Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Names as Symbols

Individual names are the most obvious use of symbols in the book [of Ruth]. Elimelech means "may kingship come my way" or "God is my king." Both are possible understandings, since Elimelech was of the tribe of Judah, the tribe of monarchy. The sages say that Elimelech was a man of means, and therefore the term ish [lit. "a man"] is used, which usually denotes a man of stature.

The name Naomi comes from na'im [pleasant]. She is the heroine of the story together with her daughter-in-law Ruth.

The most blatant symbolic names are those of Elimelech's sons Machlon [sickness] and Chilyon [decimation]. Who calls their children by such names? Even if we translate these names as "forgiveness" and "expectation," the second name seems forced and the first should be "Mechilon."

Were these their real names or did the author change their names to make a literary value statement turning their names into symbols? The latter opinion is congruent with the talmudic opinion. This can be confirmed from the Book of Chronicles. In describing the family of Judah, the Book of Chronicles refers to Yokim and Cozeba and Yoash and Saraph who married Moabites and returned to Bethlehem (1 Chronicles 4:22).

Were Yoash and Saraph the real names for Machlon and Chilyon? If so, were the names changed for symbolic reasons?

Ruth and Orpah are the next names to investigate. Ruth embraced the commandments and Orpah turned away from them. "Orpah" is derived from oref [the back of the head], and le-hafnot oref is "to turn away." She turned away from Naomi and the Israelite people and went back to Moab; Ruth embraced the commandments. The Talmud (BT Bava Batra) says that her name hints at this deed. The Hebrew letters of resh-vav-tav [Ruth] add up numerically to 606. If you add to this sum the seven laws of the Sons of Noah, which are incumbent on all the nations, you reach the number 613, corresponding to the commandments.



  1. While I certainly believe that the names could have been changed for symbolic reasons, I note that in the scriptures names are often given by commandment or perhaps through more subtle inspiration. The name "Joseph Smith," comes to mind:

    Joseph = Added Upon.
    Smith = A worker of Metals

    Joseph Smith, through Divine Intervention, certainly added upon our scriptures by "working upon" the gold plates.

  2. Just when I think I understand all that Ruth has to teach, there's more. Thanks, Donna!

    I haven't verified this, but a friend told me that the name Ruth (in Hebrew) is spelled out every 49 letters in this book. The name Boaz is also every 49 letters, intermingled or at a different starting interval, to demonstrate that they are indeed as one.