Midrashic Tradition tells us that King Solomon appears in the Bible under several different names. His parents, King David and Batsheba, named him Shlomo, while the prophet Natan named him Yedidyah (see II Sam. 12:24-25). Actually, the name Shlomo was already given to him before his birth in a prophecy to King David (see I Chron. 22:9). Two of the twenty-four books in the Bible open by explicitly ascribing their authorship to Shlomo: Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) and Mishlei (Proverbs). A third book, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), ascribes itself to somebody named Kohelet, son of David, king of Jerusalem. According to tradition, Kohelet is another name for Solomon. So far, we have three names for King Solomon.
The early Amora, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi adds another four names to this list. Although we mentioned that Mishlei opens by introducing its author as Shlomo, later parts of that work are described as “the words of Agur, son of Yakeh… to Itiel” (Prov. 30:1) and “the words of Lemuel, the king” (in Prov. 31:1). According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, all four proper names in these passages are alternate names for King Solomon: Agur, Yakeh, Itiel and Lemuel. This brings our total to seven names.
What do Solomon’s seven names mean, and how do they differ from each other? The Midrash turns to Solomon’s various names and offers exegetical interpretations of their meaning.
The name Shlomo is related to the Hebrew word shalem (“complete”) because King Solomon oversaw the completion of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Targum Sheini explains that the name Shlomo is related to the Hebrew word shalom (“peace”), because during King Solomon’s reign peace and tranquility were to prevail for the Jewish People (see I Chron. 22:9).
Solomon is called Yedidyah,which literally means “friend of G-d,” because indeed he was a “friend of G-d”. A cryptic aphorism reads, “May the friend, son of the friend, come and build the friend for the friend, in the portion of the friend, so the friends will be atoned.” The Talmud (Menachot 53) explains that this refers to the building of the Holy Temple, and explains who all the “friends” in question are, based on different Scriptural sources. According to the Talmud this saying should be explicated thusly: “May Solomon (II Sam. 12:25), descendant of Avraham (Jer. 11:15), build the Holy Temple (Ps. 84:2) for G-d (Isa. 5:1), in the portion of Binyamin (Deut. 33:12), so the Jewish People (Jer. 12:7) will be atoned.” In short, the name Yedidyah is also related to Solomon’s role in building the Temple.
Solomon was called Kohelet because his teachings were said in gatherings (hakhell/kahal/kehillah), as it says, “Then, Solomon gathered…” (I Kings 8:1). Alternatively, Rashi (to Ecc. 1:1) explains that Solomon was called Kohelet because he “gathered up” many forms of wisdom.
Similarly, according to the Midrash, Solomon’s name Agur refers to the fact that King Solomon “gathered up” (agar) the Torah’s wisdom. Interestingly, Midrash Agur(§4) teaches that of all of Solomon’s alternate names, his three most precious names are Shlomo, Kohelet, and Agur, because those three names allude to the peace which reigned over the Jewish People in his time.
This Midrash explains that the name Shlomo is related to Shalom (as explained above), and the names Kohelet and Agur are both different forms of “gathering” (as mentioned above), an allusion to the fact that all the Jewish People were gathered together in his times, and there was no in-fighting. In other words, these names stand out because they allude to the fact that King Solomon presided over the pax Judaica.
The Midrashim note that the name Yakeh alludes to the fact that although King Solomon was initially filled with wisdom, he would later “spit out” (heykiyah) his wisdom and forget it all. This refers to the Midrashic assertion that when Solomon began to stray from the path expected of him he lost his superlative wisdom. The Midrash likens this to a bowl which can be filled up with water, but all its water can just as easily be spilled out.
Nonetheless, Gersonides (to Prov. 30:1) writes that Solomon is called Ben Yakeh because he “spits out” (i.e. rejects) those ideas and aphorisms which are untrue, so that he is only left with the true ideas which he presents in Proverbs. Others say that Solomon would “regurgitate” to the masses whatever wisdom he had amassed.
King Solomon’s sixth name is Itiel. According to the Midrash that name is a portmanteau of the words “with me” (iti) and “power” (el). This phrase reflects Solomon’s attitude when violating the Torah’s limitations on kings. While the Torah warns a king not have too much horses, gold/silver, or wives (Deut. 17:16-17) — lest these excesses should cause him to stray — Solomon thought he could nevertheless have all those extras and “with me is the power” not to stray. Ultimately, Solomon was unable to take those extra luxuries and still live up to what was expected of him.
King Solomon’s seventh name listed in the Midrash is Lemuel (Prov. 31:1)/Lemoel(Prov. 31:4). The Midrash explains that this name also alludes to Solomon’s justification for violating the Torah’s limits on kings. Solomon “spoke” (nam) “to G-d” (la’El), saying that he can take more (horses, gold/silver, and wives) than otherwise allowed for a king, and still not sin. As the commentaries explain, the NUN of the word nam morphs into a LAMMED to become Lemuel, because the letters NUN and LAMMED are interchangeable (as both those letters are considered “dental” letters, i.e., DALET, TET, LAMMED, NUN and TAV).
Another version of this Midrash understands that the name Lemuel reflects a strong condemnation of Solomon’s action, as though he threw off from upon himself the yoke of Heaven and said: “For what (lamah) do I (li) have G-d (El)?”
Other commentators take a more positive position in understanding the meaning of Lemuel. Ibn Ezra (to Prov. 31:1) explains that Solomon is called Lemuel (“to them, a G-d”), because in Solomon’s time, the Jewish People worshipped only G-d, and no other deities. Gersonides explains that Lemuel means “for Him El (G-d)”, an allusion to Solomon’s election as G-d’s chosen king. Similarly, Rashi (to Sanhedrin 70b and Prov. 31:1) explains that Lemuel means “for him, [for] G-d”, because Solomon’s deeds and wisdom should be channeled into the service of G-d, and nothing else.
Rabbi Yishaya of Trani (1180-1250) understands that the word Alukah which appears in Mishlei 30:15 is also another name for Solomon. He explains that Solomon is called Alukah (literally, a “leech”) because he sucked out and drank all forms of wisdom like a leech. However, the Tosafists (see Tosafot to Eruvin 19a and Tosafot/Tosafot Shantz to Avodah Zarah 17a), while conceding that Alukah is the name of a person, argue that this cannot be an alternate name for King Solomon because it is not one of the seven names listed in the Midrash.
Speaking of King Solomon, did he really build temples to foreign gods in Jerusalem? And what’s with his legion of wives? And speaking of idolatry, what were the Jews thinking when they built the Golden Calf? Why did the make it a calf? The answer to these questions and many more can be found in my new book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018).