Sunday 5 February 2017



One of the most oft-quoted Midrashim enumerates the three reasons why the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.  It states:

Because of three things our fathers merited to be redeemed from Egypt – they did not change their names, their language or their dress.”

As noble as these virtues may be, there is just one problem: This Midrash does not exist...anywhere.
In this essay, we will trace the story of this imaginary Midrash, and try to understand just why this non-existent text became so popular.


R. Elli Fischer, in a brilliant paper[1], researched the sources that deal with listing the number of reasons why the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt.
He writes regarding our elusive Midrash; “...not only could I not find it in Rashi”, but; “I could not find these three elements listed together in any collection of midrashim.”

He goes on to explain that while name, language and dress do indeed appear in multiple Midrashim, they never appear as a collective list of three as is commonly asserted.

  • ·        In one source, four reasons are given: - Name, language, lashon harah, and immorality. (They desisted from the last two.)[2]
  • ·        In another place three reasons are given: - Name, (kosher) food and dress.[3]
  • ·        Another source records a different combination of four reasons: – Kindness, circumcision (Hebrew) language and not learning Egyptian.[4]
  • ·        And then we find another combination of four reasons: – Language, dress, not revealing their secrets[5] and circumcision.[6]

But nowhere does it list our triad - name, language and dress – as grouped together.


The first time our triad appears is in Sefer Meturgman (1541). It introduces the triad by stating “As our Rabbis of blessed memory said...” – but no reference is given. 

This may have started the trend to quote this alleged ’saying of the rabbis’.

Over time this ‘Midrash’ slowly gained wider acceptance. However, particularly in the last century or so, it suddenly enjoyed a massive resurgence: -To the extent that it has probably become one of the most well-known ‘rabbinic statements’ because it fitted so neatly into the discourse promoting isolationism and countering assimilation.


For example, there is a teaching of the Chassidic master, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, which states:

Shem (name), Lashon (language) and Levush (dress) is an acronym for Shalal (or ‘Spoil’ – as in Pharaoh declaring as he chased after the fleeing Israelites: ‘I will divide their spoil.’)

Pharaoh regretted allowing them to practice their ways (by keeping their name, language and dress) and now wanted to divide their ‘Shalal’ so that he could get them back (to Egypt).”[7]

Although no source is referenced here, the notion of an accepted and pre-existing triad is given pre-eminence by framing it within a Biblical acronym.

CHATAM SOFER (1762-1839):

Later, in the 1830’s, the same popular idea surfaced again where it was used in the ethical will of the Chatam Sofer, which was read out during his funeral:

Be careful not to change your name, language, and do not dress like non-Jews, Heaven forbid. This is alluded to in the verse; “and Jacob arrived Shalem (intact).[8]

Shalem is an acronym for Shem (name), lashon (language) and Malbush (dress).

Again we see another example of the triad being elevated to the status of a Biblical acronym.
In fairness, while the Chatam Sofer may have contributed to popularising the triad, he did not claim to quote any Midrash, but simply listed the three components he felt were crucial for Jewish survival.


A short while later, with the founding of the new Chareidi movement in 1865, this triad gained even more popularity. It was readily adopted to become the cornerstone of the new movement. See KOTZK BLOG 41. 

Name, language (which was now changed from Hebrew to Yiddish!) and dress did indeed become the foundational basis of the new ultra-Orthodox movement.

I looked up the Yiddish translation of the Chatam Sofer’s ethical will. I noticed that while he simply referred to Shem (name) - the Yiddish translation expanded that to mean:  ‘Yidishen nomen’ (or Yiddish name!). This, despite the fact that the word ‘Yiddish’ does not appear in the original will:

According to R. Fischer, R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, one of the founders of the Chareidi movement, tried: “posthumously drafting Hatam Sofer into his ideological camp (to which R. Avraham Binyamin Shmuel Sofer, the son and heir of Hatam Sofer did not belong).” 

R. Schlesinger wrote extensively on keeping one’s Jewish name, in his extensive commentaries on the Chatam Sofer’s ethical will.[9]

The idea now became well rooted within Jewish popular thinking. Almost every discourse on Jewish survival included a reference to the (non-existent) ‘Midrash’ which reminded the people of the importance of maintaining the ‘time-honoured’ triad of name, language and dress.

To this day, even the ‘softer’ approaches to orthodox Judaism make mention of this ‘Midrash’. There are probably thousands of references to it scattered all over the literature. Most kiruv sites extensively refer to and quote from, this ‘Midrashic’ triad.


