What’s in a Name?

I have many names; Joel, rabbi, daddy, sweetie, “Hey you get out of my way”—But which one of these is my real name? The simple answer is—all of them, but how can that be true? A name is NOT who we are, it’s what we do in our connections with other people. But there’s more to names than just describing a single experience, it also indicates the ongoing way we interact with people, our relationship to them.

I was born with one name, to honor both God and my family, but in my life, I have gained new names, some for better, some for worse, some have gone and some remain. But the names only matter between me and the people I relate to.

In our parsha, Mikeitz, with God’s help Yosef is able to use his gift to interpret Paroh’s dreams, anticipating a famine. He is made 2nd in command over all of Egypt, a kind of vizier, similar to Mordechai in the story of Esther. Like Mordechai, Yosef is paraded through the streets to celebrate his new status. And with this new promotion comes a new name!

Breishit 41:45

And Paroh called Yosef’s name, Żafenat-pa῾neaĥ; and he gave him to wife Asenat the daughter of Poti-fera priest of On. And Yosef went out over all the land of Miżrayim.

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֣ה שֵׁם־יוֹסֵף֮ צָֽפְנַ֣ת פַּעְנֵ֒חַ֒ וַיִּתֶּן־ל֣וֹ אֶת־אָֽסְנַ֗ת בַּת־פּ֥וֹטִי פֶ֛רַע כֹּהֵ֥ן אֹ֖ן לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וַיֵּצֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֖ף עַל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

But what on earth does this name mean? It doesn’t sound like Hebrew and there’s no clear meaning in Egyptian or any known language of the time.

The 2nd c. Targum Onkelos, Rashi, and the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies all agree that, if the word IS of Hebrew origin, which it could be, then the meaning is some variation of “one who solves mysteries or uncovers hidden things.” In context that makes perfect sense for a man who can interpret dreams, a prized skill in ancient times.

Despite the fact that in ancient times and even today, new positions are often given fancy titles, why would Paroh give Yosef such a distinct name and, as the verse goes on to say, an Egyptian wife!

In 2013, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, the founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program, asked this same question! Rabbi Buchwald brings the full gamut of rabbinic interpretations about Yosef’s name, from the linguistic to the mystic, but the simplest answer he gives, the one that makes the most sense in the context of the narrative, the p’shat if you will, of Tzafenat Paneach, he says… 

“…It seems reasonable to conclude that Pharaoh was concerned about a Jewish man serving as the single most powerful figure, aside from Par’oh, in the land of Egypt. It is highly likely that Pharaoh gave Joseph an Egyptian name as well as an Egyptian wife in order to make him more acceptable to the Egyptian people…”

The essential point is that while he was born as Yosef, and never lost that name, to the Egyptians, he had to be Tzafenat Paneach.

 God too has many names. Why? Because God relates to us and interacts with us in many ways, sometimes with justice, other times with compassion and mercy, but always God is one. Rabbi Buchwald continues…

“…The many names of Joseph reflect his process of growth and transformation. His special gift of experiencing and understanding dreams undergoes a metamorphosis; once perceived negatively as ‘that dreamer,’ he is ultimately exalted by Pharaoh as ‘the revealer of the hidden’…”

 What names do you carry with you and how do they reflect the kind of person you are and how others see you?

כֶתֶר שֵׁם טוֹב עוֹלֶה עַל גַּבֵּיהֶן

The crown, the reputation, of a good name is, as Pirkei Avot 4:13 suggests, a value above everything else. 

Shabbat Shalom & Chanuka Sameakh


About the Author
Originally from West Hills, California, Rabbi Dinin received Semikha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2015. His first position as an ordained rabbi was at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah in Baltimore, Maryland where he served for three incredible years as their Associate Rabbi. He is currently the Rabbi of Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has three wonderful children, Michael, Meira and Jacob, with his beloved wife Sarah.
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