What's in a Name?

  • Dr. Yael Ziegler



By Dr. Yael Ziegler



Shiur #7: What’s In a Name?



In Tanakh, characters’ names are often an integral part of the story.[1] More often than not, when a child is born, the given name is not intended to relate to the child or even to the child’s future, but rather to the context of the parents’ lives at the time of the child’s birth. This is strikingly true in the case of Yaakov’s sons, most of whose names reflect the struggle of Leah and Rachel for children and for Yaakov’s love.


One biblical figure may interpret another’s name according to the former’s understanding of the latter’s character. Note, for example, Avigail’s assessment of her husband Naval:


Please, my master, pay no attention to that evil man, Naval. For he is just what his name implies: Naval is his name and he is a scoundrel. (I Shmuel 25:25)


            The Bible even allows for the reinterpretation of people’s names, based on their actions. Consider, for example, Yaakov, whose name is originally given because he emerged from the womb clutching his brother’s heel (“ve-yado ochezet ba-akev Esav,” Bereishit 25:26). After Yaakov deceives his father into giving him Esav’s blessing, Esav irately introduces a new etymology for the name Yaakov, one that changes the name’s original intention:


And he said, “That is why his name is called Yaakov, for he deceived me these two times (va-ya’akeveini zeh pa’amayim).”[2] (Bereishit 27:36)


Chazal approach names in a similar manner. Midrashim interpret the names of biblical characters with the goal of revealing the core of their character, or their role in the biblical narrative. Thus, midrashic name etymologies that offer a negative explanation are not suggesting that this was the original intent. Rather, a negative etymology is retroactively offered by Chazal as a criticism of that character’s behavior.


In today’s shiur, we will examine the names of the characters in Megillat Ruth. We will relate both to the simple meaning of the name and to the etymologies offered by the Midrash in a quest for deeper insights into the essence of the characters in the Megilla.




R. Meir would expound upon names. R. Yehoshua ben Karcha would expound upon names. “And the name of the man was Elimelekh,” because he would say, “To me shall come the kingship.” (Ruth Rabba 2:5)


The midrashic etymology for Elimelekh’s name is an apt example of midrashic creativity. A literal reading of his name yields, “My God is king.”[3] This is an ideal name for a child born during the period of the Judges. The recurring refrain at the end of the book of Shoftim designates this period as a chaotic one, marked by lawlessness and societal dysfunction, due to the absence of kingship (Shoftim 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel; each man did what was right in his own eyes.” Elimelekh’s name suggests that the absence of a king should not be a problem for the nation of Israel; indeed, if God is king, this should be enough to cure the ills of the generation. Elimelekh’s name is a declaration of faith, designed to counter the tribulations of the period and spur the nation to reinstate a viable society.


The midrash in Ruth Rabba distorts the plain meaning of Elimelekh’s name. Instead of E-li, meaning “my God,” the midrash alters the vowels, rendering elai, “to me,” or perhaps “for me.” This midrash is similar to other midrashim that we have previously examined, which attempt to explain why Elimelekh disappears from the narrative and never participates in the destiny of his family, the family that produces the Davidic dynasty. Indeed, a man who regards kingship as something designed to serve his own needs, or who thinks he is entitled to kingship by virtue of having been born into royal lineage, is a man who will abuse the power of kingship. By distorting the obvious meaning of Elimelekh’s name, the midrash suggests that while Elimelekh could perhaps have promulgated the notion that God is the ultimate king, thereby setting in place a viable model of human kingship, he does not do so. He corrupts the destiny that attends his name and, in a commensurate fashion, Chazal corrupt his name.


