Miriam’s Name

From: Maria

Dear Rabbi,

I am wondering about Miriam. Who was she and what does the name Miriam mean?

Dear Maria,

Miriam was the daughter of Amram, the leader of the Israelites in ancient Egypt, and of Yocheved, who was so righteous she was exempt from the curse of Eve (Sota 12a). Both Amram and Yocheved were from leading families of the illustrious Tribe of Levi (Ex. 2:1, Sota 12a). As such Miriam was also the sister of Aaron and Moses. The Torah refers to her as “Miriam the Prophetess” (Ex. 15:20) and the Talmud (Megilla 14a) names her as one of the seven major female prophets of Israel. Scripture describes her alongside of Moses and Aaron as delivering the Jews from exile in Egypt: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micha 6:4). According to the Midrash (Targum Micha 6:4), just as Moses led the men out of Egypt and taught them Torah, so too Miriam led the women and taught them Torah.

Miriam was the oldest child of Amram and Yocheved. According to the Midrash (Ex. Raba 1:13), just as Aaron was three years older than Moses (Ex. 7:7), so too Miriam was three years older than Aaron (see Tos., Bechorot 4a). Although there are various opinions throughout Talmudic sources regarding Miriam’s spouse, the most commonly accepted opinion is that she was the wife of Calev and the mother of Hur (Ex. Raba 1:17; Sota 11b; Targum Yosef on I Chron. 2:19, 4:4; Rashi, Ex. 17:10). Calev’s wife is also identified as Efrat (I Chron. 2:19), meaning “fruitful”. This suggests that Miriam, as the wife of Calev, had at least two names – Miriam and Efrat (she actually had many names, see below). For this reason, when naming a girl Miriam, traditionally both names are conjoined to become Miriam Efrat, since, by sparing Jewish children from Pharaoh’s wicked decree, Miriam caused Israel to be fruitful and multiply.

There are several meanings behind the name Miriam, spelled ‘mem’, ‘reish’, ‘yud’, ‘mem’ in Hebrew, which various Jewish sources relate to either “bitter”, “water”, “rebellion” or “elevation” as follows:

One meaning is based on the letters ‘mem’, ‘reish’ of her name spelling “mar” which means “bitter”. This connotes the fact that Miriam was born during the beginning of Pharaoh’s bitter decrees as in the verse (Ex. 1:14), “And the [Egyptians] embittered [the Jews’] lives with hard labor” (Pesikta Rabati 15:11; Abarbanel, Ex. 2:1).

However, another meaning of “mar” is “water” as in the verse (Is. 40:15), “The nations are as a drop of water (“c’mar”) from a bucket”. Miriam’s strong association with water includes her involvement in saving Moses at the Nile (Ex. 2:4,7-9), singing praise to G‑d after crossing the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 15:20-21) and the special well or spring of water called the “Well of Miriam” (Rashi on Nu. 20:2; Ta’anit 9a). In her merit, this well miraculously provided water for the Jews by accompanying them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness (see more below).

In addition, since water is associated with “chesed” – kindliness – this meaning behind Miriam connotes her special acts of kindness in serving as a midwife, devoting herself to the needs of her suffering people and sparing Jewish infants from Pharaoh’s evil decree (Iyun Ya’akov and Eitz Yosef on Ta’anit 9a).

Another meaning behind Miriam is related to the letters ‘mem’, ‘reish’, ‘yud’ of her name spelling “meri” which means “rebellion”. This connotes the way she rebelled against Pharaoh’s orders that the Jewish midwives kill all male infants (Ex. 1:16-17). She even rebelled against her father who, in the name of sparing Jewish infants from death, caused couples to separate so they wouldn’t have children. Miriam rebelled against her father by claiming that he exacerbated the decree. Once she convinced her father of his mistake, Amram re-married Yocheved followed by the other Jewish men, after which time Moses was born (Ex. Raba 1:13; there, the Midrash associates this “rebelliousness” with another of her names, Puah, but the idea is the same.)

A last meaning is based on all of the letters of the name Miriam, ‘mem’, ‘reish’, ‘yud’, ‘mem’ spelling the word “merim” which means “elevate”. In the merit of saving the Jewish new-borns, thereby building the House of Israel, G‑d blessed Yocheved that He would make from her “houses” of cohanim and leviim, and from Miriam “houses” of kingship. “Merim” thus connotes the fact that Miriam, from whom King David issued (through her husband Calev of Judah), was elevated to “house” the Davidic Dynasty which is destined to elevate the Jewish People and the perfected community of humanity to Redemption and the World to Come (Ex. Raba, end of 1:17 on Ex. 1:21). This might be consistent with an idea which, although not found in Jewish sources, is based on the suggestion that “mri” in ancient Egyptian means “beloved”.

Interestingly, in relation to Miriam’s being the wife of Calev, Talmudic sources mention that she had several other names, each with its own specific, significant meaning. According to these Midrashic teachings (Sota 12a, Ex. Raba 1:17), at marriageable age, Miriam became very ill such that she found no suitor. Calev, who had great appreciation and admiration for Aaron and Moses, upheld the Torah teaching that children often resemble their mother’s brothers (Baba Batra 110a) by marrying Miriam in order to have righteous sons that would resemble Aaron and Moses. Through great sacrifice, devotion and love, Calev doctored Miriam back to health such that she became even more robust and beautiful than she had been in her youth and gave birth to sons who equaled her illustrious brothers.

Thus, based on a tradition of the inner meaning of the verses enumerating the names of Calev’s progeny (I Chron. 2:18,19; 4:5-7), the Sages taught (Sota 12a, Ex. Raba 1:17) that in her illness, Miriam was named “Azuva” (deserted) since all men forsook marrying her; “Yeriot” (curtain) since she was pale as a sheet; and “Chela” (sickly) because of her grave illness. But after G‑d restored her health through Calev’s care, she was named “Vardon” (rose) since her complexion became as lovely as a rose; “Na’ara” (youth) since she became as vigorous as a young woman; “Tzeret” (rival) since her beauty was envied by all; “Tzohar” (radiance) since her face shone like the noon-day sun; and “Etnan” (a paramour’s gift) since married men who were aroused by her beauty would court their wives with gifts for that purpose.

Other parts in this series are:

Miriam in Egypt

Miriam in the Wilderness

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