Monday, May 21, 2007

Ruth and Naomi's Names

A word or two on Ruth and Naomi's names.

What is the etymology of Rus' name? Putting aside Rabbi Yochanan's explanation on Berachot 7b, which may very well not be an etymology at all ( מאי רות א"ר יוחנן שזכתה ויצא ממנה דוד שריוהו להקדוש ברוך הוא בשירות ותשבחות). Some scholars connect Rus to the Moabite רות, which parallels the Hebrew word רעות, friendship, since Moabite did not pronounce and thus eliminated the letter ayin. (I wonder, then, how Rus pronounced her mother-in-law Naomi's name.)

Noami, we seem to get from Naomi's mouth herself. In the first perek she makes a play on words. {Ruth 1:19-21}:

יט וַתֵּלַכְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶם, עַד-בּוֹאָנָה בֵּית לָחֶם; וַיְהִי, כְּבוֹאָנָה בֵּית לֶחֶם, וַתֵּהֹם כָּל-הָעִיר עֲלֵיהֶן, וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הֲזֹאת נָעֳמִי. 19 So they two went until they came to Beth-lehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Beth-lehem, that all the city was astir concerning them, and the women said: 'Is this Naomi?'
כ וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶן, אַל-תִּקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי: קְרֶאןָ לִי מָרָא, כִּי-הֵמַר שַׁדַּי לִי מְאֹד. 20 And she said unto them: 'Call me not Naomi, call me Marah; for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.
כא אֲנִי מְלֵאָה הָלַכְתִּי, וְרֵיקָם הֱשִׁיבַנִי יְהוָה; לָמָּה תִקְרֶאנָה לִי, נָעֳמִי, וַיהוָה עָנָה בִי, וְשַׁדַּי הֵרַע לִי. 21 I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me back home empty; why call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?'
נעם means "pleasantness" {think deracheha darchei noam} and "sweetness," such that the opposite feminine form would be Mara, "bitterness." Perhaps there is some other etymology and this is just a handy play on words, but we may as well take this as definitional.

Interestingly -- and this is obvious, but deserves mention -- it seems that people do not listen to Naomi's request for a name change, if indeed she meant it in truth as opposed to as a bitter, caustic comment on her present situation. We read in the next perek:
ה וַיֹּאמֶר בֹּעַז לְנַעֲרוֹ, הַנִּצָּב עַל-הַקּוֹצְרִים: לְמִי, הַנַּעֲרָה הַזֹּאת. 5 Then said Boaz unto his servant that was set over the reapers: 'Whose damsel is this?'
ו וַיַּעַן, הַנַּעַר הַנִּצָּב עַל-הַקּוֹצְרִים--וַיֹּאמַר: נַעֲרָה מוֹאֲבִיָּה הִיא, הַשָּׁבָה עִם-נָעֳמִי מִשְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב. 6 And the servant that was set over the reapers answered and said: 'It is a Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the field of Moab;
and in the fourth perek:
ג וַיֹּאמֶר, לַגֹּאֵל, חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר לְאָחִינוּ לֶאֱלִימֶלֶךְ: מָכְרָה נָעֳמִי, הַשָּׁבָה מִשְּׂדֵה מוֹאָב. 3 And he said unto the near kinsman: 'Naomi, that is come back out of the field of Moab, selleth the parcel of land, which was our brother Elimelech's;
How are we to pronounce her name? Is the standard English equivalent, Naomi, anywhere close? Or should we pronounce it Na'ami?

Well, throughout, the name is written נָעֳמִי, with a chataf kametz under the ayin. We pronounce this as a short kametz katon, thus as an /o/. The pronunciation of chataf kametz is a bit strange, since the elongated version in the letter preceding it is assumed to be a kametz gadol, /a/. Thus, Naomi (nuh-omi) is not bad.


Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, Oprah Winfrey's name stems from Orpah. Her mother transposed the letters when she named her daughter.

joshwaxman said...

indeed (or something close).
I was going to include that in the next post.


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