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Why have there been famous(ly righteous) Jewish people named after Yishma'el, who, Chaza"l tell us, was evil and an enemy of Jews? Has anything similar happened with Esav? Korach? Others?

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5 Answers 5

According to at least one major tradition, Yishma'el repented later in his life. Gen. 25:9 says that after Avraham died, "Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him ..." According to Genesis Rabba as quoted by Rashi there, the order indicates that Yishma'el repented, as he recognized the precedence due his younger but covenentally endowed brother.

For some reason, despite the great R' Yishma'el being so named, the practice of using the name Yishma'el seems to have fallen out of widespread Jewish practice. This might have to do with more recent conflicts with Muslim nations and groups.

I'm not aware of famous Jews being named 'Esav or Korach, but then, there's no indication that either of them repented.

Bonus material:

My high school principal told us a cute thing about R' Yishm'ael and his namesake. I don't remember all of it, but I'll repeat what I can reconstruct. R' Yishma'el compiled 13 Rules to be used for inferring laws from the words of the Torah. The fourth and fifth of these are inverse of each other:

4) Kelal Uperat / General then Specific - If a verse contains a general rule followed by a specific example, the general rule is taken to only apply to the case described by the example.

5) Perat Ukelal / Specific then General - If a verse describes examples followed by a general rule, the rule is taken to apply in general.

These two types of verses look the same except for the order of the elements. One might wonder whether we can really take into account the order of elements in this way. According to R' Yishma'el's tradition, we can and do, at least when the elements are within a single verse.

And this works well for R' Yishma'el himself, since the appropriateness of his name is dependent on the fact that his namesake repented, which we derive based on the ordering within a verse of his brother's name and his own. If the order wasn't significant, we couldn't make such an inference.

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The way I heard the story was similar to how it is at the end of this page except that it was his prospective shver testing him. –  Michoel Nov 13 '12 at 20:13
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Note that there is a notable example of a more recent Rabbi named Yishmael, namely the Italian Rabbi Yishmael Hakohen (Laudadio Sacerdoti). –  Malper Dec 17 '13 at 2:21

Yeah, we don't name after bad people, unless the name means something nice. (This is on a Rabbi Frand tape.) There are plenty of "Avshalom"s out there today -- while the Biblical Avshalom who committed treason against his father King David wasn't a nice guy, the name -- "father (cause) of peace" is nice.

Contrast with a name like "Do'eg", which is both a Biblical baddie, and means "worry."

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Just curious if you can explain why "Nimrod" has become a common Israeli name? He was not a savory Biblical character and I can't identify a positive name translation either. –  Aaron Greenberg Dec 16 '09 at 16:47
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From what I've heard, that one might actually be an intentional finger in the eye of the religious crowd. Nimrod was a strong leader who rebelled against God. I don't think you find many religious Israelis naming their kids that. –  Isaac Moses Dec 16 '09 at 22:02
    
Indeed. I used to have a Hebrew book called פסוק לי שמך, which contained lists of names and the associated pesukim (for reciting at the end of Shemoneh Esreh). The author included the names Nimrod and Goliath in their respective places, but with a footnote referring to the back of the book, where he reproduced some correspondence he had with R' Shlomo Yosef Zevin on this subject. The point made there was exactly that: these are not names that should be used; but post facto, if someone does bear these names, the appropriate verses need to be provided. –  Alex Jun 20 '10 at 16:28
    
Aaron, there is one pirush in the mikraos gedolos associates Nimrod's name with a positive idea. אבן עזרא על בראשית פרק י פסוק ט (ט) וטעם לפני ה' - שהי' בונה מזבחות ומעלה אותם החיות עולה לשם וזו דרך הפשט. והדרש דרך אחרת: and in the Hizkuni: חזקוני על בראשית פרק י פסוק ט (ט) גבר ציד לפני ה' - בעולם, וכן עיר גדולה לאלקים בכל עולמו של הקב"ה לא היתה עיר גדולה כמוה. ד"א לפני ה' ע"פ הדבור ... שלפני ה' הוא ע"פ הדיבור אף כאן פירש ממרום נגזר על נמרוד שתצלח רוח גבורה עליו ויתפוש נצחו בכל אשר ילך. –  Yahu Jun 23 '10 at 9:16
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@Isaac-Moses: An Isreali told me that a while ago (perhaps in the 70s), the Rabbis ruled that one should not call their sons Nimrod. This was apparently in response to the increasing popularity of the name. This Israeli told me that because of this he has three friends whose secular parents deliberately named them Nimrod. –  Menachem Jun 20 '11 at 17:35

