How the Books of the Hebrew Bible Got Their Names

Some are named for their first word, others for their first significant word. What about the rest?



June 22 2016
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Shlomo Karni writes to ask me to “correct the error, . . . too common, sadly, in our midst” that the Hebrew name of the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, currently being read in weekly installments (or parashot) in synagogues everywhere, is Bamidbar. Rather, writes Mr. Karni, it should be B’midbar, in accordance with the rule that biblical books are named in Hebrew for “the first significant word of each book—e.g., B’reyshit for Genesis, Sh’mot for Exodus, Vayikra for Leviticus, Mishley for Proverbs, and so on.”

Mr. Karni is right on several counts. The first verse of the book of Numbers, the Pentateuch’s fourth, is “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai,” and “in the desert of Sinai” in Hebrew is b’midbar Sinai, with the proclitic consonant bet, “in” or “on,” followed by a shva or short “uh” vowel. This is because b’midbar, “in the desert,” is in the possessive case: in the desert of Sinai. If one were to say “in the desert” unpossessively, one would say bamidbar, with a pataḥ or “ah” vowel after the bet. This is indeed, as Mr. Karni observes, how Jews refer to Numbers, and the reason they do so is obvious. Since in Hebrew the book is called “In the Desert” rather than “In the Desert of Sinai,” the Hebrew-speaking tongue instinctively changes the shva following the bet to a pataḥ.

But Mr. Karni is also right that this instinct need not be regarded as irresistible. The eighth Torah reading in Leviticus, for example, is commonly called B’har, “On the Mountain,” because it begins “And God spoke to Moses on the mountain of Sinai [b’har Sinai].” Here, too, saying “on the mountain” without the “of” of the place name would change the shva to a pataḥ, so that b’har would become bahar, like bamidbar. Yet we correctly call this Torah portion B’har. Why shouldn’t we then, as Mr. Karni suggests, say B’midbar?


Perhaps we should. Still, it’s not open-and-shut. Take the Hebrew name of the fifth and last book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy. This is D’varim, “Words” or “Utterances,” because of the book’s opening verse: “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” Although, in the Hebrew, “These are the words” is Eyleh had’varim, with the proclitic ha, “the,” attached to d’varim just as b’ or ba is attached to midbar, Mr. Karni quite sensibly does not demand that we call Deuteronomy Had’varim. Tradition has opted for D’varim, and its weight is such that it makes us tolerate exceptions to the rules.

Moreover, there is not as much consistency in tradition’s naming of biblical books, or portions of them in the Pentateuch, as Mr. Karni’s letter implies. Consider, for instance, his statement that these names are derived from a book or a portion’s “first significant word,” which is why Numbers is not called in Hebrew Vay’daber, “And [the Lord] spoke,” since common biblical phrases like “And he spoke” and “And he said” are not significant indicators of the content that follows. He’s right about that, for the most part—and yet the Pentateuch’s third book, Leviticus, is known as Vayikra, “And He called,” from its opening line: “And the Lord called to Moses.” Similarly, the seventh weekly reading in Leviticus begins, “And God said to Moses, say to the priests, the sons of Aaron . . . ” By the generally valid criterion of significance, this Torah reading should have been called Hakohanim, “The Priests,” whereas it is in fact known as Emor, “Say.”

Go complain.


Indeed, once we get past the Pentateuch, many books of the Bible are not named for any of their first words at all. The word for “king,” melekh, first appears in the second chapter of the book of Kings; and its plural of m’lakhim, “kings,” in the third chapter. Similarly, shofet and shoftim, “judge” and “judges,” aren’t in the opening book of Judges. The name of Esther, too, is first found in Chapter 2 of the book named after her, which, invoking the first-words rule, should have been called Ahasuerus. (In each of these cases, the English name of the book is the direct equivalent of the Hebrew one.) And while the Hebrew name of the book of Psalms is T’hilim, which is the plural form of t’hilah, “praise” or “song of praise” (from the verb l’halel, to praise), this form never appears once in Psalms; even t’hila is first found only in Psalm 22 and recurs fitfully thereafter. A psalm in Psalms is a mizmor (from the verb l’zamer, to sing), which is used dozens of time, starting with Chapter 3, to introduce the text that follows, as in such phrases as mizmor l’David, “A psalm of David,” mizmor l’Asaf, “A psalm of Asaf,” and so on. Why wasn’t T’hilim called Mizmorim? Mr. Karni’s guess is as good as mine

Nor is it clear just when the different books of the Bible and portions of the Pentateuch received their present Hebrew names. Presumably, this took place by the beginning of the Common Era, if not long before that, but in some cases a final name was not settled on until later. In the talmudic tractate of Bava Batra, for example, there is a discussion of the authorship of various books of the Bible in which the book known to us in Hebrew as Eykhah or “How,” after its opening words of “How does the city sit solitary,” is called Kinot, Lamentations, just as it is in the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and the English King James Version. In the same talmudic discussion, the seventh Torah reading in Bamidbar, which tells the story of the Moabite king Balak and the seer Balaam, is called Balaam and not, as it is today, Balak.

We can, I think, go on saying Bamidbar in good conscience. Surely, an “error” that was good enough for generations of Jews before us should be good enough for us.

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