Monday, November 28, 2011

The Hebrew Name Alexander

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This is certainly not the type of name one typically thinks of as a traditional Jewish name. It may surprise you to learn that the name originated as a way of honoring none other than Alexander the Great.

Alexander was in his mid-twenties when he brought his armies to Judea. He had already conquered the Balkans and Asia Minor. Since Alexander was moving into the territory from the north, he first encountered a small converted tribe known as the Samaritans (also referred to as the Cutheans). The Samaritans had accepted much but not all of the Torah; in particular, they rejected the oral law and the Temple worship in Jerusalem. They viewed themselves in competition with the Jews of Judea and therefore told Alexander that the Temple should be destroyed. (They wished that their holy site on Har Gerizim would thus be rendered the pre-eminent place of worship.) They further attempted to embitter Alexander against the Jews by emphasizing the Jews’ refusal to place a statue of Alexander in the Temple.

Upon hearing of the treacherous plans of the Samaritans, Simeon the Just (Shimon HaTzadik), who was the High Priest at that time, dressed himself in his priestly garments and went forth with some of Israel’s noblemen to serve as a welcoming party. At dawn, they came upon the army of Alexander.

The Talmud relates the encounter thus:
When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them [the Samaritans]: Who are these [people]?
They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you....
When he [Alexander] saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him.
They [the Samaritans] said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew?
He [Alexander] answered: His image goes before me in all my battles and leads me to victory.
He [Alexander] said to them [the Jews]: What have you come for?
They [the Jews] said: Is it possible that star-worshipers should mislead you to destroy the House wherein prayers are said for you and your kingdom that it be never destroyed! (Yoma 69a).

Alexander proceeded to conquer Judea (as well as most of the “known world” of the time), but did not destroy Jerusalem or its Temple. The strife that would later develop between the Jews and the Greeks occurred long after Alexander had died.

To honor Alexander for his respect for Jewish life, many boys born that year were named Alexander. Thus did the name of the great pagan emperor become a Jewish name, along with its Yiddish version, Sender.

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