Names meant a lot in the ancient world. I have mentioned this subje before, but only as a footnote, and I think it is important enough to present it as a regular post. A person’s name and genealogy were of the utmost importance. The name represented the individual's spiritual identity, almost the alter ego of the person, and the genealogy was essential to prove his or her identity when it came to matters of property, inheritance, and other practical matters. These genealogical lists were kept for generations. When temporarily interrupted when a large number of people were exiled to Babylon, it caused turmoil similar to serious identity theft these days. They were carefully reconstructed and maintained. Since in those days surnames did not exist, an additional precaution was necessary and people were identified by their father’s name. Deborah bat Ehud means Deborah, daughter of Ehud. Aaron ben Menahem means Aaron, son of Menahem. The level of importance of names extended to the name of God – with a strong taboo
on pronouncing it. (See the post Yahweh, http://ililarbel.weebly.com/1/post/2011/09/yahweh.html)
Discovering or even speculating on Hillel’s mother’s name is not possible. Women’s names were never recorded, not because they were of no importance, but on the contrary, they were given the right of privacy as a sign of respect; it was considered very bad taste to discuss women or their names in public. This habit lasted well into the late middle ages.
Hillel’s father’s name can be deduced. Males’ names ran in families with regularity and consistency. A boy would be named after a deceased relative, never a living one. The reason for it has been explained by some scholars as the fear that the Angel of Death might mistakenly take the child instead of the older namesake. However, this reasoning probably started during the middle ages, because during antiquity the Angel of Death was not part of the Jewish religion.
This may cause some misconceptions. For example, Hillel is often mentioned as “Hillel the Elder,” but this is not because he was the father of “Hillel the Younger,” but because it was his title as a member of the Sanhedrin (The Great Council). The following list, consisting of Hillel’s descendants, begins with Hillel’s son: Simeon, Gamaliel, Simeon, Gamaliel, Simeon, Judah, Gamaliel, Judah, Gamaliel, Judah, Hillel, Gamaliel, Gamaliel. There are only four names here; Hillel, Simeon, Gamaliel, and Judah. Since Hillel’s father’s name could not be Hillel, then his name was Simeon, Gamaliel, or Judah.
Simeon, Hillel’s eldest son, was probably born when Hillel was very young, as was the custom. It is generally assumed that the father died later, when Hillel’s brother, Shebna, offered to support his brother financially and share the blessings of Hillel’s Torah study. Therefore, the father’s name
would not be Simeon, as Hillel would not call his son after a living relative. Simeon must have been Hillel’s grandfather’s name, as he would be the nearest paternal relative. So we can eliminate the name Simeon as Hillel’s father. That leaves Judah and Gamaliel. In the list, the name Judah appears for the first time much later, seven generations after Hillel; this shows that this name was added either after a maternal relative or a secondary paternal one. When Simeon had a son, he did not call him Hillel, because Hillel the Elder lived a very long life and had to be alive when Simeon’s first son was born. From the list, we see that Simeon called his son Gamaliel. He must have called his son after Hillel’s father, who would be the closest deceased relative. Hillel’s father’s name, therefore, almost certainly was Gamaliel. And since so much of Hillel’s life needs the skills of Sherlock Holmes, it’s nice to feel an almost certainty about anything.