I did a little research of my own and found an overwhelming number of examples of this popular construct contained within our seforim:

MAOR  VASHAMESH (1753-1823):

The Maor vaShamesh writes:

Our Sages say; ‘In the merit of three things were our fathers redeemed from Egypt’, one of them is that they didn’t change their language.”[10]

However, in the Midrashic sources we outlined above, there is no mention of ‘language’ in the Lekach Tov[11] which is the only Midrash which offers three reasons for the redemption.

SOD YESHARIM (1839-1890)[12]:

Sod Yesharim reads: “They didn’t change their name, language or dress, as our Sages say in the Midrash – ‘in the merit of three things were they redeemed...’


Torat Yisrael veArtzo reads: “In the merit of three things were our fathers redeemed from Egypt – they did not change their language, their dress or their names.”

Notice how the text actually provides quotation marks for the ‘well-known Midrash’, though no reference is provided.


In the Pachad David, by R. David Chananya Pinto, it mentions the ubiquitous name, language and dress triad once more – but this time actually provides us with the long awaited elusive Midrashic sources for it! As you can see, there are two references: 

The first is from Vayikra Rabbah.[14] -So I looked it up thinking we had finally found the solution to our mystery.

However, Vayikra Rabbah does not mention our triad at all!

Instead, it lists, as we pointed out earlier, a group of four reasons for the redemption from Egypt: - name, language, lashon harah and immorality. It does not even include or mention the word ‘dress’!

  The second reference is from Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer:                                                                                                                                                                

It reads: "In the merit of three things were our fathers redeemed from Egypt - they did not change their language, they did not engage in lashon hara, and they kept their names (see biur)."

Even this second reference does not prove to be the source for our triad and also contains no reference to dress!

The Pachad David then continues:

If we think about it, we will see that these three things are a great foundation for safeguarding Judaism and observing the commandments, because they remind him that he is a Jew.”[15]

Noble words, some might say, but the very proof-text and premise are clearly incorrect and unsubstantiated.

This emphasises the very point of this essay. Some have fixated so much on this construct of name, language and dress, that even when they provide the ‘reference’, it is still blatantly inaccurate.


R. MOSHE FEINSTEIN (1895-1986):

On the general issue of using Hebrew/Jewish names nowadays, R. Moshe Feinstein issued a fascinating ruling when he was asked about naming a child after a deceased relative who had a non-Hebrew name:

When the Sages, in Vayikra Rabbah (the genuine Midrashic source which lists four reasons) extol the virtues of the Israelites not changing their names – they were referring to the era prior to the giving of the Torah...

The Israelites believed they would be redeemed, and they wanted it to be clear that they were Israelites, so they were meticulous about not changing their names or their language...

After the giving of the Torah, however, we have no formal obligation (to use Hebrew names) nor is it a matter of morality or piety.[16]

R. ASHER WEISS (b. 1953):

R. Fischer then quotes R. Asher Weiss, a respected contemporary halachik authority, who rejects R. Feinstein’s ruling. R. Weiss writes:

“ is clear that the Sages statement that our ancestors in the desert did not change their name language and dress, is a teaching for all times, and is not to be disregarded even today.”

R. Weiss also makes the point that; “...we may explain the words of the Sages that they (the Israelites) did not change their name, language, and dress to mean that their primary concern was against changing all three together, for in doing so one would eliminate any indication that one is Jewish...However there is no prohibition when one behaves like a Jew in every respect, but...he changes his name or his garb or his language.”[17]

From the above, it is interesting to see that on more than one occasion, reference is made to the Sages statement of name, language and dress

And furthermore, this triad became so vital and important that it even influenced halacha - in that the prohibition was now directed only against changing all three together.

This is all the more significant when we bear in mind that there is no precedent for the triad and no statement by the Sages which group name, language and dress together!


Perhaps one could argue that there was indeed a non-referenced Midrash, which listed our very triad, but got lost over time.

Although that is possible, one wonders whether a corresponding ‘lost Midrash’ which, hypothetically, conveyed a less stringent notion or even a leniency, would have found the same degree of traction and acceptance today as this one did.

In actual fact, historically, the Jews did change their names on multiple occasions, including Egypt. This is evident from names of the heads of the tribes and others recorded in the Exodus story, where we do not find names like Avraham, Yitzchak, Yosef etc. 

Furthermore, our patriarchs and matriarchs were known to have created their own names which reflected the various experiences they endured from time to time. Many Sages of the Mishna and Gemara certainly had very exotic and non-Hebrew names. So did many Gaonim and Rishonim, with names like Saadia and Don Vidal.

