The Meaning of "Shmot" – What's in a Name? | Aleph Beta

What's In A Name?

The Meaning Of The Name "Shmot"

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Have you ever wondered why The Book of Shmot is called 'Shmot' in Hebrew – meaning 'Names'? In English, we translate it to Exodus – and that seems to make sense! There was an EXODUS from Egypt! And the entire book revolves around that Exodus!

We're told the story of the Israelites, their enslavement, how God redeemed them and brought them out with signs and wonders! ...So where do the names come in?

Turns out that names play a larger role in the story of Shmot than you may have thought. Join Rabbi Fohrman in uncovering the meaning behind the name, and names of Shmot.

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This is Rabbi David Fohrman, this is Parshat Shmot, and welcome to Aleph Beta. Welcome, actually, to the Book of Shmot. Or in English, literally: The Book of Names. What a strange name for a book of the Torah. Why is it called that?

Why Name the Book 'Shmot', and Not Exodus?

Now, the nominal answer, of course, is that shmot, or names, they show up in the very beginning of this book. Sefer Shmot begins with the words וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה, these are the names of the children of Jacob who came down to Egypt... and then the Torah goes ahead and recounts the names of the children of Jacob who had come down to Egypt, back in the days of Joseph.

But here’s the thing: Is that really a good reason to name the whole book Shmot? I mean the English and Latin translators of the Torah evidently didn’t seem to think so. They routinely mistranslate the Book of Shmot as “The Book of Exodus."

Exodus; now that would seem like a really good name for this book. I mean, the Exodus from Egypt actually is the great event that dominates the book. Once we are done with those first verses of Shmot, the Torah seems to drop that ‘names-thing’ like a hot potato and moves on to the story of the Israelites' enslavement, their subsequent redemption.

It’s a saga that dominates the next 20 or so chapters of text. And it’s riveting: It's got suffering, drama, miracles, redemption – you name it. So Exodus seems like a terrific name for this book. But in Hebrew, that’s not what we call it. We call it Shmot, the "Book of Names." Why?

I want to suggest that an answer to this question – a profound answer to it – lies buried in the very first comment made by Rashi in this book. I want to read that comment together with you, and see if we can make sense of what he’s trying to get at.

Rashi’s Question About the Names in Shmot

So Rashi looks at this list of names of the people who came down to Egypt and he actually wonders why the list is necessary at all. Because as it turns out, way back in Genesis, the Torah had actually told us this:

וְאֵ֨לֶּה שְׁמ֧וֹת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הַבָּאִ֥ים מִצְרַ֖יְמָה יַעֲקֹ֣ב וּבָנָ֑יו בְּכֹ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב רְאוּבֵֽן׃

These are the names of the Israelites, who came to Egypt. Jacob and his descendants. Jacob’s first-born Reuven… (46:8).

From there, the text back in Genesis goes on to list not only the names of the 12 children of Jacob who came down to Egypt but the names of their children, too. And look at the syntax of that verse: it’s like precisely the same words as the opening verse in Exodus.

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה

These are the names of the children of Israel, who came to Egypt.

So Rashi’s question, to open Sefer Shmot, is: We’ve heard all this already. Why do it again? Not only is such a recitation of names tangential to the theme of the book, it is also just plain-and-simple repetitious.

God Counts and Names the Stars, Like Israel

So to answer his question, Rashi cites a Midrash.

Why God Name

Let’s read the language of the Midrash together, and I’ll try to explain a little as I read:

אַעַ"פִּ שֶׁמְּנָאָן בְּחַיֵּיהֶם בִּשְׁמוֹתָם

Even though it is true, that the Torah counted the Children of Jacob in their lifetimes, and gave their names, way back in the Book of Genesis,

חָזַר וּמְנָאָם בְּמִיתָתָם

still, the Torah went back, in Exodus, and counted them again when they died...

לְהוֹדִיעַ חִבָּתָם

Why? To let you know how dear they were to the Almighty,

שֶׁנִּמְשְׁלוּ לְכוֹכָבִים

inasmuch as they are compared to the stars…

שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָם וּמַכְנִיסָם בְּמִסְפַּר וּבִשְׁמוֹתָם (שמות רבה),

For when it comes to the stars, God brings them out and returns them back to their places by number and by name,

שֶׁנֶּ' "הַמּוֹצִיא בְמִסְפָּר צְבָאָם לְכֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יִקְרָא" (ישעיהו מ'):

as it was in the verse in Isaiah "He takes out the stars according to their number, and all of them He calls by name…"

So, it’s kind of a puzzling thing that Rashi tells us here. You have to wonder exactly how Rashi’s answering his question?

Rashi seems to think that everything will make sense if we just realize that the people of Israel, they are compared by the Almighty to stars. As if that somehow answers everything.

God Knows Our Names, Like Every Star

Stars get named. So we get named. Stars apparently get named twice; once at night, when God ‘takes them out’, so to speak, and once in the morning, when He snuggles them back in their resting places.

So, just like the stars, we… we, too, get named twice – once when the Children of Israel are alive, when they first come down to Egypt, and once when they are dying out, in the beginning of Exodus. So it all makes sense right?

It sounds kind of far-fetched, it even sounds a bit surreal. What is Midrash trying to get to here? I think the Midrash is alluding to something very deep here.

