Your last name

March 17, 2020 in Rabbi Fabián Werbin

Turn on the television, read the newspaper or go to just about any web site. You can’t escape Cononavirus coverage even if you want to. I’m well aware of the virus and its global (not to mention, local) impact. Before getting to my main point, I do want to address that as we face global challenges, individuals in our community are struggling. The anxiety associated with these changes is not easy to manage. Rabbi Harris, Chazzan Fradkin and I stand with you and we are available to help address your needs.

In an attempt to address a different topic that is also front-of-mind, I want to share a message that may help you connect with your families in these unprecedented times.

We all have last names. The use of last names varies according different cultures. Some claim that their culture has been using last names for more than 1200 years.

If you hear the last name Green (or Grüen); it may sound particularly familiar to you. It’s a common last name in the U.S. But, hearing the name Nakdimon, it probably sounds like a strange name. And, the name David Ben Gurion? I’m confident that you know many things about the first prime minister of the State of Israel.

David Ben Gurion was born with the name David Grüen on October 16, 1886, in Plonsk, Poland. In 1910, in a magazine called “Achdut” (Unity), he publicized an article under his new name for the first time.

Where does his name come from? Maybe the following story from the Talmud (Taanit 19B) can help us to answer this question:
The entire Jewish nation was in Jerusalem for the festival, but there was no water to drink. Nakdimon approached a Roman nobleman who lived there.
“Lend me twelve wells of water for the use of the people,” he told him, “and I will replace it with another twelve wells of water and if not, I will pay you twelve bars of silver.”
The nobleman agreed, and they set a date by which time the water must be returned. That day came, and still no rain had fallen. That morning the nobleman sent a messenger to Nakdimon ben Gurion.
“Send me my water or my silver,” he commanded.
“I still have time. The whole day is still mine,” Nakdimon ben Gurion sent back.
At noontime, he again sent a messenger. “Give me my water or my money,” he ordered.
“I still have time,” Nakdimon ben Gurion sent back.
In the late afternoon, he again sent a messenger. “Give me my water or my money,” he ordered.
“I still have time,” Nakdimon ben Gurion sent back.
The nobleman had a good laugh on hearing this. “Could it be,” he chuckled, “that the whole year no rain falls, and now enough rain to fill my wells will fall?” He went to the local bathhouse joyously rubbing his hands at the thought of twelve bars of silver.
At the same time, Nakdimon ben Gurion entered the Beis HaMikdash anxiously. He wrapped himself in his tallis and stood in prayer.
“Ribono shel Olam, You know that neither for my honor, nor the honor of my father’s house did I do this. I did it all for Your honor alone, that the Jewish people may have water for the festival.”
Immediately, the skies filled with clouds and a great rain fell, until the twelve wells overflowed with water. The nobleman hurriedly left the bathhouse, bumping into Nakdimon ben Gurion as he left the Beis HaMikdash.
“Give me my change for the additional water you received,” Nakdimon ben Gurion said to the nobleman.
“I know that Hashem turned the world over only for you,” the nobleman answered, “but it won’t help you. You still owe me those twelve bars of silver, because the rain fell after sunset, and it’s all mine.”
Hearing this, Nakdimon ben Gurion quickly returned to the Beis HaMikdash, rewrapped himself in his tallis and stood in prayer.
“Ribono shel Olam, let them know that we are Your friends in this world,” he begged.
The clouds then scattered, and the sun shone.
“Were it not for that sun shining through,” the nobleman groaned, “that money would have been mine.”
“Buni was his real name and not Nakdimon,” the rabbis taught. “He was called Nakdimon since the sun pierced [“nikdera”] through the clouds for him.

Growing up I had friends who taught me about their last names. My friend Lejtman, told me his great grandfather had a candle factory in Germany. “Licht” are candles in Yiddish.

The Minski Family came from the city of Minsk.

Blumendfeld means a field of flowers.

Katz is an acronym of Cohen Tzedek, a righteous priest.

I once learned that my last name, Werbin, relates to the German question “Wer bin ich” “Who am I?” Good question, right?

Over the coming weeks we will be spending a great deal time with our families. Talk with them about your history, about your roots and the meaning of your last names. Also talk to them about how important it is that our names last. I hope that these lessons are one positive outcome of these coming weeks. And I do hope that you and your families remain well.