What’s in a Name?

In an act of unprecedented ostentatiousness, Gerald Guterman chartered the famous ocean liner, the QE2, along with its one thousand crew members to celebrate his son’s bar-mitzvah in 1986.

Our son’s bar-mitzvah was solemnized in a small synagogue built on the Los Angeles ocean front in the 1940s.  Guterman was trying to add meaning to his family celebration by means of an extraordinary location.  We were blessed to add meaning to a picturesque old house of worship by having it house our act of religious significance.

Henry Wallingford proposed to his girlfriend one night in an empty football stadium which he rented for the occasion.  The loudspeakers blared romantic tunes while the giant scoreboard flashed out, “Gillian will you marry me?”  As soon as the astonished girl said, “yes,” waiters trotted out with two chairs and a table bearing a white tablecloth and a large bouquet of flowers.  The couple was then treated to a catered gourmet meal on the fifty yard line.  Henry was trying to add meaning to his proposal by means of an extraordinary location.

My sailboat on which the future Mrs. Lapin graciously said “yes” to my anxiously blurted out proposal will always be dear to my heart.  The power of our commitment to God and to one another bestowed special significance on that old boat.

Our dining room table was built to have food served upon it. Nonetheless, years of Lapin family meals around it have imbued that table with such emotional resonance that sometimes, to my eyes, it seems to emit a warm glow.  Meaningful human activities impart spiritual significance to objects and places.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches this by depicting a scene that begs a question:

And Jacob journeyed to Sukot… therefore he called the name of the place Sukot.
(Genesis 33:17)


Here’s the question: How could Jacob have journeyed to Sukot when it only acquired its name after he got there?  I would have written that verse, “And Jacob journeyed to a place and named the place Sukot…”

Well it turns out that the first time the word “Sukot” appears in that verse it is spelled ordinarily. The last time it appears it acquires an extra Hebrew letter vav connoting an additional dose of spiritual significance.

In other words, the place may well have been called Sukot.  However, because of the powerful human act of construction, the place was changed. The name acquired the extra vav reflecting that something significant had taken place there.

In case you feel any inclination to dismiss this as a coincidence, Scripture repeats this pattern.

And they came to the valley of Eshkol …they called that place the valley of Eshkol…
(Numbers 13:23-24)


Do you see the same question?  If it was called valley of Eshkol because of something they did after they got there, it should have just been an anonymous place when they arrived.

It turns out that the pattern is identical.  The first word Eshkol is spelled without the Hebrew letter vav but the vav is added when they call the place by that name. This connotes the spiritual significance of what the Israelite spies did there.

Our actions do impact the world around us.  When you show up regularly at synagogue or church for services, you are not only satisfying your own spiritual needs.  You are making that place more spiritually significant for all the other worshippers.

When you perform an action in a certain place, you change the cosmic reality of that place. Gettysburg, Normandy and the sites of many other battles were different places because of the actions which humans performed there.

While we easily understand that we can physically pollute or clean up an area, we must know that we can also spiritually contaminate or sanctify locations. As humans formed in God’s image, we participate in the world’s creation as we interact with it.


23 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Thank you for your time to details and patience in explaining the unique translation aspects of the Torah scripture readings. In today’s modern technology world, I marvel at the wisdom that was condensed into the ancient scripture writings. I hope that you will continue this work. The concept of transformation expressed within these readings as you have outlined places new emphasis upon my own interactions with family and friends from within our home and along our limited journey in this life among others who we meet. Thank you again – and Take Care.

  2. Peter Mojassamian

    I am not sure how this Comment textbox came up but now that it did, may I pose a question?
    I have heard that on Yom Kippur a scarlet thread would miraculously turn to white in the olden days. Is this true or a legend?

  3. Please check out the Thought Tool again – we’ve added Hebrew graphics. Thanks for the feedback.

  4. Why don’t you just show the verse in Hebrew under the English and point out the different spelling of the same word. Even if people don’t know Hebrew they can certainly match the letters and see the additional vav, just a suggestion. Great teaching and good point. I also wanted to add that in Hebrew the vav is used as a connector and it so fits the teaching that for something to have meaning, we need to somehow be “connected” to it.

    1. I was able to put the Hebrew in but it came out so small that it was barely readable. I couldn’t find how to increase the font size. I will let you know when I retroactively put it in.

      1. I have found a fix – at least a temporary one. Look at the post again and please let me know if this helps.

    1. Yes. Any time the same name is used in the Bible we are meant to make a connection. Definitely worth exploring.

  5. What is the best English translation of the Torah or Hebrew Bible that shows these changes, or footnotes these meanings?

    1. We get asked this question a lot and I’m afraid the answer is that there isn’t one. It’s like asking a NASA astronaut to give you the quick guidebook for piloting a ship to the moon. You have to put in the hours, years and effort to get to these things. You don’t find them laid out for you in one convenient package. That, in a nutshell, is one of our incentives for doing what we do. We choose and share what we can from a vast amount of material.

      1. Art Scroll (a publishing company) has wonderful resources. Each edition of the Bible they print gives a part of a picture as do many other translations. They would never suggest that they are giving the whole picture any more than we would. The ‘oral transmission’ what we call ancient Jewish wisdom is too immense to capture in any one place.

  6. What a wonderful teaching! I have noticed this before. An obvious example is Abram to Abraham or Sari to Sarah. But I also read into Daniel’s never taking on the king’s god’s name. The other three companions do, but even they stand against bowing before the king’s god.
    Daniel, however is extraordinary. This is why I named one of my sons Daniel.

    1. When we once moved into a house where we felt that the previous occupants might have left a spiritual deficit, our father Rabbi A.H. Lapin advised us to make at least one very visible physical change to the house, turning it into a ‘new’ place. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, but it looked different to anyone walking in. Then, of course, we had the job of imparting spiritual value to the house.

  7. really not a good system you have here with the numerics at the end! lose everything and have to start all over if you forget or get a wrong equation! Really heartless.

  8. oh, man! Just lost everything I said! I asked if you could please show in Hebrew the significance of the vav or the different spelling, since it looks the same in English. Please be detailed in your examples, it helps us understand. I would also like a detailed explanation on the event that took place with Caiaphas, the H.Priest, when Yeshua stood before him on the day He was crucified. Or do you recall that? The transferrence of the office of H.P. to Yeshua by the act of rending one’s garment of the H.P.! ? Thanks, Donna

    1. Hi Donna – I wanted to show the words in Hebrew and had them in my document, but I didn’t know how to add them in the right size or color on our new site. I have added that to my list of things to learn, so I hope that next time I will be able to illustrate similar points. As for your second point, we have no knowledge on that. Our area is confined to the Tanach, the Jewish Bible.

      1. Hello in your dash board go to post area, look and see if you find a little keyboard widget thing, treat the platform as a ms word platform. If you have Hebrew chars loaded שלום which it seems you do it should be as simple as clicking a button above the text area to expand menu’s.. the web team will know. Hope that helps not trying to take anyones job lol its just a passion of mine.

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