Here’s how we might puzzle out its meaning: The Midrash says the key to understanding the naming of Israel in the beginning of Exodus is to remember that Israel is compared to stars. Exactly when did that happen? When in Biblical history, were the Children of Israel compared to stars?

The answer, of course, is that it happened in the times of Abraham.

When God Told Abraham to Count the Stars

Back in Genesis chapter 15, Abraham had worried that he was old, and he did not yet have an heir. Who’s going to carry on his legacy? In response to his fear, God had told him to go outside:

הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

“Look towards the heavens”, God had told him, “and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.”

In telling Abraham that his children would be like the stars, God was issuing this almost playful challenge: Can you count the stars? Try counting them. And the implication is: Abraham, you can’t count them. They’re not countable. They are innumerable! So, that’s how your children will be, also.

So isn’t that interesting: The moment the Almighty first associates the Children of Israel with stars… that turns out also to be the moment God brings up the idea of counting them.

Which brings us straight to a fascinating paradox: When God actually told Abraham the nation of Israel was going to be like stars, God’s point was that Abraham’s children would be… impossible to count.

But now, here comes this Midrash, this rabbinic text that specifically references that promise that Israel will be like the stars, and what does the Midrash make of it? That God, as a token of love, treats us just like the stars and counts each one of us.

But wait a minute: Are we countable like the stars, like the Midrash suggests, or uncountable like the stars, like God once told Abraham? Which is it?

The answer, I think, might just lie in who is doing the counting.

God Calls All the Stars By Name

When it comes to stars, they seem innumerable to people. People look up at the heavens and get dizzy. But not God. God has the opposite relationship to stars. The book of Isaiah tells us: He counts every one. He names every one.

The Midrash sees in that naming and counting, signs of affection, a sign of love. The teacher who has a huge class, but remembers each student’s name, knows when somebody is absent, even that shy kid in the back of the classroom – that’s amazing. There’s a teacher who really cares.

God cares about the stars. He puts them all out individually at night, and tucks each one back to sleep in the morning. And so he will relate to us…

But here’s the key: When will He relate to us that way? There is this moment, God tells Abraham, that his progeny will get too numerous to count, and then they will be like stars; but historically, exactly when was that moment?

Digging into the Hebrew Meaning of Shmot

The answer, interestingly enough is: Right here. Right at the very moment in time you and I have been focusing on. Right here, at the beginning of Exodus. Because, right after the Torah goes and counts the children of Israel, right after that, the next thing we hear about is a population explosion:

וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃ (פ)

And the Israelites were fertile and they swarmed; they multiplied, and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.

This is the moment God was talking about. The moment Israel bursts forth, and transforms itself from a mere family, into an incipient nation. This is the moment they become innumerable. And once you realize that, you realize something very chilling.

Because at that moment, something else was happening too. Something foretold to Abraham, the moment after God told him his children would be like the stars.

יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה

You should know: Your children will be strangers in a strange land. And the people of that land will enslave them, and oppress them, for four hundred years...

When you read that verse in Genesis, you don’t exactly know when it's going to happen. But the reader of the Book of Exodus knows.

Abraham’s entire prophecy comes true right at the beginning of Sefer Shmot. Right after Abraham’s children have become like the stars, right after that, they become enslaved.

Now think about that Midrash that Rashi cites: Your people, Abraham, are so innumerable, they will be just like the stars. It seems like a great blessing – and it is.

But that blessing came coupled with something tragic – the darkest moments in our young history; the moment when those multitudes would be enslaved.

In those 400 years of slavery, it seemed like we were out of favor with God; that He didn’t really love us; that what happened to us was just in the hands of fate or chance; that no one really cared about us.

That, the Midrash is suggesting, is the reason that right before that slavery happens, right then, God pauses to count us, and to name us. God does it, because after all, to him, we are just like stars.

What Is the Meaning of Shmot – "Names" – Really About?

God seems to be saying, Yes, I can understand why you think you don’t matter; why you think you are all alone in a cold, uncaring universe. This is, after all, the moment you’ve become like stars; and people, people don’t count stars, people don’t name them. But stars are one of those things that God and people see differently.

You see, God does count the stars. God even names them. He does this because they are dear to Him. And so it is with you. God doesn’t see you as a nation of nameless faces; each and every one of you is important to Him.

He counts each and every one of us, as we live, and then again He counts us, as we seem to melt and die away. He names us because He loves us.

Understanding Why the Book of Shmot Is Called 'Names'

After seeing this Midrash and beginning to understand what it might be alluding to, I think we can also understand why the name of this book of the Torah is ‘names’, Shmot.

For what really happens in this book? It is, of course, the book that recounts our experience as slaves. And, when things seemed darkest, most hopeless, it recounts the story of a God who appears to Moses and says to him, in the middle of a burning bush: “I see your suffering. I hear your cries. I’ve been with you all along.

Isn’t it interesting that this is how God starts the conversation with Moses. Not just, “I am going to deliver you from slavery” – but, before all that, רָאֹ֥ה רָאִ֛יתִי אֶת־עֳנִ֥י עַמִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו, I have seen your pain; I have heard their cries. That’s the first thing you need to know is: I get it. I’m with you. I know what you are going through. I know your names.

I think calling the book “Names” is not an attempt to evade discussion of Egyptian enslavement, but is itself a way of talking about that enslavement. Through it all, God knows our names. He cares about each and every one of us, in all of our pain, in all of our anguish. For we are, after all, like stars, indeed.

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