This creative midrashic etymology (“elai tavo ha-malkhut”) has an intriguing textual corollary. In chapter 3, there are two identical cases of keri ve-lo ketiv (a word that is read but not written).[4] In both cases, Ruth is speaking to Naomi, and in both cases, the reader is instructed to read the word “elai” despite the fact that it is does not appear in the text:


And she said to her, “Everything that you say to me (e-lai), I will do.” (Ruth 3:5)


And she said, “These six barleys he gave me because he said to me (e-lai), ‘Do not come empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’” (Ruth 3:17)


This unusually duplicated phenomenon characterizes Ruth in a strikingly apt fashion: Ruth is in fact a person who is ready and willing to take herself, the elai, out of her sentence.[5]


In the etymologically-based midrashic portrayal of Elimelekh, the midrash does not merely disqualify Elimelekh because he regards the kingship as his birthright; the midrash disqualifies Elimelekh because his character is the very opposite of Ruth. Ruth is the ideal candidate to produce kingship because she disregards herself and her personal needs. Elimelekh, on the other hand, is deliberately portrayed as one who cannot act in this fashion. According to this midrash, Elimelekh has been disqualified from kingship using the very same criterion – indeed, the very same word – that explains why Ruth was chosen.




“And the name of his wife was Naomi,” because her deeds were beautiful and pleasant. (Ruth Rabba 2:5)


The simple etymology given to Naomi’s name is a reflection of a generally positive portrayal of Naomi in the midrash. This etymology is more significant than it may seem, because other biblical characters with a similar name do not receive similar approbation:


R. Abba Bar Kahane said: Naama was the wife of Noah. Why was she called Naama? Because her deeds were pleasant. But the Rabbis said: Naama was different [than her name]. And why was she called Naama? Because she would sing pleasantly into a hollow instrument for idolatry. (Bereishit Rabba 23:3)


            Like all names, Naomi’s name can be interpreted negatively or positively. This is because a name, given at birth when a person is yet unformed, cannot predetermine a person’s nature. Every individual must consciously harness his or her name for good in order for it to attain a positive meaning. Thus, Chazal’s positive interpretation of Naomi’s name is an indication of this midrash’s conscious esteem for her character.


In the Megilla itself, Naomi emerges as a more complicated character. This is reflected in the manner in which Naomi expounds upon her own name. Upon her return to Bethlehem, Naomi rejects her name, with its attendant connotations of pleasantness and affability. Instead, Naomi avers that she should henceforth be called Mara, a name that reflects her bitterness, as well as the embittered life that God has forced upon her (Ruth 1:20). Naomi herself does not accept the positive etymology foisted upon her by the midrash. In this way, she draws our attention to the complex portrayal of her character that we will explore in upcoming shiurim.


Machlon and Khilyon


“And the names of his two sons were Machlon and Khilyon:” Machlon, because they were erased (nimchu) from the world, and Khilyon, because they were destroyed (khalu) from the world. (Ruth Rabba 2:5)


While the specifics may vary, the names Machlon and Khilyon are nearly unanimously assigned negative etymologies. This did not necessarily have to be the case. A daughter of Tzelofchad is named Machla, a son of Merari is Machli, and a granddaughter of David (as well as Yishmael’s daughter) is named Machalat. Suggestions for a positive explanation of the name Machlon include an association with the word “machol,” to dance; “nachala,” an inheritance; or “mechila,” forgiveness.[6] One may likewise suggest that Khilyon’s name is related to the word that denotes completion, and as a derivative of that word, perfection.[7] In that sense, a completed article is called a keli, vessel. One would certainly imagine that Naomi’s intention was not negative when she named her sons![8]


Nevertheless, the midrashim tend to use their name etymologies to offer a negative portrait of Machlon and Khilyon. The midrash cited above describes the erasure and destruction of these men. This is because their brief introduction almost immediately terminates in their untimely death without children, suggesting that they represent unfulfilled potential or failed destiny.[9] Indeed, it appears that Machlon and Khilyon have left nothing behind and have been erased or destroyed from this world.


The erasure of Machlon and Khilyon is reminiscent of the end of Sedom and Amora, whose society was overturned and sown with salt, so that nothing can grow there (Beresihit 19:24-26; Zephania 2:9). As noted, the period of the Judges concludes with a story which echoes the heinous behavior of the people of Sedom; the people of Giv’ah surround the home of a host and demand to rape his male guest (Shoftim 19:22). The result is a society that is likewise threatened with total annihilation. Indeed, the book of Shoftim concludes by describing the existential danger of the erasure of the tribe of Benjamin in the aftermath of their Sedom-like behavior. In fact, the language used by the elders in their attempt to avert the annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin recalls the midrashic etymology of Machlon’s name:


