Saturday, November 14, 2009

Colorful names

Lavan, father-in-law of Yaakov, has quite an unusual name. Who, after all, names their kid after a color? One interpretation says that whenever Lavan wanted to trick someone, he would pretend to be “pure and white” in character, and having gained their confidence, would then proceed to rob them.

But interestingly enough, Lavan is not the only person in Breishit named after a color. The other person is none other than Yaakov's brother. Born with the name Esav, he later acquired the name “Edom”. One day Esav came in from the field hungry, found Yaakov cooking red lentils, and begged Yaakov to “give me some of that red, red stuff”. Yaakov agreed only in exchange for Esav's birthright. From then on Esav was called “Edom”, meaning “red”. One might assume that rather than being a compliment, this was a way of mocking Esav for his shortsighted desperateness in agreeing to the exchange. In any case, the name stuck and the nation descended from him is named Edom.

So Esav's “colorful” name is a result of his being tricked by Yaakov. My theory is that Lavan got his name the same way.

When the Torah describes how Lavan tried to trick Yaakov, it includes what looks like an amusing pun. “That day [Lavan] removed the streaked and spotted he-goats, and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, every one that had white [“lavan”] in it, and all the dark ones among the sheep...” (30:35) Lavan agreed to give Yaakov the white-spotted goats in his flock, but he secretly removed and hid those goats to deprive Yaakov of his wages. But Yaakov had the last word in this story. He got the completely black goats to breed, and white-spotted goats were among their offspring. Then he used certain procedures to help his goats reproduce more than Lavan's. Eventually his white-spotted goats (and dark sheep) outnumbered the pure-colored ones. Yaakov outmaneuvered Lavan, and Lavan grew poor and frustrated, while Yaakov returned home wealthy and with a large family.

It is through the coloring of these goats and sheep that Lavan tried to trick Yaakov. But through the same coloring, Yaakov managed to not only protect but also enrich himself greatly. Perhaps, in memory of this, Lavan received the name “white”. He was born with a different name – one not recorded in the Torah. But he received his new and more “colorful” name, in memory of what he tried to do to Yaakov, and how Yaakov turned the tables on him. As with Edom, Lavan's misbegotten plans are preserved forever in the additional name that his contemporaries gave him.


Ari said...

I posit that “al kein kara shmo Edom” means that “this is why he *had been called* Edom.” It doesn’t really make sense that he would be named after such a strange story. In general, when the torah says “al kein kara shmo” it often reads much better if you take it as a darshening of the name, as in “this explains why he was named X.” Same thing with Bavel, and a bunch of other examples. I also think the Pa’al form often means “had done” rather than “did,” which also explains why it uses “kara.” You see this often in stories that come in out of nowhere in the middle of the narrative, and pashtanim will often explain that this story happened before-hand.

Beisrunner said...

I agree your approach often works, as with Bavel. But it also raises questions. For example: What exactly is the value of a new interpretation if the person who chose the name meant something else? And what are the chances that so many names just happened to match the events that would later be associated with them? I think that your approach and mine must each be considered on a case-by-case basis. Regarding Edom, I can't think of a reason for the name remotely as good as "ten li min haadom haadom hazeh". Regarding Lavan, your approach may be more likely than mine, but my approach is [synonym for new] here, so it was worth writing about.