן הזה" [דברים ל"א ב'] ולא דרך מחילות, כי הלך דרך מחילות לאמר לאבות העולם. הנך שוכב עם אבותיך" [דברים לא טז] וכתיב "לא ידע איש את קבורתו", אלא דרך מחילות בא לשם למערת המכפלה, כי מחילה יוצאת מקברו של משה שהלך לקברי אבות, שכתוב [שם] "הארץ אשר נשבעתי לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב לאמר" - לך אמור: מה שנשבעתי להם - קיימתיה [בפר' ג' דברכות]. "עם אבותיך וקם" - בשרו שילך לקבר אבות כי חלקו עימהן, לכן אחלק לו ברבים.

ובמדרש רבי דוד הנגיד נכד הרמב"ם גם נקט שמשה רבינו קבור במערת המכפלה, והקב"ה בעצמו העבירו לחברון. וז"ל [בתירגום מערבית בראשית עמ' פד]: "...דבר אחר המכפלה: ואמרו רבותינו עליהם השלום למשה רבינו עליו השלום, קברו ה' יתעלה שם, כמו שאמר: "ואקברה את מתי שמה" [בר' כג: יג] שאם תהפך "שמה" יבוא "משה".

והביאו בספר שו"ת ים הגדול [הדפסה התרצא לפ"ג סימן מו] מהג"ר יעקב משה טולידאנו זצ"ל, [שהיה דומ"צ בעיר טאנגיר ואח"כ בבית דין הגדול שבמצרים] כתב בזה"ל: "ראה זה חידוש ראיתי בפירוש עה"ת לרבינו דוד הנגיד נכד הרמב"ם, שחבר בלשון ערבי ונמצא בכתיבת יד ישן פה בעיר מצרים. שכתב בפרשת חיי שרה ע"פ "ואקברה את מתי שמה" [כג, יג], שמשה רבינו נקבר במערת המכפלה בחברון. ורמוז זה במילת שמ"ה אותיות מש"ה", וכו'. ולא ידעתי מהיכן שאב דבריו אלו. ואיך יפרש הכתוב ולא ידע איש את קבורתו, והוא פלא". עכ"ל.

וכן החיד"א בספרו "חומת אנך" על התורה [פ' חיי שרה פרק כג פסוק יט] כתב עה"פ: "וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן קָבַר אַבְרָהָם אֶת שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ אֶל מְעָרַת שְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה עַל פְּנֵי מַמְרֵא הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן", בזה"ל: "אל מערת שדה המכפלה, כתב רבינו אליעזר מגרמיזא ז"ל [בעל ספר הרוקח] בכ"י: מ'ערת ש'דה ה'מכפלה ר"ת משה, והמשכיל יבין, עכ"ל. ואפשר לרמוז מ"ש בילקוט ראובני [שם] משם ספר התמונה [שם] דמשה רבינו ע"ה וצפורה נקברו במערת המכפלה אצל אבות העולם, ע"ש. ועפ"ז א"ש ר"ת מ'ערת ש'דה ה'מכפלה – משה. גם "אל משה" שהוא ר"ת מ'ערת ש'דה ה'מכפלה, גימטריא "צפרה" עם הכולל".

"ומשז"ל קרית ארבע זוגות שנקברו שם, היינו בעת פטירתם". [א"ה: לשון הגמ' [סוטה דף יג ע"א] הוא: ממרא קרית הארבע היא חברון [בראשית לה, כז], ואמר רבי יצחק קרית ארבע, ארבע זוגות היו, אדם וחוה, אברהם ושרה, יצחק ורבקה, יעקב ולאה. ע"כ]. אך בזהר הק' [פ' ויחי דף ר"ן ע"ב] אומר דלא קבלה מערתא ב"נ אחרא ע"ש, ואפשר לדחוק קצת". עכ"ל. וראה בסוף המאמר.

