May One Say “Mumbai”?

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In the aftermath of the terrible 2008 massacre in India, many personal accounts of the lives of the victims were disseminated in the media. One particular line in a personal account of the Holtzberg family caught my eye. The writer, Dr. Isaac Bolbin, a friend of the Holtzberg family wrote that “Reb Gavriel used to call it ‘Mombai’ because he feared that the eponym Mumbai is the name of a Hindu getchke [idol] and therefore forbidden to be uttered.”[1. It should be noted that there seems to be video evidence that conflicts with this report. In a video readily available on Youtube, Reb Gavriel clearly talks about the Chabad house in “Mumbai”.] Considering the frequency with which Jews have been saying the name of the city since the massacre, it behooves us to investigate the validity of this concern. Is there in fact a problem with pronouncing the name of the city? Before proceeding to answer this question, it is important to verify the assumptions of this discussion:

1. Is the city really named after an avodah zarah?

A minimal amount of research reveals that the city is explicitly named for a deity. Christopher Beam, in an article on Slate.com (July 12, 2006), writes:

Officially in 1995… the right wing Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won the elections in the state of Maharashtra and presided over a coalition that took control of the state assembly. After the election, the party announced that the port city had been renamed after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city’s patron deity. Federal agencies, local businesses and newspapers were ordered to adopt the change… Bombay was a corrupted English version of “Mumbai” and an unwanted legacy of British colonial rule.

2. Is there a problem with saying the name of an avodah zarah?

The Torah (Shemot 23:13) states that we may not mention the names of other gods. While the Mechilta (Mishpatim on 23:13) understands the prohibition as limited to praising a deity, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 63b) consider it to include one who tells his friend to meet him near a particular avodah zarah (idol or pagan deity). The Gemara further states that one may not even refer to a city named for an avodah zarah unless the particular avodah zarah is mentioned in the Torah. According to the Gemara, even casual mention of the name, with no intention to praise the deity itself, would be prohibited.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin ibid.) explains that both mentioning and causing others to mention the name of a deity is prohibited. The particular example employed by the Gemara is to avoid telling a friend to meet you in front of avodah zarah X.

The extent to which the example reflects on the parameters of the halachah is subject to a dispute in the Rishonim:

  1. The Rosh (ad. loc. #3) cites those who believe that the prohibition is limited to cases that one is utilizing the name of the avodah zarah for a purpose (to define a landmark where you may meet your friend), but mere mention of the name of the deity, for no constructive purpose, is entirely permitted. This view understands that the problem with mentioning the name is one of utilizing the avodah zarah for one’s own benefit. Absent any practical benefit to the speaker, the prohibition would not apply.
  2. The Rosh himself disputes this view. He argues that one is prohibited from mentioning the name of an avodah zarah in any context. The fact that the Gemara’s specific example relates to a case of one who mentions the name for a reason, is simply a reflection of the Gemara’s effort to speak of the most commonly occurring cases, but should not be understood as a limitation to this rule. The Tur (Yoreh Deah 147) writes that “one cannot mention the name of an avodah zarah even if there is no need to do so”. The implication is that it is more obviously prohibited to recite the name for a purpose than to recite it without a purpose. The Beis Yosef (ad loc.), however, questions the logic behind this. After all, it would seem that mentioning the name for no reason at all would be a more severe violation than mentioning the name for a practical reason.

There is an additional debate whether the prohibition is biblical or rabbinic. The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 86) writes that mentioning the name of a deity outside the context of an oath is only rabbinically prohibited. However, the Smag (lo ta’ase 32) writes that any mention of the avodah zarah would constitute a biblical prohibition. It would stand to reason that if the prohibition is rabbinic, there is more reason for leniency. Any case where there may be some doubt about the applicability of the prohibition can be treated leniently when dealing with rabbinic matters, but must be dealt with stringently when discussing biblical matters. The simple reading of the Gemara and many rishonim is that the prohibition is biblical.

