Can a Convert Keep His or Her Old Name?
Nowadays it is customary for someone who converts to Judaism to take on a new name—often Abraham for a man and Ruth for a woman, since both these biblical figures were in some sense converts themselves. The point is that changing one’s name suggests breaking with one’s former life, which is precisely what a convert does.
And yet, an ancient midrash connected to this week’s Torah reading has something quite striking to say on the subject. The midrash is a bit involved—it is actually a type of sermon called a petiḥta, or “opener,” that rabbis used to compose to introduce the weekly Torah reading. The sermon would start by citing a verse that apparently had nothing to do with that week’s Torah reading. The rabbi would then weave his way from one thing to another until, at the very end, he would supply some unexpected connection to the first verse of that week’s reading, in our case, Lev 1:1, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Ten of Meeting…”
This particular petiḥta is attributed to Rabbi Abbahu, an early 4th century CE scholar. He started his petiḥta with a verse in Hosea (14:8), “They shall return to sit in His shadow: they shall bring the grain to life and flourish like the grapevine: their name is like the wine of Lebanon.” Rabbi Abbahu then goes on to explain that this verse is all about converts, even if they are not mentioned as such. Those who “sit in His shadow,” he says, must refer to people who convert to Judaism, since they come and take refuge in the shadow of the Holy One. This is a plausible understanding of the first part of the verse, since converts are often said to “return,” that is, repent of their previous ways and turn to God. But how can the rest of the verse be about converts?
Rabbi Abbahu sees the remaining words as all implying that a convert becomes in every sense just like other Jews. So, he asserts, “They shall bring the grain to life” means they will come to be altogether the “main thing” (‘ikar), like Israel [grain-based bread being the basis of any true meal]. . . Similarly, “They shall flourish like the grapevine”— again this means “they will be just like Israel” (who are compared to the grapevine in Psalm 80:9.) On the last part of the Hosea verse, “Their name is like the wine of Lebanon,” Rabbi Abbahu similarly explains these words as describing God’s reaction to converts: “Said the Holy One: The names of converts are as pleasing to Me as libation wine that ends up being offered before Me on the altar [of the Jerusalem Temple].”*
By this Rabbi Abbahu wishes to suggest that the mention of the “wine of Lebanon” in Hosea’s verse also fits with the connection of this verse to converts: Just as this wine was originally intended to be offered as a libation on a pagan altar but has instead ended up by being offered to God, so these converts, originally destined to serve pagan gods, have now ended up serving God instead.
I hope you’ve followed all this, because the last part of this petiḥta comes as a bit of a jolt.
The text turns without explanation to a certain verse in the book of Chronicles (1 Chron 4:18): “And his [that is, Amram’s] Judahite wife [Jochebed, Moses’ mother] bore Jered, Avi Gedor, Ḥeber, Avi Sokho, Yekutiel, and Avi Zenoah. These were the sons of Bithiah, daughter of Pharaoh.” The transition is so abrupt that this seems to have nothing to do with what was just said (in fact, it apparently confused some Hebrew printers into labeling this passage as a separate petiḥta—but it is altogether part of the first one).
At first glance, you might think that this verse is telling us that Moses had a lot of brothers. Since Amram’s “Judahite wife” was Jochebed, Moses’ mother, this verse from Chronicles could seem to be saying that Jochebed gave birth to numerous other sons: Jered, Avi Gedor, Heber, Avi Sokho, Ykutiel, and Avi Zenoah. But since when did Moses have so many brothers? And if they were the sons of Jochebed, why does the verse end by saying that they were the sons of Bithia, Pharaoh’s daughter? And finally, why isn’t Moses himself, the most prominent of Jochebed’s sons, mentioned?
The midrashic answer is that this verse is talking about only one son, Jochebed’s son Moses, who was later adopted by Bithia; he is called by these other names because each of them refers to a particular exploit of Moses. Thus, Moses was called Yered because he “brought down” (horid) the Torah from on High; Avi Gedor, because there were many who guarded (goderim) Israel from sin, but the father (Avi) of them all was Moses. And so forth for Ḥaver, Avi Sokho, Yekutiel, and Avi Zanoah.
In fact, the midrash goes on to assert that Moses had a total of ten such names. “Yet the Holy One said to Moses: Of all the names by which you have been called, I will call you by the name that was given to you by Bithia, Pharaoh’s daughter, as it says in the book of Exodus, “And she called his name Moses.” Therefore, the book of Leviticus begins with the words “And He called to Moses” in order to stress that God chose to address Moses—here and elsewhere—by using his old “pagan” name.
In so saying, this midrash would seem to be implying that there is nothing wrong with a convert keeping his or her former name: Christopher and Christine, Abdullah and Aisha, are all like “libation wine that ends up being offered before Me on the altar.”
That seems to be what Rabbi Abbahu meant. But as I mentioned, current practice is for converts to give up their old names, at least in synagogue—and it certainly is an honor to be named after Abraham or Ruth!
* Rabbi Abbahu adds that the Jerusalem Temple is sometimes called “Lebanon” because the Temple Mount is called “Lebanon” in Deut 3:25, “This goodly mountain and the Lebanon [that is, the Temple that sits on it)”—no doubt because Lebanon’s famous forests supplied the wood used in constructing the Temple.