And the elders of the congregation said, “What shall we do [to obtain] wives for those remaining, for the women of Benjamin have been killed?” And they said, “There must be a remnant of an inheritance for Benjamin so that a tribe of Israel will not be erased (ve-lo yimache shevet mi-Yisrael).” (Shoftim 21:16-17)


            These midrashic etymologies offered for the names of Machlon and Khilyon are designed to identify them with the negative behavior in the book of Shoftim.[10] Just as we saw when we examined the midrashic description of the behavior of Elimelekh and his sons during the time of famine, the midrash endeavors to show that this family is not part of the solution of the period; they are part of the problem. The midrash offers a consistent message: whoever behaves like Sedom and Amora will share the fate of Sedom and Amora. The family of Elimelekh takes part in the national misconduct during the era of the Judges; therefore, the sons of Elimelekh are accorded the same punishment: erasure and destruction.[11]


A second etymological midrash associates Machlon and Khilyon with two obscure biblical characters (Divrei Ha-yamim I 4:22): “And Yoash and Saraph who married into Moav, and were inhabitants of Lechem, and these records are ancient.”[12] A gemara explores all of the possibilities that can emerge from this identification:


It is written “Machlon and Khilyon” and it is written “Yoash and Saraf.” Rav and Samuel [argue]. One says that Machlon and Khilyon are their names, and why were they called Saraf and Yoash? Yoash because they despaired of redemption (nitya’ashu min ha-geula) and Saraf because they were divinely liable for the death penalty of burning (nit’chayevu sereifa la-Makom). One says that their names were Yoash and Saraf, and why were they called Machlon and Khilyon? Machlon because they made their bodies profane (asu gufeihen chulin) and Khilyon because they were divinely liable for destruction (nitchayevu kheliya la-Makom). (Bava Batra 91b)


While two of these etymologies relate to the total destruction of Machlon and Khilyon, as explained above, two new themes emerge in this gemara. One relates to their intermarriage with Moavite women discussed in the previous shiur (“they made their bodies profane”), and the other to Machlon and Khilyon’s despair (“they despaired of redemption”). The despondency of Elimelekh’s sons is not alluded to in the text itself. It is possible, though, that the very act of abandoning the land of Israel and their fellow countrymen should be understood as an act of despair. Viewed against the background of the period of the Judges, in which enemies are prevalent and leadership is scarce, one can well understand why someone might lose hope and renounce his optimism and faith.


It seems to me, however, that there is a deeper meaning to this etymology which refers to their loss of hope in redemption. The objective of Megillat Ruth is geula. The root ga’al is a key word both in chapter 3, where it appears seven times, and in chapter 4, where it appears fifteen times! Indeed, Boaz’s great contribution to this book is his willingness to act as the go’el, the redeemer, despite the apparent obstacles. Boaz’s quest for geula is what defines him as the hero of our story and confirms his role as the progenitor of the kingship.[13] This midrashic depiction of the rejection of geula by Eliemlekh’s sons contrasts these men with Boaz and tenders yet another reason why they are not qualified to take part in the construction of the forthcoming monarchy.


Machlon and Khilyon: Merged Identities


It is interesting that the etymological midrashim treat Machlon and Khilyon as one unit. In fact, each of the brothers is consistently described as having identical characteristics to his brother. Even the formulation of the question is in the plural: Why were their names called Machlon? And why were they called Khilyon?[14] The point of these midrashim is clear. The brothers have not individuated and they have no independent identity. Neither of them may be said to have fulfilled his destiny as an individual.


This midrashic perspective on Machlon and Khilyon is indicated textually. Note the manner in which the sons are introduced:


And the names of his two sons were Machlon and Khilyon. (Ruth 1:2)


The difference between the introduction of Machlon and Khilyon and that of Ruth and Orpah is striking:


The name of one was Orpah, and the name of the second was Ruth. (Ruth 1:4)


Machlon and Khilyon, who are introduced as one unit, are not expected to distinguish themselves one from the other. Ruth and Orpah, whose paths will diverge, are already introduced as two separate and distinct individuals. Indeed, Machlon and Khilyon are regarded as a unit to such an extent that initially, we are not even told which man married which woman. Apparently, until it is time to address the issue of the inheritance (Ruth 4:10), that information is irrelevant. Machlon is Khilyon and Khilyon is Machlon. The assonance between their names may also be indicative of this.[15] Like Eldad and Medad (Bamidbar 11), Machlon and Khilyon are simply a pair, a unit where individuation never occurs.




