What’s in a Name?

Several years ago, I came across a music band called The Epstein. I was intrigued, so I contacted the bandleader and asked if we were related, and he said he didn’t think so. I then asked why they chose the name The Epstein, and he shared that a few years earlier the lead singer contracted the Epstein Barr Virus (Mono) and needed to spend time in the hospital and while there, he wrote their first hit song. With gratitude for the illness that brought him to the hospital where he wrote the song, they called the band The Epstein. It is fascinating where names come from.

What about Avraham, he is called Avraham Haivri, Abraham the Ivri, where did that come from?

Genesis 14:13

וַיָּבֹא֙ הַפָּלִ֔יט וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאַבְרָ֣ם הָעִבְרִ֑י וְהוּא֩ שֹׁכֵ֨ן בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֜י מַמְרֵ֣א הָאֱמֹרִ֗י אֲחִ֤י אֶשְׁכֹּל֙ וַאֲחִ֣י עָנֵ֔ר וְהֵ֖ם בַּעֲלֵ֥י בְרִית־אַבְרָֽם׃ 

A straggler brought the news to Abram the Ivri, who was dwelling at the Plains of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.

Why is Avraham referred to as Avraham Hivri?

The Midrash Rabbah 42:8 advances three insightful answers to this question:

Rebbi Nechemia states that Avraham is called Ivri because he is a descendant of the great Eiver who was a great leader and scholar from a previous generation.

The Sages advance that Avraham was called Ivri because he spoke Hebrew-Ivrit, a language that the locals in Canaan did not know.

Finally, Rebbi Yehudah advances that he is called Ivri – referring to the Euphrates River. Avraham immigrated from the other side of the Euphrates River to Israel. 

The Zohar states that there is a deeper meaning here. Namely, that while the entire world at that time was steeped in polytheistic Idol Worship, our father Avraham was the first to discover and teach Monotheism. Therefore, metaphorically, and theologically the whole world was on one side in their way of thinking, and Avraham was on the other.

This insight of the Zohar in a sense has also been prophetic in that throughout the millennia Jews have suffered from anti-Semitism because they were seen as others.

Avraham brought great light to a world of darkness. As we read and study the ways of Avraham this week in the Parsha, may we merit seeing and experiencing light, truth, and peace in this difficult time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Epstein
Scholar in Residence