3. The Halacha

The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 147:1) rules that it is prohibited to mention the name of an avodah zarah whether or not there is a reason to do so. Furthermore, the Gemara says that even causing somebody else to mention the name of the avodah zarah would be prohibited. The Maharam Schick (Responsa, Yoreh Deah #171) adds that it would be similarly prohibited to say something that would cause one to think about an avodah zarah. While many leading poskim dispute the Maharam Schick’s stringency on this matter, the actual Torah prohibition of explicitly mentioning the name of an avodah zarah remains intact. Indeed, Rabbi Menashe Klein (Responsa Mishneh Halachos IX:169) suggests that this may be what Chazal had in mind when they said “Jews in the Diaspora worship idols in purity” (Avodah Zarah 8, Avos d’Rabi Nasan 26:4).

If we were to apply this prohibition broadly, we would severely limit our ability to function within society. One would not be permitted to name many cities throughout the world, nor would one be permitted to name many days of the week and the first six months on the secular calendar (all of which are named after different gods). Furthermore, such well known Jewish communities as Tzans[2. Rabbi Menashe Klein suggests that Jews changed the name from Sans to Tzans for this reason. Indeed, as Rabbi Berel Wein has pointed out, Jews in many communities bastardized the names of their cities, perhaps out of concerns for names relating to avodah zarah.] and according to folklore (though questionable) even Satmar[3. Rabbi Yoel Teitlebaum is reported to have pronounced the name of the city “Sakmar” in order not to mention the name of the religious entity (Saint Mary) that the city was reportedly named for.] are named after non-Jewish religious entities and may pose a problem. It therefore seems that some limitations on the prohibition are assumed, and indeed poskim have pointed to a variety of lenient considerations which may apply in different cases. For our purposes we will attempt to analyze whether each of these cases can be applied to saying “Mumbai”.

4. In Writing

Rabbi Menashe Klein was asked about the permissibility of addressing a letter to somebody who lives on a street named after Christian figures.[4. It should be noted that there is much more room for leniency when dealing with Christian religious figures than with Hindu figures because Christianity may not be considered true avodah zarah.] The Minchas Chinuch (mitzvah 86) suggests that the wording of the prohibition indicates that the sole prohibition is when the name is verbalized and not when the name is written. The Torah says “veshem elohim acheirim lo sazkiru, don’t mention the names of other gods.” The Gemara (Megillah 17) states that the term “zechirah, remember” means to verbalize the memory (which is why the mitzvos of zechiras Amalek, zechiras yetzias Mitzrayim and zechiras Shabbos all must be done verbally). It would therefore seem clear, argues Rabbi Klein, that writing the name of a city or street that is named for an avodah zarah is perfectly permissible (just as writing about Amalek would not constitute a fulfillment of zechiras Amalek).

However, the idea that writing the name of avodah zarah is not included in the prohibition is not quite clear. In fact, one may take issue with this leniency for the following reasons:

The Beis Yitzchak (Yoreh Deah I:152) disagrees with the application of the term “zechirah” in the context of avodah zarah. While most prohibitions would clearly distinguish between thoughts and words, one of the unique stringencies of avodah zarah is that thoughts are as viable as words–worship of avodah zarah in thought is also forbidden. We may therefore conclude that while one may need to verbalize mitzvos that demand zechirah, violation of avodah zarah that is termed zechirah can come even in the form of thoughts. However, even the Beis Yitzchak ultimately agrees that idolatrous thoughts only take on the status of words when one actually intends to accept the authority of the deity. When one only intends to think the name of a city or street, the prohibition does not apply.

Furthermore, one may argue that writing is considered more substantial than thinking. Whereas zechiras Amalek must unquestionably be done verbally and cannot be fulfilled through writing alone, the efficacy of writing each mitzvah and issur needs to be analyzed independently. In this particular context, the Sefer Hachinuch explains that the reason for the prohibition is that saying the name of a deity shows it honor and brings the deity undue attention. It would therefore seem that writing which leaves a lasting record should be even worse than verbalizing the name of the deity.