Various etymologies are offered for the name Ruth.[16] The lack of consensus indicates the difficulty in determining any genuine etymology, but each suggestion offers insight into a central feature of her character.


The gemara in Berakhot offers one etymology:


Why “Ruth”? R. Yochanan said: Because she was worthy and from her emerged David, who saturated (rivahu)[17] the Holy one, blessed be He, with songs and praises. (Berakhot 7b)


This etymology shifts attention away from Ruth’s own qualities and perceives Ruth’s significance primarily in regard to her descendant David, founder of the Judean monarchy. Indeed, Ruth’s fame is, to some degree, a product of her illustrious great-grandson. As we have noted, this constitutes one of the primary objectives of the Megilla, which ends with the words, “Yishai birthed David.”


Several midrashim contain a different etymology:


“And the name of the second was Ruth,” because she saw (ra’ata) the words of her mother-in-law.[18] (Ruth Rabba 9:4; Tanchuma Behar 3)


This midrash regards Ruth’s name as deriving from another aspect of her persona, namely, her sensitivity toward her mother-in-law Naomi. A literal understanding of this midrash suggests that Ruth’s name derives from her ability to see, or understand, her mother-in-law’s words. This seems to allude to Ruth’s insistence on remaining with her mother-in-law, despite Naomi’s strenuous attempt to dissuade her from doing so. In this way, Ruth is portrayed as one who perceptively apprehends her mother-in-law’s real desire, despite Naomi’s words to the contrary.


This etymology may be related to the Peshitta’s rendering of Ruth’s name as Re’ut, deriving from the word meaning friend.[19] Indeed, Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi resonates deeply with a chord of friendship. Both of these midrashim present Ruth as the ultimate friend, one whose essence may be seen in her interpersonal relations. This presentation is crucial, inasmuch as Ruth is the matriarch of the Davidic dynasty, an institution whose primary goal is to restore order to the chaotic and divided society.


Finally, several midrashim regard Ruth’s name as deriving from her relationship with God:


“And the name of the second was Ruth,” because she would boil herself (meratachat atzma) [to stay away] from sins, in order to do the will of her Father in heaven. (Ruth Zuta 1:4)


A similar idea appears in another midrash:


“And the name of the second was Ruth,” because she would tremble (meratetet) from transgressions. (Yalkut Shimoni 600:2)


This approach, while less attested to in the Megilla itself, points to Ruth’s piety before God. While, on the surface, Ruth’s decision to join the Jewish People appears to derive from her loyalty to Naomi, these midrashim perceive Ruth as the paradigmatic convert. In this schema, her primary character trait, and that which motivates her to become a member of the Jewish nation, is her desire to serve God.


Examining different midrashic etymologies of Ruth’s name has yielded three different aspects of Ruth’s persona: Ruth, the progenitor of David; Ruth, the socially sensitive companion; and Ruth, the God-fearing woman. In fact, I would suggest that it is a composite picture of Ruth, combining all of these aspects into one persona, which fixes Ruth’s extraordinary image in perpetuity.



This series of shiurim is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Naomi Ruth z”l bat Aharon Simcha, a woman defined by Naomi’s unwavering commitment to family and continuity and Ruth’s selflessness and kindness.


I welcome all comments and questions: [email protected]



[1] Prof. Moshe Garsiel has developed the field of the study of biblical names in several Hebrew articles. His book on this topic, Biblical Names: A Literary Study of Midrashic Derivations and Puns, was published in 1991.

[2] The Hebrew word akev literally means the heel. In a related usage, the word can mean to circumvent or overreach someone (to follow at the heel). This latter usage often has an insidious connotation.

[3] In Eisenstein’s collection of midrashim, there is a midrash that explains Elimelekh’s name according to its simple meaning: “‘And the name of the man was Elimelekh.’ Certainly this is because he would say, ‘My God is king’” (Otzar Midrashim, Ruth, p. 515).

