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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At Sunday, November 29, 2009 10:04:00 AM, Blogger SCHELLY TALALAY DARDASHTI said...

Hi, Joel,

Herzl (usually spelled Hersl) was a very popular name in the Persian Jewish community in Iran, not only in the North African community. I also remember Balfour used as a given name.

With best wishes
Schelly Talalay Dardashti
Tracing the Tribe - The Jewish Genealogy Blog

At Monday, November 30, 2009 12:34:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Hi Schelly,

Thanks for commenting. You reminded me of a previous post (regarding Herzl's Sephardic ancestry)where I mentioned the Chakak twins, both Israeli writers and poets one is named Herzl, the other Balfour.

At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 10:04:00 AM, Anonymous Daniela said...

Thank you, very interesting! My fiancee's name is Nimrod and I had no idea it is so controversial name among orthodox people. Next time I will see his mom I will ask her what was her motivation behind giving her son such a name :) Regards from Tel Aviv. Daniela

At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Joels W. said...

Thanks for the comment and Mazel Tov!
Yoel from Jerusalem.

At Sunday, February 19, 2012 12:24:00 AM, Anonymous not-hagar said...

you didn't mention hagar as a not uncommon israeli name for girls!

At Saturday, April 28, 2012 1:18:00 PM, Blogger Ganesey said...


Re: "The Name Ishmael"

It is interesting to me that, not only do I have an ancestor named Ishmael [Vineyard], Sephardic Jew, but my DNA shows that I have Egyptian and Tunisian ancestry.


At Monday, May 20, 2013 8:32:00 AM, Blogger Puteri Bintang said...

The meaning of Ishma-El itself is: "YHWH hears" so i think it's a good name. Ishma-El believe in the same god as his father Abraham.

At Tuesday, August 05, 2014 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...


At Sunday, October 23, 2016 12:41:00 AM, Blogger Ari E-B said...

Yishmael is a fine Jewish name. He does nothing wrong in Tanach, and in fact is saved by a miracle. True he doesn't get included in the brit that hashem made with Avraham, but that's it - he even shows up to help bury Avraham, which seems to cement his status as "good guy" at least in the Tanach.

There are three tanaim named Rabbi Yishmael. The best well known of which has the famous baraita of the 13 principles we recite every morning. Another one was executed al kidush hashem by the Romans in eleh ezkereh. He was also, according to the midrash, quite good looking.

The point is that Yishmael was an entirely acceptable Jewish name, there are several true tzadikim with that name, and chazal clearly did not consider the biblical Yishmael to have been a villain. It wasn't until Muslims started self associating with the biblical Yishamel in the 6th century or so that anything changed. I've never been a fan of letting other people define us. If they want to be associated with Yishmael too, fine. That doesn't mean there's anything non-Jewish about the name Yishmael, and he's certainly not a villain. Stop letting contemporary politics color your perception of Tanakh.

At Sunday, October 23, 2016 6:17:00 AM, Blogger Lou Kessler said...

The use of "nimrod" as "idiot" is derived from a Bugs Bunny cartoon (see Wikipedia).

At Tuesday, September 26, 2017 9:02:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

How about this for a name: Vahe (Descendent of Hayk) Ohanian (from John of Patmos) for a total meaning in Armenian as "The Best from John of Patmos." Indeed, there will be another "One shot for a One Kill." LMFAO you Nimrods / Ba'
als as your judgement is very near.


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