Even if one were to accept this leniency, it is extremely limited in scope in that one would only be permitted to write “Mumbai”, but not to say it. Furthermore, this leniency would not explain the common practice of saying things like “Tuesday” or “January”, which are also named for deities.

5. Origin of the Name

The Darkei Teshuvah (Yoreh Deah 147:4) cites the Beis Yitzchak (I:152) who deals with a case of a Bikur Cholim society that had a Greek name representing good health. It was pointed out to the society that this Greek name was actually the name of the Greek god of health, and therefore possibly prohibited. The questioner argued that since the Greek word really meant “health” and the Greeks, who believed in a god of each power, later used the benign word to describe the god of health, saying the name might be permissible. Perhaps the use of the deity’s name is only prohibited when the word initially was meant for an avodah zarah and was later adapted to refer to the general concept of health. However, the Beis Yitzchak rejects this proposed leniency and writes that it is prohibited to use a name in any context if it was used to describe a deity, regardless of its origin.

Even if one were inclined to accept this leniency, it would be inapplicable to Mumbai. The name of the avodah zarah is the city’s patron deity, not an independent word that was later attached to a deity. Of course, if one were interested in relying on this leniency in other areas (names of months, days, cities etc.), it would require a thorough analysis of the origin of each deity’s name.

6. Disassociation With the Deity

The Beis Yitzchak (ibid.) points out that the term “mammon,” commonly used in the Gemara to describe money, is also based in the name of a deity, specifically the god of money. Obviously the Gemara had no problem using this term despite its nefarious origins. The Beis Yitzchak explains that once the name is no longer associated with the deity at all and the term is used exclusively to describe money, rather than the god of money, use of the term becomes permissible.

While this leniency will prove very helpful with regard to the names of the months and days of the week, and perhaps even with the names of many Greek cities, it would seem to be inapplicable to Mumbai. The city was renamed just over a decade ago for a deity which is obviously still embedded in the conscience and religious practice of many Hindus. It is common knowledge on the streets of Mumbai that the name of the city is derived from the local goddess, and the temple to the local goddess remains as a functioning temple to this day.

7. Deities That Are No Longer Worshipped

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 63b) states that it is permissible to say the name of any avodah zarah mentioned in the Torah. While this must be true because one has to be permitted to read the Torah, the Gemara does not explain exactly what distinguishes the deities mentioned in the Torah from other deities. Sefer Yereim (#75) suggests that those deities mentioned in the Torah have already been nullified. It therefore follows that it is permissible to say the name of any deity which is completely nullified and no longer worshipped.

The Chavos Yair (#1) writes that this theory simply doesn’t seem to be true. The Navi refers to the deity “Bel Nevo” and the deity clearly still existed in the times of the Gemara (see Sanhedrin 63b). Aditionally, the Beis Yitzchak (Yoreh Deah #152) rejects the application of this leniency to any deity not explicitly mentioned in the Torah because one can never be sure when a deity is completely nullified. There may always be a tribe in some remote part of the world that still worships this deity.

Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin (Responsa Bnei Banim III:35) suggests that this leniency would only seem logical if one assumes, like the Sefer Hachinuch, that the prohibition to merely mention the name (outside of the context of swearing) is only rabbinic. If the prohibition is rabbinic we can readily understand that the rabbis waived the prohibition for a deity that is no longer worshipped. If we were to assume that the Smag is correct that the prohibition is biblical in any context, it is more difficult to understand where there is room for leniency with deities that no longer exist. Rabbi Henkin, though, suggests that the very definition of “elohim acheirim,” the entities we may not mention, only includes those that are still worshipped.

