A Verse for Your Name

There is a widespread custom to recite a verse that corresponds to one’s name before saying the verse “yehiyu l’ratzon” at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei. As we will see, however, it is somewhat unclear where, when, or why this practice began.

Some sources say that the custom dates back to Rashi. Commenting on the verse “The voice of the Lord calls out to the city, it is wise to recognize Your name…” (Micha 6:9), Rashi writes, “From here we learn that whoever recites a verse each day that begins and ends [with the same letters] that one’s name begins and ends with will be saved from Gehinnom.”

From here we see that reciting a verse that corresponds to one’s name will save one from punishment in the afterlife. There is no indication, however, that the verse should be recited specifically at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei. While this source would seem to make the practice exceptionally old, it has been suggested that this comment of “Rashi” may actually be the work of a later editor or publisher and not that of Rashi, as this comment only first appears in a Tanach published by Rav Shmuel Delugatch in 1699.[1]

Another, and probably more authoritative source for the practice, is the 16th century Kabbalistic commentary on the siddur by Rabbi Naphtali Hertz Treves.[2] Rabbi Treves was the chazzan of Frankfurt am Main and a formidable scholar in his own right. In the introduction to his commentary, Rabbi Treves writes that there is an “ancient tradition” to regularly recite a verse that begins with the first letter of one’s name and ends with the last letter of one’s name.[3] He cites the verse, “Please accept with favor the offerings of my mouth and teach me your laws” (Psalms 119:108), as the verse that corresponds to his name and the one he recites. (The verse begins with a “nun” and ends with a “yud” just like his name “Naphtali.”) He writes that one should recite such a verse “when travelling, when engaging with others, when learning, or whenever.” Here too, there is no specific mention of reciting it at the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrei and no reason is given for the practice. It is likely that Rav Delugatch (or anyone else responsible for the “Rashi” comment) got the idea from this source which predates his work by a number of years.

We find an explanation for the custom in the 19th century Siddur of the Rashban:[4]

It says in the Yerushalmi and in Esther Rabbah that Mordechai asked three children who had just come from school to quote some of the verses that they had learned in school. The first child quoted the verse: “al tira mipachad pitom umisho’at resha’im ki tavo” (“Do not be afraid of sudden fear”) (Proverbs 3:25), the second one quoted the verse: “utzu eitza v’tufar, dabru davar v’lo yakum ki imanu el” (“Make your plans but they will be voided, speak your words but it will not come to be, because God is with us”) (Isaiah 8:10), and the third one quoted the verse: “V’ad zikna ani hu, v’ad seiva ani esbol, ani asiti v’ani esa v’ani esbol va’amalet” (“Even in your old age I am He and in your seniority I will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you and I will sustain you and I will rescue you”) (Isaiah 46:4).

It is explained that each child was taught his specific verse because it began and ended with the first and last letters of his Hebrew name. The first child’s name was Avraham, the second child’s name was Immanuel, and the third child’s name was Elishafat.  This was done because children were often kidnapped or sold into slavery and by having children memorize a verse it would help ensure that they would never forget they’re Jewish in the event that they were so taken away. So too, knowing a verse by heart would help them be redeemed in the event that the Jewish community would be able to redeem Jewish children and require a sign among the captives as to who was Jewish.

A more popular and widespread explanation for reciting a verse that corresponds to one’s name is that it is said that doing so will save oneself from “chibbut hakever.” Chibbut hakever is essentially a very painful “cleansing process” that takes place after death (and some say immediately following internment[5]).[6] In fact, some ancient siddurim included a “harachaman” insertion in the Birkat Hamazon asking God to save us from the “chibbut hakever.”[7]

Here is a teaching on chibbut hakever:

It is written in the midrash of Rabbi Isaac ben Parnach…When a person leaves this world, the angel of death comes and sits on his grave. His soul then immediately returns to his body and he stands up on his feet. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said further: and in his hand is a chain, half metal (iron) and half fire. The person is then hit. With the first hit his limbs are broken, with the second hit his bones are broken, and with the third hit (administered by a group of angels) he is turned into to dust and returned to the grave. Rabbi Meir said further that the judgment of chibbut hakever is worse than the judgment of Gehennom…”[8]

Here is another passage on chibbut hakever that is more clearly related to the custom of reciting a verse:

The students of Rabbi Eliezer asked him, “What is the exacting of justice in the grave?” He replied to them, “When a man leaves this world, the Angel of Death comes and sits upon him, beats him, and says, ‘What is your name?’ and the man replies, ‘I do not know.’ Immediately, he inserts his soul into his body, and stands him up and puts him on trial.[9]

It is explained that the man replies “I don’t know” because “the wicked do not remember their names.”[10] Reciting a verse that corresponds to one’s name, however, ensures that one will remember one’s name when one is put through such judgment. As it says in the Sefer Ben Zion:

…I heard from the Kabbalists that everyone should find for one’s name a verse from the Torah, Prophets, or Scriptures, that begins with the first letter of one’s name and ends with the last letter of one’s name and one should recite it regularly and never forget it as long as one lives [in order to save oneself from chibbut hakever]. It appears to me that it is especially auspicious if the verse actually begins with one’s name or if one’s name at least appears in the course of the verse. For example, if one’s name is “Shalom” one should recite the verse “Shalom rav l’ohavei toratecha . . . (Psalms 119:165).”[11]