I think the Chida addresses these issues as well, in (appropriately enough) "Shem haGedolim." It is also interesting that, as far as I know, none of the rabbis in the Mishna/Talmud are named Moshe. In the larger world, of course names go in and out of style, but this is even more so in the Jewish world, where we have strong traditions of naming after relatives (deceased or living, according to your minhagim), so once you hit a critical mass of tzaddikim with a certain name, it can become extremely popular. Similarly, once a name disappears from the population at large, it can be very difficult to revive.

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Jeremy- Thanks for bringing that book to my attention. It looks very interesting. Where in it is this topic discussed? –  WAF Jan 15 '10 at 18:41
    
sorry--it's been a long time and I don't personally have a copy. try hebrewbooks.org –  Jeremy Jan 26 '10 at 21:26

The name Korach (which is the name of one of Eisav's children) is stated as one of the reasons Korach (the one who rebelled againt Moshe) did what he did. Therefore, naming a child after him would definitely be a bad idea.

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Who says this reason? –  Double AA Nov 14 '12 at 3:34

TL;DR

Regarding using a wicked person's name, the Ri seems to hold that it is permissible give someone the same name as a wicked person, so long as that name historically did not uniquely belong to wicked people or to a single wicked person.


The gemara (Shabbos 12b) cites a teaching in the name of Shevna Ish Yerushalayim. Tosafos (ad loc.) write:

Rabbeinu Tam's version does not include the name "Shevna", for Shevna1 was wicked,2 and we do not bring citations in the name of the wicked, for "the name of the wicked should rot" (Mishlei 10:7), as it says in chapter Amar Lahem HaM'munah (Yoma 38b). He rather emends it to read "Shachna", which is also the name of a person, as it says in Sotah (21a), "rather like Shachna brother of Hillel".3

And it appears to the Ri that the correct version is in fact "Shevna", for if there is one wicked person named Avraham, should we avoid calling another person by that name?4 And in reality, there were two people named Shevna, as is demonstrable from Isaiah, as it is written, "Shevna who is in charge of the house..." (22:15), and it is written, "and I will call to my servant, to Elyakim... and I will give over your rule to his hand" (22:20-21), and it is written after this, "And Elyakim, who is in charge of the house, and Shevna the scribe came to him..." (36:22),5 implying that the Shevna who was in charge of the house already died, and Elyakim was in his place, and Shevna the scribe was someone else.6

Possibly, according to the Ri, a name is acceptable if it is not unique to a single wicked person, even if multiple wicked people shared that name.

However, the Ri might not consider "Shevna the scribe" to have been wicked. This is supported by Tosafos' characterization of the "יש מפרשים" (Yoma 38b, s.v. d'lo maskei bishmaihu) as considering Shevna the scribe to be righteous. If so, it is possible that the Ri would consider a name that was known only to be given to wicked people to be unacceptable.

The principle that is the subject of disagreement between Rabbeinu Tam and the Ri seems to apply to naming people, as well.


1 Isaiah 36:3, 11, 22; 37:2

2 Sanhedrin 26a

3 Interestingly, the prevalent printed version of Sotah names Hillel's brother as Shevna. Tosafos on Yoma (38b) might be read to indicate that Rabbeinu Tam was also responsible for the emendation of "Shevna" to "Shachna" in Sotah (ibid.)

4 Rhetorical question

5 The verse here is paraphrased and slightly different than the text in Isaiah

6 Tosafos elsewhere (K'suvos 104b, s.v. sh'nei; Yoma 38b, s.v. d'lo maskei bishmaihu) argue that Shevna is the same person in both instances and bring evidence for this from Sanhedrin 26a

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+1 - I assume this is not meant to explain R' Yishma'el, as (unless you accept the other answers here) there was just the evil one, and no precedent of a good one for the original R' Yishma'el to use. –  YEZ Jun 19 at 18:10
    
@YEZ Correct, this was just meant to supplement other answers by mentioning a general principle discussed in Tosafos. Plus, as mentioned in Isaac Moses' answer, Yishmael did t'shuva. –  Fred Jun 19 at 18:13

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