While, if accepted, this leniency explains why we may say “Tuesday” or the names of various months on the Gregorian calendar (because the gods that they are named for are no longer worshipped), it would not seem to apply to a Hindu goddess for whom a city was named just over a decade ago. It seems that there were serious religious motivations in naming the city after the goddess. In fact, there is still a temple that stands in Mumbai where the goddess of the city is worshipped. The goddess herself still stands in the temple, an orange faced goddess on an altar strewn with marigolds.

8. Names Ascribing Greatness

The Yereim suggests another distinction between the deities mentioned in the Torah and those that are not explicitly mentioned. The prohibition is not to say the name of a deity, but not to say a name that inherently ascribes any sort of power or godliness to the deity. This is evidenced by the phrasing of the verse, “veshem elohim acheirim lo sazkiru, don’t mention the names of other gods”, implying that only godly names are prohibited. For instance, if a deity were called “Bob” it would not be forbidden to say “Bob”, but if it were called “Bob-Lord of Builders” it would be prohibited to say “Bob Lord of Builders”.[5. The most common example of this is use of the name of the Christian deity – “Yeshu”, where his first name merely identifies him, but the second name refers to a savior.] Indeed, the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 45b-46a) states that we are supposed to call an avodah zarah by a derisive and mocking name.[6. In fact Toras Kohanim (Kedoshim #1)1 states that the term Asheira itself is meant to mock the tree of avodah zarah which requires nurturing and nourishment from others in order to survive.] It may be argued that none of the names given for foreign gods in the Gemara are actually their proper names (because, as the Chavos Yair notes, the Gemara was meant to be read). They are actually derisive nicknames for the avodah zarah.

It would seem that this leniency would need to be judged on a case by case basis. Some of the names of deities ascribe powers to them and would therefore be prohibited, while others merely identify the deity and may therefore be permissible. As far as “Mumbai” is concerned, the name is roughly translated as “great mother,” which would seem to be a name that is clearly meant to ascribe greatness.

A different avenue for leniency is based on Rashi’s comment (Sanhedrin 63) that saying the name of a particular city is problematic because “it was called by the name of the deity in the city”. Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin suggests that the problem with saying the name of a city only exists when the deity is actually in the city itself. However, the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries make no mention whatsoever of such a leniency. The Shulchan Aruch simply rules that it is prohibited to say the name of a city named for a deity. Additionally, this leniency would not help us with the question of saying the name of Mumbai because the deity is still in the city, and is housed in a temple dedicated to it.

9. When There is No Choice

Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin (ibid.) suggests that although the Shulchan Aruch rules that one may not say the name of a deity “whether it is necessary or not”, there are certain circumstances when it is permitted. Rabbi Henkin argues that there are three possible circumstances for one to use the name of a deity: 1) one uses it as a landmark (e.g. meet me near this avodah zarah), which shows honor to the deity because one could have easily chosen a different landmark; 2) one who says the name for no reason whatsoever, which would be prohibited because it is totally unnecessary; and 3) one who refers to the name of a deity for identification purposes in the course of normal conversation simply because there is no other way to refer to the city or place in question than by mentioning its name. Rabbi Henkin argues that the Shulchan Aruch only intended to prohibit the first and second types of mention, but not the third. After all, he argues, what is one who wants to relate an experience that took place in such a city supposed to do? The only way to express himself is by using the name of the city. This is different than using the avodah zarah as a landmark because one could have just as easily used a different landmark for the meeting place.

Considering the absence of this leniency from all of the classical poskim, it is very difficult to rely on. Indeed, Rabbi Henkin himself seems unwilling to rely on this leniency for a deity that is still in existence and worshipped. Furthermore, the Gemara asks how it was permissible to identify the city in which Ulla slept by its, name which is after an avodah zarah. The Gemara answers that the avodah zarah the particular city was named for is already mentioned in the Torah. The Gemara noticeable does NOT answer that since there is no other way to identify the city, it is permissible.

