How Alexander Became a Jewish Name?

How Alexander Became a Jewish Name?

How Alexander Became a Jewish Name?

Throughout history, Jews have been careful to retain their distinctly Jewish names. In fact, our sages tell us that although more than two centuries of exile and slavery in Egypt had all but assimilated the Children of Israel into the idolatrous society of Egypt, one of the reasons why they merited their miraculous redemption was that they retained their Jewish names.

Traditionally, Jewish names are Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino. Some other names that have crept in over the years and have become accepted as Jewish names are actually translations of Jewish names in foreign languages. The name Alexander, however, is unique. It originates from the Greek king Alexander the Great, ruler of Macedonia, who established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. In other words, its origin is definitely not Jewish.

Another difference: When names of non-Hebrew origin are written in Hebrew documents, such as a bill of divorce, there is a specific style of spelling used. Alexander, however, is spelled according to the Hebrew rules.

How did Alexander gain such a special place in Jewish nomenclature?


The following is recorded in the Talmud3 and Megillat Ta’anit:4

On the 21st Kislev5 of the year 3448 from creation (313 BCE), after Alexander the Great brought an end to Persian rule and marched through the Land of Israel, the Kutheans, bitter enemies of the Jewish people, convinced Alexander that the Jews rebelled against his sovereignty and that their Holy Temple in Jerusalem should be destroyed.

Alexander marched on toward Jerusalem at the head of his army. Hearing of this, Shimon HaTzaddik (Simeon the Just), who was then the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and one of the last remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly, donned the priestly vestments and went to greet Alexander, along with a delegation of Jewish dignitaries bearing torches. The two groups walked toward each other all night. When dawn arrived, Alexander asked the Kutheans, “Who are these people coming to meet us?”

They said to him, “These are the Jews, who have rebelled against you!”

The two camps met each other at Antipatris. When Alexander saw Shimon HaTzaddik, he descended from his chariot and bowed before him.

“Should a great king such as yourself bow to this Jew?” asked the members of his entourage.

“I do this,” he replied, “because the image of this man’s face appears before me and leads me to victory when I am on the battlefields.”

Alexander then asked the representatives of the Jewish people why they had come to him.

“Is it possible,” they replied, “that gentiles will try to mislead you into destroying the Temple, in which we pray for you and that your kingdom not be destroyed, and we should remain silent and not tell you!?”

“Who are these people who want to destroy it?” asked Alexander.

“They are these very Kutheans who stand before you,” replied the Jews.

“If so,” said the king, “they are given into your hands to deal with as you please.”

The Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, ploughing the area and sowing it with leeks (as a sign of complete destruction), just as they sought to do to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The description of this encounter in traditional Jewish sources stops here. However, In the Sefer Yosippon,6 another crucial part of the story is added:

Shimon HaTzaddik then took Alexander the Great on a tour of the Holy Temple. Alexander, impressed, wished to donate gold to have an image of himself placed in the Holy Temple so that he would be immortalized. Shimon demurred, saying that it was forbidden for the Jews to have graven images, and certainly not in the Temple. He suggested that he instead give the gold to the poor. And as for memorializing the occasion, Shimon suggested an even better way: all male kohanim born that year would be named “Alexander.”

Alexander liked the idea, and the Jews, who were very thankful to Alexander for all that he did for them, including sparing the Holy Temple from destruction, gratefully named their children after him. Thus, the name Alexander forever became a Jewish name.


1.See Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 32.

2.Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, vol. 4:66 & vol. 5:10.

3.Talmud, Yoma 69a.

4.Megillat Ta’anit, ch. 9.

5.This follows the date in Megillat Taanit. The Talmud records it as 25 Tevet.

6.Sefer Yosippon, ch. 10. (Not to be confused with Josephus. There is much discussion about the authorship of Yosippon and whether it is, in fact, Josephus. However, that is beyond the scope of our discussion.) In Antiquities of the Jews, book 11:8, Josephus mentions Alexander’s visit to the Temple but does not mention the part about the priests being named after him.

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