Perhaps this had never bothered anyone in the past, but for someone like myself who delves into genealogy, the fact that there are family naming patterns is a great boon. Of course, we can go only so far back. But in any case, suddenly this question has come to bother me!

Reading the weekly parshiot in the Torah, I never seemed to be concerned before over the fact that everyone had a unique name! There was never another Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, etc., so everyone was unique and there was no ambiguity in referring to anyone.

So at what point did people start to "recycle" names and why? Was it to memorialize a loved one or another honored person or rabbi?

  • 2
    Could have sworn we had this question already. Can't find it, though.
    – msh210
    Jun 17, 2012 at 22:54
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    Last week’s Torah reading mentions the spy from Yissachar, Yig’al ben Yosef. Jun 17, 2012 at 23:41
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    I sincerely looked through 10 pages of questions under the tag of "names" and did not find this question. That's why I felt I could send this in. I confess to not knowing EVERYONE mentioned in the Torah, but it certainly seemed that way. Thanks for your comment though!
    – Madeleine
    Jun 18, 2012 at 19:30

3 Answers 3


In Bereishis Rabbah 37:10, R. Yose says:

הראשונים על ידי שהיו מכירים את ייחוסיהם, היו מוציאין שמן לשם המאורע. אבל אנו שאין אנו מכירים את ייחוסינו, אנו מוציאין לשם אבותינו

"The earlier generations, who knew their genealogies, would name after events. We, however, who don't know our genealogies, name after our ancestors."

(Etz Yosef explains that the distinction is between the earlier generations recorded in Genesis - where a person's ancestors for many generations back were still alive when he was born - vs. later times, after the human lifespan was shortened and it became rare for a person to personally know their ancestors more than a couple of generations back, and so it became important to reuse names in order to memorialize them. In other words, according to this explanation, the practice of reusing names presumably started around the time of the Avos.)

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel there offers a different reason:

הראשונים ע״י שהיו משתמשין ברוה״ק, היו מוציאין לשם המאורע. אבל אנו שאין אנו משתמשין ברוה״ק, אנו מוציאין לשם אבותינו

"The earlier generations, who were able to use Divine inspiration (to know what would happen during the child's lifetime - Etz Yosef) would name according to events. We, who can't use Divine inspiration, name after our ancestors."

  • Etz Yosef must be Ashkenazi. Sephardim name after the living! Jun 18, 2012 at 15:44
  • Thanks for the extensive comment and the Hebrew pasukim. Of course, I realize it was an Ashkenazi custom to name after the deceased, but even naming it after the living implies "recycling" a name. Thanks Alex and Charles.
    – Madeleine
    Jun 18, 2012 at 19:31

Off the cuff, I can say that this was done for at least 2000 years. Rabban Gamliel the Elder, who lived at the end of the Second Temple era, was succeeded by his son Rabi Shimon [ben Gamliel], who was in turn succeeded by Rabban Gamliel II, who was in turn succeeded by Rabi Shimon ben Gamliel II.


It goes back at least to אברהם's generation.

There is also חנך. Although I see no commentary about the first חנך, it seems on its face that they are two different people, since their lineages are listed as being different (one from קין and the other from שת).

And there is also למך. (See the Wikipedia entry for an interesting comment on the similarities in the lineage of the two למךs.)

  • Thanks for that, but there's a long expanse from those guys until the next time, perhaps? Thanks
    – Madeleine
    Jun 18, 2012 at 19:33
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    Not really, if you think about it. There are 10 generations from Adam to Noah, with it happening twice in there, and 10 generations to Avraham. So you have it recorded 3 times among significant characters in the Torah in 20 generations. I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but these are just the examples the Torah records (and clearly not the main point of their respective stories).
    – Seth J
    Jun 18, 2012 at 20:01

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