A list of many names and their corresponding verses then follows. This seems to be the earliest source for reciting a verse that corresponds to one’s name in order to be saved from the suffering of chibbut hakever. We see from here that one’s name is deeply connected to one’s soul. Closely related to this is the episode of the angel who asked Yaakov what his name was prior to blessing him in order to understand his essence. So too, Adam named all the animals as he did based on the essence of their souls.[12]

And finally, from the Kitzur Shnei Luchot Habrit:[13]

It is known what is written in matters related to Gehinom and so it is in the Sefer Hakavanot regarding chibbut hakever that evil people do not know their names in the grave and they beat them with cruel beatings. But, one who said during his lifetime a verse that begins with the first letter of one’s name and ends with the last letter of one’s name…and especially one whose name is in the verse itself… it is a segula not to forget one’s name…and one should say it in the Shemoneh Esrei[14] before yehiyu l’ratzon.

A later explanation, unrelated to chibbut hakever, for the practice of reciting a verse that corresponds to one’s name can be found in Chabad sources.[15]

According to Jewish mysticism, the soul, as well as the body, is refreshed through sleep. In fact, this can even be experienced as dreams in which Torah subjects are made known to the person dreaming. “These [dreams] generally occur through concentrated devotion to Torah study during the day. When someone studies Torah with great diligence or engages in ‘service of the heart’ — prayer — with intense effort then, at night, [during his sleep, he can ascend to great spiritual heights] . . . each person according to his diligence in his avoda [spiritual service] during the day.”[16]

In this vein, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn taught:

The letter of the “verses of the names,” which we say in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, are the Torah letters which purify the part of the neshama —divine soul— which is within the body, from the filth caused by the body’s materialism. When one then reads the Kriat Shema She’al Hamitah —the bedside Shema— as it should be read, each person according to his ability, and declares, “In Your hands, I entrust my soul,” from the core of his heart, then through the letters of the “verses of the names,” one merits that he is allowed to stand near the open doors and see what transpires in the Heavenly chambers.”[17]

One who has more than one name should recite a verse that corresponds to both names.[18] Others, however, are not particular to do so and suffice with a verse corresponding to one name.[19] Others suggest trying to find a single verse that somehow alludes to both names.[20] Most sources say that it is preferable to recite a verse that actually begins with one’s name or at least contains one’s name.[21] Other sources say that a verse that simply begins with the first letter of one’s name and ends with the last letter of one’s name is actually to be preferred. If there is no verse that includes one’s name and not even a verse that begins with the first letter of one’s name and ends with the last letter of one’s name then one should just recite a verse that begins with the first letter of one’s name, and preferably, a verse that also includes all the other letters of one’s name somewhere within that verse.

[1] See: http://www.chabadlibrary.org/books/admur/ig/2/404

[2] Also sometimes written and pronounced “Trivish,”“Tribish,”“Trevesh,” or “Troyes”

[3] Siddur Rabbi Hertz, p. 78 in the 2016 edition.

[4] Siddur Harashban p. 11a.

[5] See: The Obligations of Christians to Attempt the Conversion of the Jews, p. 33-34, cited at: http://onthemainline.blogspot.co.il/2012/01/on-source-of-merit-of-reciting-verses.html

[6] We are told that the following people will be saved from chibbut hakever: one who loves acts of kindness, welcomes guests, and prays with the proper intent (Sefer Chassidim 32), one who lives in Israel (Shaar Hagilgulim 23:4-5), one who dies on a Friday and is buried after the 5th hour (Shaar Hagilgulim 23:4-5), and one who spends at least four hours a day reciting words of Torah, Tehillim, etc. (Hayom Yom, Shevat 5).

[7] Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Hilchot Seuda.

[8] Hatishbi, p. 23.

[9] Sefer Chochmat Hanefesh.

[10] Zohar Chadash, Ruth.

[11] Page 34.

[12] See Mevasseret Tzion 15 for more on this and the practice of reciting a verse that corresponds to one’s name.

[13] Kitzur Shela (Epstein) p. 101. Others say that attributing the Kitzur Shela for the source of the practice is questionable. See: http://www.chabadlibrary.org/books/admur/ig/2/404. It is interesting to note that Dr. Shnayer Lehman (among others) assert the author was a Sabbatean and that the Kitzur Shela is full of Sabbatean references. See: http://seforim.blogspot.co.il/2011/11/change-has-come-to-modena.html.

[14] Howie Bryks notes that no source really offers an explanation as to why the verse is specifically recited as part of Shemoneh Esrei. He suggests that Shemoneh Esrei may have been arbitrarily chosen simply in order to ensure that everyone would recite their verse at least 3 times a day.

[15] Cited at: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2451435/jewish/Names-Verses-and-Flaming-Hot-Rods.htm.

[16] Hayom Yom, 4 Tevet.

[17] Talk of Simchat Torah 5654 (1893), quoted in a letter by Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneersohn, dated “Erev Pesach 5702 (1942); Igrot Kodesh Admu”r Mehoraya”tz (Kehot, 1983), p. 273.

[18] See: http://chabadlibrary.org/books/admur/ig/2/404.

[19] See for example: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=15924&pgnum=38.

[20] See for example: https://dinonline.org/2014/10/27/pasuk-at-end-of-shemoneh-esrei.

[21] Sefer Ben Zion above.