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The Gemara in Berachos 39a has the following account:

תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק מניח הפרוסה בתוך השלמה ובוצע ומברך אמר ליה מה שמך א"ל שלמן א"ל שלום אתה ושלמה משנתך ששמת שלום בין התלמידים

A teacher of beraisos taught before Rav Nachman Bar Yitzchok: Put the piece with the whole and bless. He said to him "What is your name?" He responded "Salman (or Shalman or some other vowelization of שלמן)." He (R' Nachman) said to him "You are Shalom (peace) and your teaching is Shalem (complete) as you have created shalom between the students."

Was it a common practice to expound the names of other people? Did R' Nachman just get lucky that his name wasn't רפרם or דרדיא or something like that (i.e. did this happen often, and just the time that it worked out it was recorded)?

I'd prefer sourced answers, but if you have something clever enough of your own, I'll accept it.

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This was not such a rare occurrence. Below are a bunch of examples (in addition to the example cited in the question) of Talmudic incidents in which a person is asked his/her name and the name is then expounded.

Berachos 20a

כי הא דרב אדא בר אהבה חזייה לההיא כותית דהות לבישא כרבלתא בשוקא סבר דבת ישראל היא קם קרעיה מינה אגלאי מילתא דכותית היא שיימוה בארבע מאה זוזי א"ל מה שמך אמרה ליה מתון אמר לה מתון מתון ארבע מאה זוזי שויא

There was the case of R. Adda b. Ahaba who saw a heathen woman wearing a red head-dress in the street, and thinking that she was an Israelite woman, he rose and tore it from her. It turned out that she was a heathen woman, and they fined him four hundred zuz. He said to her: What is your name. She replied: Mathun. Mathun, he said to her: that makes four hundred zuz. (Soncino translation)

Yoma 83b

ותו ר"מ ור' יהודה ור' יוסי הוו קא אזלי באורחא ר' מאיר הוה דייק בשמא ר' יהודה ור' יוסי לא הוו דייקו בשמא כי מטו לההוא דוכתא בעו אושפיזא יהבו להו אמרו לו מה שמך אמר להו כידור אמר ש"מ אדם רשע הוא שנאמר כי דור תהפוכות המה ר' יהודה ור' יוסי אשלימו ליה כיסייהו ר"מ לא אשלים ליה כיסיה אזל אותביה בי קיבריה דאבוה אתחזי ליה בחלמיה תא שקיל כיסא דמנח ארישא דההוא גברא למחר אמר להו הכי אתחזי לי בחלמאי אמרי ליה חלמא דבי שמשי לית בהו ממשא אזל ר"מ ונטריה כולי יומא ואייתיה למחר אמרו לו הב לן כיסן אמר להו לא היו דברים מעולם אמר להו ר"מ אמאי לא דייקיתו בשמא אמרו ליה אמאי לא אמרת לן מר אמר להו אימר דאמרי אנא חששא אחזוקי מי אמרי משכוהו ועיילוהו לחנותא חזו טלפחי אשפמיה אזלו ויהבו סימנא לדביתהו ושקלוהו לכיסייהו ואייתו אזל איהו וקטליה לאיתתיה היינו (דתנן) מים ראשונים האכילו בשר חזיר מים אחרונים הרגו את הנפש ולבסוף הוו דייקי בשמא כי מטו לההוא ביתא דשמיה בלה לא עיילו לגביה אמרי שמע מינה רשע הוא דכתיב ואמר לבלה נאופים כמו אחרי בלותי היתה לי עדנה כלומר זקנה בנאופים

Also, R. Meir and R. Judah and R. Jose were on a journey together. (R. Meir always paid close attention to people's names, whereas R. Judah and R. Jose paid no such attention to them). Once as they came to a certain place. they looked for a lodging, and as they were given it, they said to him [the innkeeper]: What is your name? — He replied: Kidor. Then he [R. Meir] said: Therefrom it is evident that he is a wicked man, for it is said: For a generation [ki-dor] very forward are they. R. Judah and R. Jose entrusted their purses to him; R. Meir did not entrust his purse to him, but went and placed it on the grave of that man's father. Thereupon the man had a vision in his dream [saying]: Go, take the purse lying at the head of this man! In the morning he [the innkeeper] told them [the Rabbis] about it, saying: This is what appeared to me in my dream. They replied to him: There is no substance in the dream of the Sabbath night. R. Meir went, waited there all day, and then took the purse with him. In the morning they [the Rabbis] said to him,: ‘Give us our purses’. He said: There never was such a thing! R. Meir then said to them: Why don't you pay attention to people's names? They said: Why have you not told this [before]. Sir? He answered: consider this but a suspicion.I would not consider that a definite presumption! Thereupon they took him [the host] into a shop [and gave him wine to drink]. Then they saw lentils on his moustache. They went to his wife and gave her that as a sign, and thus obtained their purses and took them back. Whereupon he went and killed his wife. It is with regard to this that it was taught: [Failure to observe the custom of] the first water caused one to eat the meat of pig, [failure to use] the second water slew a person. At the end they, too, paid close attention to people's names. And when they called to a house whose [owner's] name was Balah, they would not enter, saying: He seems to be a wicked man, as it is written: Then said I of her that was [balah] worn out by adulteries. (Soncino translation)

