One of the difficulties with studying the Bible in English is the translation of names. The name Adam doesn’t mean anything in English, but in Hebrew it connotes coming from the ground, which in Hebrew is “adamah.” Eve is Chava, which means “gives life.” All the names in the Bible have a meaning that brings out much more depth to each passage. Cain means to acquire, his nature led him to want to acquire everything. This is what led to his spiritual downfall, and to his brother’s physical downfall.
A number of times the commentaries reveal that people had more than one name. In Gen. 25:1, after Sarah’s death, Abraham remarries a woman named Keturah. The commentaries say that this was Hagar, the maidservant he had married earlier and divorced. It’s also said that Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, had seven names, each one defining a different aspect of his personality.
In general, a name defines the message we are meant to get from the passage. Nimrod means to rebel, which is why this is the name of the man who led the worldwide rebellion at the time of the Tower of Babel. Noah means “appeasement”, as he appeased G-d from His anger at the world for their transgressions.
Beyond the message of individual passages, names seem to have an influence on the personality of the person who is given a name. We name children after great Biblical personalities hoping they will have some of the qualities of the famous name holders. The Talmud also suggests that you should take care when dealing with someone whose name is negative. If the name somehow implies dishonesty, hold onto your wallet.
A name is the essence of something. In Gen. 2:20 Adam gave names to all the living creatures and noticed he didn’t have a mate. What he noticed was that the essence of every living creature was different from his, and that’s why none of the other creatures could be his mate. By naming he understood the essence. So when you name a child you are being somewhat prophetic in defining the child’s essence. Our tradition is that there is Divine assistance at the time of a baby naming. Choose the name carefully, and pray that the name is a benefit to the child. This is also true of a convert who chooses a Hebrew name.
Although in any language the meaning of a name has some spiritual significance and may affect a personality, (for example Frank means straightforward and may influence someone with that name to be straightforward), in naming children it has always been the custom to give a Hebrew or Yiddish name, even if the child will eventually use a different name. This has legal ramifications in Jewish law regarding marriage documents, being called on in the synagogue for a special honor, and when being prayed for by others. When someone is seriously ill, some people will have a name added to the ill person. Since a name is so important, its possible a name change will have an effect on the nature of the person and thereby change the scales of justice in the spiritual realm.
The most important names, though, are the names of G-d. As G-d’s essence can’t really be defined or understood, His names give us the most information about Him that we can have. His names are His way of indicating attributes through which we can relate to Him. These names are considered the holiest and most powerful parts of the Bible. Prophets have used them as meditation devices and kabbalists have used them to manipulate the laws of physics. It is forbidden to destroy something that has one of G-d’s names written on it.
Out of all the names of G-d, the one most holy is the four-letter name, known as the Tetragrammaton. Even in prayer or study, this name is not pronounced the way it is written, out of awe and respect. The meaning of this name is known, however, even to youngsters who study the Bible in Hebrew. The meaning is something that should be a path for us to relate to G-d. It means He was, He is, and He will be. The infiniteness. Always was, always will be. When you connect yourself to infinity, you too can become infinite.