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Parshah Halacha – Parshat Vayeira

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Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.
The Torah portion of Vayeira tells the story of the birth of our patriarch Yitzchak when his parents, Avraham and Sarah, were 100 and 90 years old respectively. According to our sages there were various factors that caused them to merit this great miracle. Some of them were:
·        Living in the Land of Israel
In the beginning of the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, G-d told Avraham,[1] “Go forth from your land… to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation.” For this reason, it was not until Avraham and Sarah were in Israel for 10 years without children[2] when Sarah suggested to Avraham that he marry Hagar and have children with her.[3]
·        Changing their Names
 Rashi writes,[4] “G-d said to Avraham, ‘Leave your astrology,’ for you have seen in the signs of the zodiac that you are not destined to have a son. Indeed, Avram will have no son, but Avraham will have a son. Similarly, Sarai will not give birth, but Sarah will give birth. I will give you another name, and your destiny will change.
·        The Brit Milah
The verse says,[5] “Behold my covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations.” The Ibn Ezra explains “He commanded that Avraham circumcise himself before Sarah conceived so that the child would come from holy seed.” The Kli Ykar adds that the physical brit mirrored the internal purity that Avraham had in his heart. Now that the world was aware of this purity, they would be able to understand why Avraham would merit to be the father of a such a great nation.
·        Hosting Guests
We read in the beginning of the Torah portion of Vayeira that the angels that Avraham had served as guests promised him that he would have a child. From the sequence of these events it can be inferred that the blessing of a child came in the merit of having guests. As the Baal Shem Tov said,[6] “במה יזכה נער – How will one merit to a son? את ארחו – by fulfilling the mitzvah of having guests with joy and gladness of heart. (This is a play on the verse in Tehillim 119:9. The plain meaning of the verse is “In what manner should a youth purify his way?”)
·        Sarah’s Modesty
When the angels asked Avraham,[7] “Where is Sarah?” they meant to say, “In the merit of what mitzvah does Sarah deserve the miracle of having a baby so late in life?” Avraham answered was “She is in the tent” i.e., in the merit of her extreme modesty. Indeed, the Talmud says, “A kallah (bride) who is modest in the house of her father will merit to have kings issue from her.”
·        Praying for Others
The Mishnah says[8] that whoever prays for his fellow-man when he needs salvation in that matter himself, is answered first. Thus, when Avraham prayed for Avimelech and his family who were unable to “give birth” (their orifices were clogged), Avraham was answered first in terms of his wife conceiving and (eventually) giving birth.[9]
The rest of this article will focus on the history, customs and halacha of name changes in the Torah.
Here is a partial list of people in the Tanach whose names were changed.[10]
·        Avraham and Sarah as mentioned above.
·        Yaakov to Yisrael.[11]
·        Yosef to Tsofnat Pane’ach – Interpreter of Secrets. (Pharaoh changed his name.)[12]
·        Hoshea to Yehoshua.[13]
·        Shlomo (King Solomon) to Yedidyah.[14]
·        Elyakim to (King) Yehoyakim. (Nevuchadnetzar changed his name.)[15]
·        Daniel, Chanaya, Misha’el and Azariah to Beltshatzar, Shadrach, Meishach and Abed-Nego respectively. (This too was done by Nevuchadnetzar.)[16]
Why Change?
The Midrash says[17] that three things avert a bad decree: Teshuvah (repentance), prayer and tzedakah (charity). Rabbi Yossi adds changing one’s name and doing good deeds.
The Midrash[18] proves this concept from Avraham who, after his name change, was able to have children.
Similarly, the Talmud[19] lists changing the name as an effective way to avert a bad decree. It cites the change in Sarah’s name as a proof for this.[20]
How Does It Work?
Some say[21] that the change a of a name can remove a bad decree from a person as it changes their mazal (effects of the constellation).
The Rambam writes[22] that one of the paths to repentance is “for the Ba’alTeshuvah (penitent) to change his name, as if to say, ‘I am a different person and not the same person who sinned.’”
Based on this, some say[23] that changing one’s name can avert a decree if it is done in the context of doing teshuvah. Thus, the person becomes like a new man upon whom the decree was never made.
A third opinion combines the first two explanations together. When a person changes his name, he can become inspired (perhaps in an inexplicable way) to change his ways. This will avert the bad decree.[24]
For an Ill Person
Based on the above Talmudic teaching, the Rama writes[25] that it is customary to bless sick people in shul and to change their names as this can avert a bad decree.
How to Do It
Rabbeinu Yerucham (of 14th Century France and Spain) gives the details[26]of how to change one’s name in case of a serious illness, G-d forbid.[27] (The text below is for a man. Appropriate changes should be made for a woman.)
“Ten people (should) come, the biggest expert among them holds a Torah scroll and they say. ‘We pray…[28] and mercy should be aroused upon us and all of the Jewish people and on the head of this sick person. He should be established to have a complete healing and have a good life. His name should be called _____________. May he rejoice in his name for a complete recovery as it says,[29] ‘And your name will be great and you should be a blessing.’ And it says,[30] ‘Your name should not be called Avram, and your name shall be Avraham because I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.’
