What’s in a Name?

Joseph’s rise up the ranks of Egyptian society was meteoric – from “prison to power”, all with the interpretation of a dream or two. And with this ascent, came the inevitable Jewish (Hebrew) tradeoff – position in the outside world required a change of name. A Jew could not inhabit the chambers of power with a clunky Jewish name. No longer could Joseph be Yosef; instead, he would have an Egyptian name: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-Paneah” (Genesis 41:45). Joseph would be the first of a long line of Jews to have two identities, one for inside and one for outside. Other examples abound, just to name a few: Hadassah was known to Ahasuerus as Esther, Daniel was known to Nebuchadnezzar as Belteshazzar and his friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah went by Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, respectively. (See Daniel 1:7) Even the Maccabean kings, saviors of the Jewish faith and nation, after a generation or two, took for themselves Greek names as their aristocratic status rose – Yohanan became Hyrcanus, Judah became Aristobulus, and Yonatan became Alexander Yannai.

Joseph’s new identity, however, was imposed upon him. You don’t turn down a Pharaoh who pulls you out of prison, gives you a change of clothes and quickly ups your status from prisoner to prime minister. What exactly did the name change signify? For that matter, what does the name “Zaphenath-Paneah” mean? Answering these questions is a challenge. According to Moshe Weinfeld, its likely meaning is ‘God speaks, he lives” in Egyptian. (Alter translation, p. 180) Most of the Jewish answers to this question have largely been to give a sense of meaning to this seemingly bizarre name through puns and word games. Targum Onkelos interprets it to mean: “revealer of secrets”; Targum Yonathan – “revealer of hidden things”: both basing themselves on the fact that the first world sounds similar to the Hebrew root – Tzadik, peh, nun, meaning “to hide”. (“Paneah” has no Hebrew parallel, although in modern Hebrew a verb based on this word means “to solve”).

Rashi adopted the interpretations of the Targumim, but his grandson, the Rashbam, rejected his grandfather’s interpretation, favoring instead the idea that this “Egyptian title” was given to Joseph on account of his newly acquired position of authority, or in other words, you could not be the ruler of Egypt carrying around with you a Hebrew name.

And this, in a nutshell, represents the eternal Jewish dilemma. Can a person successfully maintain two identities? Can a person be both Yosef and Zaphenath-Paneah at the same time? Confusing, isn’t it? Confounding even. Yet, this is the life of everyone who is Jewish. And the ultimate assessment  will be in how successful we are at pulling it off.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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