For the week ending 24 September 2016 / 21 Elul 5776


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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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, both from leading families of the Tribe of Levi (Ex. 2:1, Sota 12a). As such, she 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. Scriptures describes her alongside of Moses and Aaron as delivering the Jews from bondage 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, so did Miriam lead the women. Similarly, just as Moses taught Torah to the men, so too, Miriam taught Torah to the women.

Miriam was the oldest child of Amram and Yocheved, her being three years older than Aaron and seven years older than Moses (Ex. Rabba 1:13). Although there are various opinions throughout Talmudic sources as to Miriam’s own family relations, the most commonly accepted one is that she was the wife of Calev and the mother of Hur (Ex. Rabba 1:17; Sota 11b; Targum on I Chron. 2:19, 4:4; Rashi, Ex. 17:10). Since Calev’s wife is also identified as Efrat (I Chron. 2:19), suggesting that Miriam had at least two names (she actually had many), when naming a girl Miriam both names are traditionally conjoined to be “Miriam Efrat”.

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” (Megillat Ta’anit; Abarbanel, Ex. 2:1).

However, another meaning of “mar” is “water”, as in the verse (Is. 40:14): “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”. In her merit, this well miraculously provided water for the Jews by accompanying them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. (Ex. 17:6; Ta’anit 9a)

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 on Ta’anit 9a; Kli Yakar)

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 initially exacerbated the decree by causing couples to separate so they wouldn’t have children. He did this in the name of sparing Jewish infants from death, until Miriam convinced him otherwise (Ex. Rabba 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”, and connotes the fact that Miriam, from whom King David issued, was elevated to “house” the Davidic Dynasty that is destined to elevate the Jewish People and the perfected community of humanity to Redemption and the World-to-Come (Ex. Rabba 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”.

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