What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

“…… there was a famine in the land, a man from Bet Lechem, Judah, his wife and two sons, went to sojourn in the fields of Moav.” Ruth 1: 1

How strange that Sefer Rut opens by introducing the characters, none of whom are initially named.

The next verse elaborates;

“The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name was Naomi, and his two sons were named Machlon and Kiliyon”…Ruth 1: 2

No names are mentioned in the first verse, yet the word name (שֵׁם) appears three times in the second verse.

Dr Raphael Shuchat[1] suggests that there is a sense of irony in verse one.  He elucidates that names are a literary device and are used as symbols[2] elaborating on the true nature of the individual or place.

The wealthy Elimelech, a leader in his community, fearing he would be asked to help feed the poor of Judah, left ‘Bet Lechem’, (House of Bread) and went to the ‘Fields of Moav’ (away from the community).   Moav is a nation synonymous with inhospitality!  In fact the Torah commands

“…do not marry an Ammonite or Moabite ….…..because they did not greet you with bread and water”….Devarim 23: 4-5

The Midrash draws our attention to the unusual meaning of the names of the two sons;

“Machlon because they were erased (nimchu);  Kiliyon because they were destroyed (kalu) from the world.” Ruth Rabba 2: 5

The sons died childless according to the Aramaic Targum Ruth 1:5 because they married Moabite princesses, which was forbidden at that time.

Naomi returns to Judah, loyally accompanied by her daughter in law, (Machlon’s widow) Ruth, who is determined to be accepted as a Jewess.

In Judaism, a childless widow could perpetuate the name of her deceased husband, by marrying and having a child with his closest relative.  This proved to be a man referred to as Ploni Almoni.  Jastrow[3] translates Ploni as ‘unnamed’  (like John Doe);  Ibn Ezra Ruth 3:13 identifies him as Tov,  Elimelech’s brother.  In some sense, Tov (meaning good)  loses his name, as he did not act honourably, refusing to marry Ruth.  He was concerned about the Torah prohibition of marrying a Moabite.  However, the Rabbis[4] had just understood the law was only applicable to male Moabites and Ammonites, therefore, a marriage to Ruth would be permitted.


Using the mechanism of Yibbum[5], Boaz, another relative, agreed to marry Ruth,  happily perpetuating the name of Ruth’s deceased husband  לְהָקִ֥ים שֵׁם הַמת Ruth 4: 5

Boaz is identified as Ivzan[6]; the Sefat Emet[7] illuminates that he is referred to as Boaz (בֹּעַז) meaning  בּוֹ עַז  ‘strength is in him’

Boaz had the courage to believe in the process of Rabbinic exposition and in spite of local prejudice, he was brave enough to step forward and marry Ruth the Moabite;

King David descended from the union of Boaz and Ruth and ultimately so will Mashiach;

May he come speedily in our days!

[1] Lecturer in Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University

[2] The use of Symbolism and hidden messages in the Book of Ruth

[3] Marcus Jastrow Dictionary

[4] Yevamot 76b

[5]  The mitzva of Yibbum Levirate Marriage is found in Devarim 25:5-10

[6] Bava Batra 91a the 10th Judge in Sefer Shoftim

[7] Judah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847 –1905) Chasidic Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland

About the Author
Chava is a Community Educator in London and has served as the Scholar in Residence at Hampstead Synagogue and Kinloss. She is a regular speaker at various shuls and private homes. Chava completed an MA in Jewish Education (LSJS and Birkbeck), an MA in Property Valuation and Law (City University Business School) and a BSc (London School of Economics) in Accounting and Finance. She is a Matan Bellows Eshkolot Fellow, an alumnus of Michlalah, and a graduate of the LSJS Bradfield Women's Educators, the Montefiore Scholar Diploma and the Herzog Tanach Teachers Programmes
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