Religion & Beliefs

A Rose By Any Other Name (Unless It’s a Hebrew Translation)

As some of you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately—Jewish baby names in particular.  And I’ve also been thinking—as a result—about what makes a name Jewish.  Hebrew names are lovely, but does translating any given word into … Read More

By / February 26, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

As some of you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately—Jewish baby names in particular.  And I’ve also been thinking—as a result—about what makes a name Jewish.  Hebrew names are lovely, but does translating any given word into Hebrew make it a good name for a Jewish baby?  Does that make it Jewish

When I was studying in Israel, they called me “Dafna” because it’s the Hebrew word for the flower we call “Laurel” in English.  And I liked that, because it made me feel legit… but it didn’t really make my name Jewish, did it?  I mean, really—can I call my kid Spatula (what’s the Hebrew for spatula?) and have it be a Jewish name if I just translate it into Hebrew?  I can imagine his bris—

“Spatula ben Leah!”

And the fact that we’re about to celebrate Purim (March 3!) reminds me that I’ve often wondered (though not enough to look it up, obviously) how the hell “Esther” translates into “Hadassah”.  In the same way I’ve always wondered how “Firenze” translates into “Florence” for us English speakers (where did we get that L?).

So today I looked it up, and funnily enough, Esther is EXACTLY like Laurel, in that Haddasah is just the Hebrew word for another flower, myrtle.  

According to the Book of Esther she was a Persian Jewish woman originally named Hadassah. Both Esther and Mordechai's burial is in Hamadan, Iran. When she entered the royal harem she received the name Esther by which she was henceforth known. Hadassah means "myrtle" in Hebrew and the name Esther is most likely related to the Median word for myrtle, astra, and the Persian word setareh meaning star — the myrtle blossom resembles a twinkling star. The Targum provides another Midrashic explanation: that she was as beautiful as the Evening Star, which is astara in Greek.

Which answers my question, but makes me wonder about why we name our daughters Esther and not Haddasah… I’d been thinking that Esther was a “Jewish” name and Haddasah was the Hebrew version.  I figured Esther had somehow morphed over time, in Eastern Europe or something…  changed in transliteration.  Like Abel and Hevel are the same name.  Or Abraham and Avraham.  Or Chava and Eve.

But no!  Esther is the undercover version.  It’s the assimilationist version.

Although it’s also prettier.