What’s in a name: Meora

I recently received an email from a reader in the process of conversion to Judaism who has chosen “Meora” as her Hebrew name.

Her blog is here: Meora in the Making

She asked me to share any insights into her chosen name, so here is my attempt to do so.

Meora — spelled מאורה in Hebrew — is the feminine form of the word “maor” (מאור), meaning “luminary,” or “source of light.” This word appears in the first chapter of Genesis, during the Creation narrative, when God creates the cosmic luminaries on the Fourth Day:

יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם, לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה; וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים, וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים. טו וְהָיוּ לִמְאוֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם, לְהָאִיר עַל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיְהִי-כֵן. טזוַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים: אֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל, לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם, וְאֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה, וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים. יז וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם, לְהָאִיר, עַל-הָאָרֶץ. יח וְלִמְשֹׁל, בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה, וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ; וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב.

“God said, ‘There shall be luminaries in the firmament of the heavens, to separate between the day and the night, and they shall be for signs and for seasons and for reckoning days and years. They shall be for luminaries in the firmament of the heavens, to give light upon the earth,’ and so it was. God made the two great luminaries, the great luminary to govern the day, and the minor luminary to govern the night, and the stars. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, and to govern during the day and during the night, and to separate between the light and the darkness, and God saw that it was good.”

Now let’s take a closer look.

The word for “luminary” is “maor” (מאור). “Luminaries,” in plural, is “meorot.” However, in these verses, meorot appears with a peculiar spelling. The ‘o’ vowel in Hebrew is usually represented by the Hebrew letter ‘vav’ (ו), though it can be enunciated even when the letter vav (ו) does not appear. In other words, there are variations to the way a word with an ‘o’ vowel sound can be spelled, but as the Torah is a divine document, we do not view these variations as ‘willy-nilly’; rather, they must carry significance. The above passage regarding the creation of the luminaries contains such an incidence of the vav (ו) dropping out the word meorot. What is the reason for this to occur in this context?

The famous commentator Rashi notes that looking at the text without the vav, the word meorot appears as though it could be pronounced “ma’eret,” meaning, “a curse” — very different than the meaning of the same word with only slightly different vowelization! What is the significance of this variation in spelling and its allusion to the concept of a curse?

Rashi comments, based on remarks in the Talmud, that: “This is a day of a ‘curse,’ such that children are prone to becoming infected with askera on this day, as it is taught (in the Talmud, Tractate Taanit): ‘On the fourth day of the week (Wednesday), they would fast over askera, that it should not infect the children.'” (Askera was a respiratory disease described in the Talmud that was a common cause of death in children in ancient times, something like diphtheria or croup.)

[It is worthwhile to note that while Rashi’s understanding appears to be that the fourth day of the week (Wednesday) was prone to the infection of children with askera based on the Talmudic passage he quotes, others understand that the fourth day was a day especially appropriate for prayer to ward off askera, likewise due to the linguistic phenomenon identified above, but not that children were more prone to contract the disease on this day.]

Either way, what essentially is the connection between me’orot (luminaries) and ma’eret (a curse) that they appear to be linked this way in the text? Why are these two concepts even linguistically related?

Me’or (luminary), from the Hebrew word ‘or,’ meaning “light,” is one associated with great positivity. Light (or) is arguably the first phenomenon to be brought into existence by the Almighty on the first day of Creation, and the Almighty pronounces the light to be good! Light brings with it so much potential for good — the ability to see, to read, to learn, to know! Photosynthesis brings us the food we eat and the air we breath! Sunlight gives us the warmth necessary to live, keeps water in liquid form that we can drink or utilize to grow the food we need to survive. It also evaporates the water into clouds that carry that water around the globe and rain it down for us to drink and for life to grow. Light allows us to see the millions of colors that make looking at the world such a joy! In short, light is wonderful! Why then is it linguistically related (and textually connected) to such a negative concept as a curse? It would seem that light is just the opposite of that!

On a superficial level, it is certainly accurate to say that even the phenomenon of light can be harnessed for greatly negative effects. Too much light is blinding, too much heat is destructive. Some forms of light, such as radiation, are deadly. But there is an even deeper message as well.

Sometimes the darkest periods in life are those that yield the greatest light. Sometimes bad things happen and we are unable to understand why, what could be the reason behind such suffering. Sometimes we never know. But many times, a great benefit is yielded and we are able to look back and say, “Thank God!” even about something that at the time felt like such an insurmountable situation. In my own personal experience, I have undergone intensely painful periods in my life that were overwhelmingly difficult, but the decisions I was forced to make during those times lead to some of the greatest and happiest times I have experienced, and I had to look back and say, “I wouldn’t be where I am now if it hadn’t been for those unfortunate and unpleasant experiences.” The darkness became a great light. The curse became a blessing.

The message of the Torah is perhaps that all emanations from the Almighty are good, because He is good, though our subjective experiences do not always feel good. But if we understanding that all things at their root derive from One benevolent source, we can strengthen ourselves during the hard times and hold on the hope of a brighter future.

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