June 21, 2024
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Why It’s Called באר שבע

“And he called it שבעה; therefore the name of the city is באר שבע till this very day” (Bereishis 26:33). The implication is that because Yitzchok named the well “שבעה,” the city where it was located is called “באר שבע.” However, the name באר שבע was already given in Avraham’s time (21:31); why was it named twice?

When Avraham gave Avimelech a gift of sheep and cattle, seven ewes were given separately (21:25-30). Since this is followed by “therefore that place was called באר שבע,” the implication is that באר שבע means “the well of seven,” i.e. the seven ewes. However, the verse continues, “for they both swore there,” implying that it meant “the well of the oath” because they swore to uphold the covenant enacted there. Which one was it, and why the ambiguity?

The commentators discuss why Yitzchok named the well “שבעה.” Rashi (26:33) says it was for the covenant that Yitzchok and Avimelech swore to uphold (26:31), while Seforno says it was because this was the seventh well that Yitzchok dug; six in Gerar—three that Avraham had dug but were covered/filled in by the Plishtim (26:15), two that Yitzchok dug but the Plishtim contested (26:19-21), one they didn’t contest (26:22)—and this one (in באר שבע). Once again, was it referring to the oath or the number seven?

Some interesting suggestions have been made to explain why it was named באר שבע twice. Seforno says they are not the same name; Avraham’s was pronounced shuh-vah, with a kumatz, referring only to the oath, while Yitzchok’s is pronounced sheh-vah, with a segol, referring to both the oath and the number seven. This is a difficult approach, as Avraham’s definitely had a number seven involved—the seven ewes—while it may have been Yitzchok’s seventh well (we don’t know for sure how many of Avraham’s wells were undone by the P’lishtim), but it isn’t mentioned explicitly. Besides, the vowel change is based on the cantillation, as a segol in even proper names changes to a kumatz at an esnachata or sof-pasuk. [When Yaakov left באר שבע (28:10), it once again has a kumatz!]

Rashbam says Yitzchok’s באר שבע is not the same as Avraham’s. He quotes Melachim I 19:3, where באר שבע is referred to as “the one in Yehuda,” indicating there is another one. However, since both were in the same area, they were both in Yehuda (or Shimon, whose portion was within Yehuda). Radak points out that saying it’s “in Yehuda,” doesn’t mean that there were two; it just conveys that Eliyahu went where Achav could not harm him, in the southern kingdom (“in Yehuda”). Nevertheless, there was a באר שבע in the north (see Josephus, Wars 3:39) on the border of Upper and Lower Galilee, but it was nowhere near Gerar, so couldn’t be either באר שבע.

Chizkuni (21:31) and Bechor Shor (26:33) point out that for Avraham it was “the place” that was called באר שבע, whereas for Yitzchok it was “the city,” suggesting that the area referred to as באר שבע expanded after the second covenant. Radak also says that the name became more strongly associated with the area after both father and son enacted covenants there, but does not say that the area expanded the second time.

Netziv and Meshech Chuchma say that originally it was called באר שבע because of the oath made to uphold the covenant, but the Plishtim broke it. They stopped up the wells that Avraham dug, sent Yitzchok out of Gerar, and fought with him over wells he dug outside Gerar. Once the covenant was broken, the name no longer applied, so wasn’t used. But when Yitzchok and Avimelech renewed the covenant and swore to uphold it, the old name was once again valid, so was reinstated. And this time it stuck. It was named באר שבע because of the oath between Avraham and Avimelech, but regained the name after the oath between Yitzchok and Avimelech.

We can now explain the dual meaning of באר שבע. Knowing that the covenant might be broken, Avraham built in an alternate meaning for באר שבע, allowing everyone to still refer to it as באר שבע—because of the seven ewes—so that some memory of the covenant could remain. But even that was too much, and the name wasn’t used again until the second oath was taken. Following his father’s lead, Yitzchok called the well שבעה with two references in mind. He hoped the covenant would remain intact, but built in an alternate meaning, that it was the seventh well he dug.

Although Ramban says it’s likely that the well Yitzchok called שבעה was the same well that Avraham called באר שבע, a simple reading, with Yitzchok having finished re-digging Avraham’s filled-in wells, is that שבעה was a separate, brand new well. [This is bolstered by the fact that Yitzchok gave the wells he re-dug the same names his father had given them (see 26:18), and this has a different name.]

About three miles east of the Old City of modern Beersheba is an archeological site known as Tel Be’er Sheva, which most archeologists and governmental agencies associate with biblical באר שבע. Yoel Elitzur (“Places in the Parasha,” Vayigash) is among those who disagree, since the area is too small for a city that was constantly referenced as a major city in the south. [Besides, Shmuel’s sons, when they became the nation’s primary judges (Sh’muel I 8:2), judged from Be’er Sheva.] Additionally, the only archeological finds there are from the Iron [Israelite] Age, not the Bronze [Patriarchal] Age. He points out that its Arabic name is “es-Sab,” while the Arabic name of the Bedouin Shuk in the Old City of modern Beersheba is “Bir es-Sab.” His conclusion is that biblical באר שבע was [the southeastern part of] modern Beersheba, while Tel Be’er Sheva was the biblical town of שבע, listed (Y’hoshua 19:2) as another city assigned to Shimon, alongside באר שבע.


Rabbi Dov Kramer wonders if שבע was where Yitzchok dug the well he called שבעה, while באר שבע is where Avraham dug his well. Or if the biblical city of שבע—currently known as Tel Be’er Sheva—was called שבע because it was where Avraham dug the well he called באר שבע, whereas the well Yitzchok dug was in the city called באר שבע.

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