Project Genesis

Jacob and Israel

Question: After Abraham’s and Sarah’s names were changed from “Abram” and “Sarai” to “Abraham” and “Sarah”, their old names are never used again in the Bible or in our literature. However, When Jacob’s name was changed to Israel why do both the Torah and our liturgy use both names (e.g. “Shema Yisrael” and “Beit Yaakov Lechu v’nelcha”) even after the name has been changed? Is there a rationale behind the different treatment of the names of Abraham and Sarah, and that of Jacob? Thank you.

Answer: The Rabbis draw a distinction between the two, that Abraham and Sarah’s names referred to their unfulfilled nature. Abram means he was “a father in Aram”, of the Arameans. Abraham means that he became “a father to all the nations”, after his circumcision. Sarai, likewise, means “my princess.” Sarah means a “princess of the world.” Thus, after their name change there was no reason to call them by their old names, and the Talmud says they should not be referred to by these names because it is demeaning.

Jacob, on the other hand, refers to one dimension of his nature- the more physical dimension. Jacob comes from the word “ekev,” or “heel,” meaning the lower part of his existence. Israel referes to an “officer of G-d,” or that “you fought against angels and were victorious,” the more spiritual side of his nature. These do not contradict one another; they are merely different dimensions. That is why he, and his children, are referred to by both names, depending on the context.

Take care,
Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum

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