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Many people are surprised to learn that Jessica, which is the transliteration of Yiska, is actually a Biblical name. Perhaps that is because it appears only once in the Bible, in Genesis 11:19: “Abram and Nachor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai and that of Nachor’s wife Milka, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milka and Yiska.”

According to the Midrash, “Yiska is actually another name for Sarah. Why then was she called Yiska? Because she could see (sachta–same root) [the future] through Divine Inspiration, and because everyone gazes (socheen–same root) at her beauty” (Megillah 14a).

While other Biblically derived names such as Rebecca, Elizabeth and Hannah (Rivkah, Elisheva and Chana appear throughout history, Jessica is not a name that one finds attached to many historical figures. In fact, the first English rendering of Yiska into the form Jessica appears to have been by William Shakespeare when he created Shylock’s daughter. The literary character Jessica betrays her father and elopes with one of the Christian men who seek to humiliate her father. Sadly, for the next three hundred years (until Sir Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe), The Merchant of Venice’s Jessica was the prototype Jewess in English literature–the exotic beauty who turns her back on her heritage to marry a Christian.

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