“She Called His Name ‘Ben Oni’”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, Jacob, after many years of separation, finally reunites with his long-estranged brother Esau, on his way to return to Canaan.

After the traumatic abduction and rape of Dina in the city of Shechem, Jacob returns to Beth El, where he vowed 22 years earlier (Genesis 28:22) that it would be the site of G-d’s house.

During his years with Laban in Canaan, Jacob and his wives were blessed with 11 sons and one daughter. They were now only one son away from fulfilling the long-held prediction of producing a family of 12 male tribes. Leah had given birth to six sons and a daughter, and Bilhah and Zilpah, the two handmaidens who became Jacob’s wives, each had two sons.

After many years of barrenness, Rachel finally gave birth to a child who was named Joseph, which, in Hebrew, means both “to collect” and “to add,” indicating that G-d had taken away her shame of being barren, and in the hope that Rachel soon would bear more children. Eight years had passed since Joseph was born, and Rachel longed for another child.

Journeying from Beth El, Jacob and his family were only a short distance from their destination, when, on the way to Efrat, Rachel went into labor with her second child for whom she had longed so profoundly.

The delivery, however, was fraught with difficulty and Rachel was close to death. Seeing how desperate the situation was, the midwife encouraged Rachel by saying, Genesis 35:17, “Have no fear, for this one, too, is a son for you.” Scripture in Genesis 35:18, describes the tragic outcome. וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ כִּי מֵתָה, וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ ,בֶּן אוֹנִי, וְאָבִיו קָרָא לוֹ בִנְיָמִין, and it came to pass, as her soul was departing, for she died, that she called his name “Ben Oni,” but his father called him “Binyamin.”

Rachel was buried on the road to Efrat, in Bethlehem. And Jacob built a monument over her grave, which remains there until today (at the time of the writing of the Bible).

The rabbis seek to understand the reasons for Rachel’s premature death. Some suggest that it was due to a curse that Jacob had unwittingly uttered. Not knowing that Rachel had stolen her father’s Terafim (pagan gods), Genesis 31:19, Jacob assured Laban, declaring, Genesis 31:32: “With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live.”

The Nachmanides (Deuteronomy 18:25) attributes Rachel’s death to the great holiness of the land of Israel. Since the Torah would later forbid a man to be married to two sisters, once Jacob arrived in the land of Israel, Rachel died as they entered the land.

Also requiring elucidation is why Rachel called the child “Ben Oni,” while Jacob insisted on calling the child “Binyamin.” Nachmanides and the Ibn Ezra suggest that “Ben Oni” literally means the son of my mourning, indicating that Rachel attributed her death to the child’s birth. As for the name “Binyamin,” Rashi at first suggests that the name is a contraction of the words, “ben yamin,” the son of my right, which in this instance means, son of the south. This honorific name is given to the child Binyamin, because he is the only one of Jacob’s children who merited to be born in Canaan, which is south of Padam Aram.

Rashi, alternatively, suggests that the word “yamin” (יָמִין) can mean “days,” like the Hebrew word, “yamim” (יָמִים),  as if to declare that Benjamin was the son of Jacob’s advanced days and years.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the word “Ohn” (אוֹן), the root of the name “Ben Oni,” means to have a legal title to something. Rachel calls the child “Ben Oni” because she feels keenly that something that is hers is being forcefully taken away from her. Thus, it becomes the son of my grief, the son of my departure, which will soon be mourned. Jacob, however, calls his son “Binyamin,” the son of the right hand, the son of strength and power, stressing the brighter meaning of the word Ohn.

Some commentators suggest that the name “Ben Oni” is an allusion to Rachel’s theft of the household gods from Laban’s home, and the oath that Jacob had sworn. Thus, “Ben Oni” would mean the son of my iniquity, and “Binyamin” would mean the son of my oath.

The Da’at Sofrim notes that Rachel refuses to accept the consoling words of the midwife, who says that another child is being born to you. Instead, she is determined to perpetuate her pain and suffering even after she expires, by naming the child “Ben Oni.” Jacob does not agree that the child should bear a name that would constantly remind him of his mother’s pain and suffering, and calls him “Binyamin.”

Rav Mordechai Rogov, cited by Rabbi Sheinbaum in Pninim on the Torah, suggests that both Jacob and Rachel had the same objective in mind when they named their child, only the emphasis was different. As the labor pains became unbearable, Rachel knew that she would die, and had one last wish. She named the child “Ben Oni” because she wanted the child to remember throughout the duration of his life, his sorrowful beginning and the tragic end of his mother’s life. Hoping that the name would inspire her child to always remember his mother, and the sacrifice she made to bring him into the world, she believed that the name would assure that the child would remain loyal to her values and the values of his father.

Jacob was also hoping that his son would choose the proper path, and therefore chose the name, “Binyamin,” the son of my right hand. This name, implying courage, strength, fortitude and fearlessness, would reflect the qualities that his son would need to fulfill Rachel’s legacy.

It was Jacob’s profound hope that by focusing on the positive, Benjamin would be more inclined to take the message of his name to heart, and fulfill the wishes of both parents to lead an upright moral and ethical life.

May you be blessed.