‘May it be Your will, L-rd our G-d and G-d of our forefathers that this name should avert all bad decrees and avert the decree from him and from everything that is his. If death was decreed, it was not decreed on this individual (the new name is mentioned). If a decree was made, it was not made on this individual (the name is mentioned again). He should be like a new creation and like a newborn child for good life and long years. He should live out his days and the following two verses should be fulfilled regarding him: ‘There shall no longer be from there a youth or an old man who will not fill his days,’[31] and (regarding King Chizkiyahu) ‘I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold I shall heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the L-rd.’[32]
‘May it be your will, L-rd our G-d and the G-d of our fathers that you send a swift and complete recovery to this person (the new name is mentioned again). This should be an act of tzedakah and merit. He should renew his strength and renew his good deeds to enjoy this world and inherit the next world, to fulfill Your word and Your desire and to find favor in Your eyes. To thank you and to bless Your name that is good.
‘And the verse says,[33] ‘My soul, bless the L-rd, and all my innards, [bless] His holy name. My soul, bless the L-rd and do not forget any of His kindness who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your illnesses who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with kindness and mercy who sates your mouth with goodness, that your youth renews itself like the eagle.’
‘And it says,[34] ‘And they cried out to the L-rd in their distress; from their straits He saved them. He sent His word and healed them and extricated them from their pit. They shall give thanks to the L-rd for His kindness, and for His wonders to the children of men. And they shall offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and they shall tell of His deeds with song.’
“The sick person should then say the blessing of HaGomel[35] and the Shofar should be sounded with the sounds of Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah and Tekiah.”
Only Change for a Good Reason
The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote[36] that based on many sources, the letters of a person’s name are the channel of life that connects the person’s soul and their body. According to the Arizal and many Kabbalists, the name given by one’s parents is the name with which G-d calls the soul in the supernal realms. As such he advised that one not add or change one’s name if not for an important reason.
Order and Importance
When a name is added due to illness or for any other reason, the new name should be the first and the main name.[37]
Only if the Name Helped
If a name is added to a sick person it is considered his name if the person recovered from their illness and lived.[38] If the person didn’t recover, but rather passed away within 30 days of the name change, the new name should not be used (on the gravestone or in documents etc.).[39]
Despite this, after a name is added, it should be used immediately, in the hope that the ill person will make a complete recovery.[40]
May we soon experience the prophecy that “You shall be called a new name, which the mouth of the L-rd shall pronounce… You shall be called ‘My desire is in her,’ and your land, ‘inhabited,’ for the L-rd desires you, and your land shall be inhabited.”[41]
[1] Gen. 12:1 and 2
[2] 10 years is the length of time which indicates that there is a problem with a couples ability to have children. See Even Ha’Ezer 154
[3] See Gen. 16:3 with Rashi as well as Yevamot 64a
[4] On Gen. 15:5 based on Gen. Rabbah 44:10
[5] Gen. 17:4
[6] See Keter Shem Tov, hosafot, Siman 75. See the footnotes for the sources
[7] Gen. 18:9
[8] Bava Kamma 92a
[9] See Gen. 20:17 and 21:1
[10] In compiling this list, I found this article helpful
[11] See Ibid 32:29 and 35:2
[12] Gen. 41:45. See Brachot 13a as to why the name Avram is never used again as opposed to the name Yaakov.
[13] Numbers 16:13
[14] Shmuel II 12:25
[15] Kings II 23:34
[16] Daniel 1:7
[17] Midrash Tanchuma, Parhst Noach 8
[18] Bereishit Rabbah 44:12
[19] Rosh HaShana 16b
[20] The Maharsha (on Nedarim 32a D.H. VaYotzei) explains that proof is brought from Sarah who had no children at all before her change of name as opposed to Avraham who had Yishma’el before his name was changed.
[21] Ritva on Rosh HaShana in his second explanation, Etz Yosef on Bereishit Rabbah
[22] Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4
[23] Pirush Maharzu on Bereishit Rabbah
[24] Eshed HaNechalim on ibid, Ran on Rosh HaShana ibid and the first explanation of the Ritva.
[25] Yoreh De’ah 335:10
[26] Toldot Adam VeChava, Netiv 28 (page 231 side c)
[27] For the record I must say that I don’t know if it is customary to change names as described by Rabbeinu Yerucham as I have never seen it done this way (Aryeh Citron).
[28] This section is not recorded in the Rabeinu Yerucham. Evidently, it was the text of a well-known prayer and as such Rabbeinu Yerucham didn’t bother including it.
[29] Gen. 12:2
[30]Ibid 17:5
[31] Isaiah 65:20
[32] Kings II 20:5
[33] Tehillim 103:1-5
[34] Ibid 107:19-22
[35] I am not sure why this blessing is recited since the sick person has not yet recovered.
[36] Igrot Kodesh vol. 8, pg. 318
[37] Bait Shmuel Even Ha’Ezer, 129:33
[38] Responsa of Mabit, vol. 1, 125 quoted in Peninei Halacha in the Aliba DeHilcheta section of the section of the Metivta Shas, Sanhedrin 78b
[39] The Chazon Ish in Orchot Rabeinu vol. 1, pg. 338
[40] Responsa Even Yisrael, vol. 8, 83
[41] Isaiah 62:2 and 4
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!


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