וכן בספר "בית יעקב" על הש"ס מהגה"ק חיים יעקב סאפרין האדמו"ר מקאמארנא זצ"ל [מס' שבת דף קנב ע"ב] כתב: "ויש דעה בדברי חכמינו ז"ל שמשה רבינו ע"ה נקבר במערת המכפלה", וכו' עיי"ש

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Use of Human Skulls for Ritualistic and other Purposes

The Biblical Archaeology Review of Mar/Apr 2009 carried a very interesting (and creepy) article about an ancient Jewish inscription on a human skull from Babylonia (modern day Iraq).

From BAR:

Not long ago, the well-known collector Shlomo Moussaieff acquired two earthenware bowls, the open ends of which were adjoined to form a kind of case—inside the case was an ancient human skull (see top photo). A magic incantation, written in Aramaic, was inscribed on the skull.

Ofri Illani writes in Haaretz:

Newly published archaeological evidence attests to the fact that ancient Jews used human skulls in ceremonies, despite a strict Halakhic prohibition on touching human remains.

British researcher Dan Levene from the University of Southampton published findings in Biblical Archaeological Review about the human skulls, known as incantation bowls, some of which bear inscriptions in Aramaic.

The skulls were unearthed in present-day Iraq (formerly Babylonia) and are believed to have been used during the Talmudic era. At least one of them appears to be that of an anonymous woman.

"When I presented these findings in Israel, people told me, 'It is not possible that this is Jewish,'" said Levene. "But it is certainly Jewish."

Levene added that, despite going against conventional wisdom, the talisman was likely used by someone desperate, and that there have been past cases of skulls being used to ward off increased ghosts or demons.

"The fact remains that belief in demons was widespread at this time among Jews as well as other peoples," writes Levene. "Incantation bowls are known not only from Jewish communities but from other communities as well."

To combat demons - who cause medical problems as well as other mishaps and ills - people invoked numerous magic rites and formulas. The Jewish versions are written in what is commonly known as Jewish Aramaic.....One of the names, Shilta, is derived from an Aramaic word meaning “after-birth.” The skull itself was probably that of a woman. The exact manner in which this skull was used, however, remains a mystery. A contemporaneous source, the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 65b, offers a possible clue: “There are two kinds of necromancy: the one where the dead is raised by naming him, the other where he is invoked by means of a skull.”

The use of skulls for ritual and other purposes cuts across all ethnic lines and cultures. Skulls are used in Haitian voodoo worship as well is in places like Nepal. But lest one think that this macabre usage is confined to the non-western world, one should familiarize him or herself with secret fraternal societies such as the Skull and Bones (see also this piece of recent news) which has long been known to use human skulls in their bizarre oath ceremonies.. The Skulls and Bones was founded in 1832 at Yale University, its most famous members over the years include former President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. The society has been accused of possessing the stolen skulls of Martin van Buren, Geronimo and Pancho Villa but this has never been proven (nor will likely ever be).

I find it interesting that the use of a skull for writing purposes was in use as late as the High Middle Ages -even among Jews. Bernard M. Baruch(1870-1965) (pictured top) in his autobiography mentions an old family relic in the possession of his grandfather "a skull on which was recorded the family genealogy. It appeared that the Baruchs were of a rabbinical family and of Portuguese Spanish origin."[1].

Of course none of this is consistent with normative halacha (Jewish law).

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz writes:

In halacha, the body of a dead person is treated with enormous respect. The Bible prohibits mistreating any dead body, even the bodies of an executed prisoner or military opponent (Deuteronomy 21:23; Joshua 8:29). In addition, one is prohibited to derive any benefit, financial or personal, from a dead body (Avodah Zarah 29b). According to the Mishnah (Yadayim 4:6), the reason why the Torah considers one who comes into contact with a dead body to be ritually impure (tamei) is to prevent people from fashioning household objects such as spoons from the bones of family members; because dead bodies are ritually impure, it is extremely inconvenient to make regular use of body parts. (It should be noted that the concern of the Mishna is not an imaginary one; it was not uncommon for sorcerers to use human bones).


[1]. See Baruch Bernard, My Own Story.
Henry Holt and Company NY, 1957 p.3

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