Kiddushin 25a

סבי דנזוניא לא אתו לפירקיה דרב חסדא אמר ליה לרב המנונא זיל צנעינהו אזל אמר להו מאי טעמא לא אתו רבנן לפירקא אמרו ליה אמאי ניתי דבעינן מיניה מילתא ולא פשט לן אמר להו מי בעיתו מינאי מידי ולא פשיטנא לכו בעו מיניה עבד שסרסו רבו בבצים מהו כמום שבגלוי דמי או לא לא הוה בידיה אמרו לו מה שמך אמר להו המנונא אמרו ליה לאו המנונא אלא קרנונא אתא לקמיה דרב חסדא א"ל מתניתא בעו מינך דתנן עשרים וארבעה ראשי אברים שבאדם כולם אין מטמאין משום מחיה ואלו הם ראשי אצבעות ידים ורגלים וראשי אזנים וראש החוטם וראש הגוייה וראשי דדים שבאשה רבי יהודה אומר אף שבאיש ותני עלה בכולם עבד יוצא בהם לחירות רבי אומר אף הסירוס בן עזאי אומר אף הלשון

[Some] scholars of Nizunia absented themselves from R. Hisda's session. Thereupon he instructed R. Hamnuna, ‘Go put them under the ban.’ He went and said to them, ‘Why did you not attend the session?’ ‘Why should we attend?’ replied they, ‘when we ask him questions which he cannot answer?’ ‘Have you ever asked me anything,’ he retorted: ‘which I could not solve?’ [Thereupon] they asked him: What if a slave's stones are castrated by his master, is it an open blemish or not? As he was unable to answer it, they said to him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Hamnuna,’ he replied. ‘You are not Hamnuna, but Karnuna,’ jeered they. When he came before R. Hisda, he said to him: They asked you a Mishnah. For we learnt: As to the twenty-four tips of limbs of a man, none of these become unclean on account of raw flesh. And these are they: the tips of the fingers of the hands and [the toes of] the feet, the tips of the ears, the tip of the nose, the tip of the membrum, and the nipples of a woman; R. Judah said: Also those of a man. Now, it was taught thereon: For [the loss of] all these a slave obtains his freedom. Rabbi said: For castration too; Ben ‘Azzai said:[For] the [loss of the] tongue too. (Soncino translation)

Bava Basra 89a

ת"ר (לא) יהיה לך מלמד שמעמידין אגרדמין למדות ואין מעמידין אגרדמין לשערים דבי נשיאה אוקימו אגרדמין בין למדות בין לשערים א"ל שמואל לקרנא פוק תני להו מעמידין אגרדמין למדות ואין מעמידין אגרדמין לשערים נפק דרש להו מעמידין אגרדמין בין למדות בין לשערים א"ל מה שמך קרנא תיפוק ליה קרנא בעיניה נפקא ליה קרנא בעיניה ואיהו כמאן סבר כי הא דאמר רמי בר חמא א"ר יצחק מעמידין אגרדמין בין למדות בין לשערים מפני הרמאין

Our Rabbis taught: Thou shalt have, teaches that market officers are appointed to [superintend] measures, but no such officers are appointed for [superintending] prices. Those of the Nasi's House appointed market officers to [superintend] both measures and prices. [Thereupon] said Samuel to Karna: Go forth and teach them [the law that] market officers are appointed to [superintend] measures, but no such officers are appointed to [superintend] prices. [But Karna] went forth [and] gave them the [following] exposition: Market officers are appointed to [superintend] both measures and prices. He said unto him: Is your name Karna? Let a horn grow out of your eye. A horn, [consequently] grew out of his eye. But whose opinion did he follow? — That voiced by Rami b. Hama in the name of R. Isaac that market officers are appointed to [superintend] both measures and prices, on account of the impostors. (Soncino translation)

There are also couple of examples where a person is asked his/her name and the name is not expounded, such as Pesachim 86b and Taanis 25a.

  • Don’t forget Sotah 34, which expounds the Meraglim’s names (or at least says that there once was a tradition but we no longer have it for some of them - I believe Tanchuma somewhere expounds them all). – DonielF Jan 3 '18 at 5:50
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    @DonielF I think the question was specifically asking about someone asking someone's name and then proceeding to expound it; not simply a general idea that people's names might reflect something about them. – Alex Jan 3 '18 at 5:54

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