[4] Similar phenomena include keri u-ketiv (a word that is read one way and written another) and ketiv ve-lo keri (a word that is written, but not read). All three of these phenomena appear in chapter 3 of Megillat Ruth. In chapter 3, I intend to examine both the origin of this curious textual occurrence and the question of interpretation which arises in its wake. For the present, I will note that I have followed the lead of both Chazal and medieval exegetes in interpreting this phenomenon.

[5] I thank my brother, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Zeiger, for this original idea, related to me many years ago as part of a devar torah for Shavuot.

[6] Indeed, a midrash records the reaction of a Sage who takes exception to this negative etymology: “R. Yochanan said, One should observe well the name: Machlon, [whose name] is [related to] the language of forgiveness, was married to Ruth, who trembled from transgressions, while Khilyon [whose name] is [related to] the language of destruction, was married to Orpah, from whom emerged Goliat the Philistine” (Ruth Zuta 1). This midrash represents an attempt to distinguish between Machlon and Khilyon due to their respective choice of wife. See also Zohar Bereishit (Lekh Lekha), p. 80; Ruth Zuta 4:9. As we shall see, this approach has little support in the text itself.

[7] This word is especially positive, in that it is used for describing God’s completion of his creation of the world (Bereishit 2:1-2), Moshe’s completion of the Mishkan (Shemot 39:32; 40:33), and Shlomo’s completion of the Temple (Melakhim I 6:38; Divrei Ha-yamim I 28:20). Note especially the juxtaposition to the word shalem in Divrei Ha-yamim II 8:16. See also Divrei Ha-yamim II 4:21, where the phrase mikhlot zahav is taken to mean perfections of gold (Rashi, Radak, and Metzudot ad loc.).

[8] One would imagine this to be the case with every parent who names their child. Certainly Naval’s mother did not regard him as a scoundrel at his naming! One could speculate that she had in mind either a harp (nevel) or a leather jug used for wine.

[9] R. Yaakov Medan, Hope from the Depths: A Study in Megillat Ruth [Heb.] (2007),  p. 13, tenders that the demise of the various members of this family suggests karet, a punishment that entails untimely death and no progeny (see Rashi, Bereishit 17:14).

[10] As noted in shiur #6, the midrash associates Machlon and Khilyon’s behavior with that of the inhabitants of Sedom (Tanchuma, Shemini 9): “‘And Elimelekh the husband of Naomi died.’ And also his sons died, as it says, ‘And the two of them also died, Machlon and Khilyon, and the woman was left without her two boys or her husband.’ And this was because they would judge the judges, as in Sedom.”

[11] In this way, the family of Elimelekh is presented as a microcosm of the nation during the period of the Shoftim. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the quest to restore the family’s name and their continuity by producing a child is not simply a solution for the family itself. This child, who produces kingship, will also function as a panacea for the threat of annihilation which hovers over the nation. We will develop this point in later shiurim.

[12] The midrashic identification of Yoash and Saraf with Machlon and Khilyon is in keeping with the midrashic principle of conservation of biblical characters. The sparse information given about Yoash and Saraf does seem to support the notion that these men could be Machlon and Khilyon, men who married Moavites, were inhabitants of Lechem (Bethlehem), and whose lives were recorded for posterity in the book of Ruth.

[13] At the same time, the one who refuses to act as the go’el later in the book (called Peloni Almoni in 4:1) is the anti-hero, having refused to facilitate the solution for Ruth and Naomi or for the nation.

[14] A later midrash revises this formulation, rendering each etymology in the more logical singular tense: “And the names of his two sons were Machlon and Khilyon: Machlon, who was erased from the world, Khilyon, who was destroyed from the world” (Yalkut Shimoni 600).

[15] Hebrew requires a full rhyming syllable in order to constitute a rhyme. Thus, the names Machlon and Khilyon do not technically rhyme, although there is certainly a sound play, or an aspect of assonance. I thank Dr. Avi Shmidman for sharing his expertise on this matter.

[16] For an explanation of the etymology of the name Orpah, see shiur #4.

[17] This etymology is based on the root “ravah,” in which the heh alternates with the tav in Ruth’s name.

[18] This etymology strays farther from Ruth’s name; the vav is switched by an aleph, while the tav is replaced by a “heh.”

[19] The Peshitta is a translation of the Bible into Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), probably originating in the second century.