For Pete's sake...

Working response to JC article of 29/9/2010 (see below)

Judaism has always placed great significance on names – and, in many cases, changes to  names.  Many biblical characters have had their names changed, either by divine instruction, as in the case of Abraham and Sarah, or voluntarily – as did Naomi in the book of Ruth.  In Genesis chapter 17, our first patriarch’s gains an extra letter (a hei) in his name when it is changed from Abram (‘exalted father’) to Abraham (‘father of many’) while Sarah also gets the same letter appended to her name, though she must exchange it for a yud. (Abraham also has to trade something for his extra letter, but that’s another story – see Genesis 17:10).  Naomi’s name change to Marah (which means bitter) is her own choice to reflect her sufferings (though this is more of a nickname as she is still Naomi in subsequent chapters of the book of Ruth).


The Jewish preoccupation with how to refer to ourselves and others is particularly apparent when it comes to talking about the Almighty.  According to some sources, there are no less than 101 names for the Divine, and all of them are ways of circumlocuting the original and most holy Name, that was uttered only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur.  Our deference to this manifests itself in the fact that many of us replace the ‘o’ with a hyphen when writing the name G-d in our mother tongue.


Indeed, even changes to vowels can have significance.  When considering Isaiah’s verse ‘All your children shall be taught by the Eternal One and great shall be the peace of your children’ (54:13), the rabbis suggest a change to a vowel in the Hebrew word for ‘your children’ (banayich) to make it bonayich, which means ‘your builders’, emphasising the crucial role of children in shaping our (and their own) future.


So a single letter can have enormous significance.  I have to confess that my decision to remove the letter ‘r’ from the end of my name has no great theological import, but when I read Gerald Jacobs’ interpretation of it (‘Shouldn’t rabbis be serious, for Pete’s sake?’ JC Sept 29) I wondered whether he was taking the ‘P’ (though that would have rendered my name completely unpronounceable. 


His comments brought to mind an observation by the character Henry Pratt in David Nobbs’ book ‘Pratt of the Argus’, (now there are some names for Mr Jacobs to wrestle with) when a friend of his, who was training to be a priest was chided by his teacher for having a frivolous side to his nature, which might render him unsuitable for the priesthood. Henry responds: ‘Because he’s deeply confident about his basic seriousness.  I think you aren’t confident enough about your seriousness to be remotely frivolous.’


In fact, the article in question, suggesting that the presence of a consonant at the end of one’s name might somehow make one’s words wiser or demeanour more serious, actually emphasises a point I have endeavoured to make in the children’s book that Mr Jacobs was kind enough to mention.  ‘The Secret of the £5 Etrog’ seeks to highlight how obsessed some individuals and organisations can often be with the finer details of appearance over essence, showing more concern for form than substance.  The etrog in question is consigned to a box with other rejected etrogs simply because it has some external defect; the point surely is that it is a fruit of the Creator and worthy of as much respect and appreciation as any other.  This metaphor can be extended to a variety of areas in our lives where we tend to judge books by their covers, so to speak, without bothering ourselves to look beyond the superficial in search of depth, sincerity and meaning.


The suggestion that certain names imply certain characteristics (I wore cowboy boots in my twenties, and my short-lived tennis career ended with an Achilles tendon rupture five years ago – though I do play guitar in my synagogue’s teenage band, the Shul of Rock) is surely another example of this superficiality.  And the idea that someone might hear my thoughts on radio or read one of my books about Liberal Judaism, and then dismiss them on hearing that they were delivered or written by someone who had the temerity to drop a letter from his first name, is actually more insulting to them than it is to me.


If Gerald Jacobs would like to see the extent to which a rabbi called Pete meets his requirements for one called Peter, he is welcome to look at my website (naturally at, and in the meantime he – and perhaps all of us – would do well to be a little less influenced by external appearances and superficial concerns, and look for content and meaning in our religion and our lives.


The JC article: 

Subpages (1): Alan Bernard Tobias