The same can be said about language and dress. In place of Hebrew, Aramaic became the language of rabbinic discussion and later Yiddish became the language of Chassidic instruction. Religious dress today is no more Jewish than simply the style of pre-war non-Jewish Europe. Yet name, language and dress are all lauded as part of the triad the ‘Sages’ said saved us in Egypt!

The only original and true Jewish garb is the tzitzit.

It is amazing to see how a non-existent statement by ‘the Sages’ - which everyone mistakenly ascribes to them - has gained such tremendous gravitas over the years. It has become so embedded within our scholarly and even casual discourse that it has effectively been elevated to an almost Biblical-like redemptive status.

Yet the statement doesn’t exist.

And despite its mythical origin, it has had no difficulty in finding soft, willing and fertile ground for its infatuation, promulgation and dissemination.

Name Language and Dress, The Life Cycle of a Well-Known but Nonexistent Midrash, by Elli Fischer.
Hebrew Books

[1] Name Language and Dress, The Life Cycle of a Well-Known but Nonexistent Midrash, by Elli Fischer.
[2] Vayikrah Rabba 32:5 (The 1566 edition of Bamidbar Rabbah substitutes clothing for language.)
[3] Lekach Tov, Devarim 26:5
[4] Tanna Devei Eliyahu 23:2
[5] This refers to their keeping the Oral Torah secret.
[6] Lekach Tov, Shemot 6:6
[7] See Maayana Shel Torah; Bereishit,
[8] Bereishit  33:18
[9] See Naar Ivri and Tzavaat Moshe. To be sure, R. Schlesinger did not refer to the mythical Midrash but in fact accurately quoted one of the documented and original Midrashim  which records four reasons (Lev haIvri, by R. Schlesinger, p. 195):

[10] Maor vaShamesh (p. 570) - by R. Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein.
[11] Devarim 26:5
[12] Sod Yesharim (p. 9) - by R. Gershon Chanoch Henech Leiner.
[13] Torat Yisrael veArtzo, - R. Yitzchak Friedman
[14] Vayikra Rabbah, 32:5
[15] My own translation of the Pachad David’s text as above.
[16] Igrot Moshe, vol. 6 O.C. 4:66
[17] Minchat Asher, Shemot pp. 1-5 


    I have often been troubled by this midrash especially when placed in conjunction with another midrash, viz The children of Israel were save after only two hundred and fifteen years rather than the four hundred and thirty years promised as they had reached the lowest level of degradation possible before complete assimilation therefore needed early redemption. If one saves "name language and dress" then one's level of assimilation would not be one level away from dissipation.

  2. this midrash was used to beat me up when i wanted to give my children English names as well as Hebrew ones, when I dressed other than in black charedidi dress....thankyou!!! great detective scholarship!

  3. From Bamidar Rabbah 20:22 "Rabbis taught: Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things. They did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not reveal their secrets. Moshe said to them “…and every woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her that live in her house, vessels of silver and vessels of gold…” (Shemot 3:22) They kept this command hidden between them for twelve months and not one of them revealed it to the Egyptians. They did not breakdown into forbidden sexual relationships."
    Bnei Yisrael were on a low spiritual level and even served idols which is why they needed these merits to be redeemed (in addition to the merit of the forefathers).
    Hopefully these days we have earned more meritso to be deserving of redemption.

  4. Excellent paper.

    one minor point

    you say:
    'In fairness, while the Chatam Sofer may have contributed to popularising the triad, he did not claim to quote any Midrash, but simply listed the three components he felt were crucial for Jewish survival.'

    In deroshos chasma sofer 8th teves 1814 he does quotes the triad as a medrash.

    There is a 5 volume version of deroshos chasam sofer, (8th teves derasha 7)and the source given is yayikrah rabbah and lekach tov. However the implication of the chasma sofer is one medrash.

    See last lines on page.

  5. thanks for this. I was preparing a Shiur on the topic and went looking for the source of the Midrash about the three. After Torah Shlaima and Torah Temima did not give me the source and the Chida refers to 4 things I decided to try Google....

  6. 2 more points:
    a) Etz Yosef commentary on Vayikra Rabba states that he saw many varied Midrashim (וראיתי מדרשות חלוקות הרבה) some who identify 4 causes, some say 3, some say 2 and some say 1.
    b) Your point about the translation of the Chasam Sofer's ethical will in which they add the word Yiddisher can also simply mean Jewish name rather than Yiddish name. I think it is a fair translation.

  7. It's a good thing the Midrash did not include "not changing their midrashim;" otherwise, we'd never get redeemed!