If this leniency is correct, one may argue that we would be permitted to say the name of the city when discussing events that occurred there because there is no other way to identify the city. However, considering that one can just as easily say “Bombay” or “Mombai” to identify the city, it seems that this leniency would not apply. Furthermore, this leniency does not seem particularly convincing and would be very difficult to rely on in practice.

10. Conclusion

There does not seem to be any clear reason to permit the pronunciation of “Mumbai”. We have demonstrated that many of the leniencies that are applied to other circumstances are more difficult to apply to this particular case. Even in situations in which there are leniencies, Rabbi Menashe Klein suggests corrupting the name when saying or writing it to any extent possible. Rabbi Klein points out that if the Torah was willing to add a few letters in order to avoid a less dignified form of speech (Pesachim 3a-3b), we can certainly inconvenience ourselves in the same way to avoid saying the names of foreign gods.
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About Aryeh Lebowitz

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz serves as an 11th grade Rebbe in Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School, Senior Magid Shiur in HALB's post high school Yeshivat Lev Shlomo, and is the Rabbi of the Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere. He has contributed articles to several torah journals and books, and has delivered thousands of popular shiurim on a variety of torah topics.

10 comments

  1. Perhaps mum-bay מום ביה is best

  2. My mother, she should live and be well, grew up in Romania and speaks Romanian. She taught me that Satmar is based on ‘Satu Mare’, which means ‘great village’. Only an urban legend would attribute its name to Saint Mary.

  3. 1. Thank you for a thorough and detailed article!
    2. I love the Bob the Builder reference – creative!
    3. There may be one more unexplored avenue of heter here – Hindus claim that they don’t worship idols. Last year there was a big meeting between the Israeli Rabbinate and some Hindu religious figures, and they came out with a joint declaration stating that it was a mistake for Jews to understand Hinduism as idolatry. What they “really” believe is that G-d has many different “manifestations” which are represented by various names and statues, but they are just facets of One G-d. Now, I don’t know if that qualifies as AZ halachically or not. I am also just as skeptical as the next guy as to whether this is what the Hindu on the street really believes or only the intellectuals. But anecdotally, I did meet a Hindu college student once who firmly maintained that she worshipped ONE G-d only.

  4. Ohr Ganuz brings up the point that for Jews, Hinduism may in the same category as Christianity: it’s avoda zara for Jews but perhaps not for the adherents to those religions.

    For more information about the agreement between the Rabbanut and the Hindu communities in India see the section on Interfaith Relations here:

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India–Israel_relations

  5. Here’s another reason not to call it Mumbai:

    http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Opinions/Culture/ethnonymy.html

    Ira Wiznitzer: Apparently, the name comes from a Hungarian personal name which happens to sound like “Great Village” in Romanian. So apparently they’re *both* myths.

    By the way, Beit Shemesh is named for the Canaanite sun goddess, which is, of course, no longer worshiped.

  6. There is a complexity with regard to Hinduism that doesn’t apply to trinitarian Christianity. The intelligensia know that they worship only one Deity and their gods are 3.1mm perceptions of that one incomprehensible Deity. (Despite stories of wars and marriages between them, etc…)

    Lehavdil elef alfei havdalos, people find room for partzufim under the umbrella of the Rambam’s Iqarim, so I could see parallel reasoning saying that Hinduism is less problematic for Noachides than trinitarianism in many Christian theologies. (There are trinitarian theologies in which the trinity’s three persons are a human perception as well, so I can’t include every Protestant denomination in that.)

    But, are the masses aware of this? Do we care only about the ideologues’ religion, or does the folk religion’s use of the name for what they think of as real avodah zarah matters as well?

    We had a similar question when Indian Hair wigs were re-re-re-raised as a halachic issue a decade or so ago. The priests teach that the ritual is to cut one’s hair in the temple as a way of renouncing vanity and physicality. Then they make money selling the hair. The majority of those on line probably think of their hair as an offering to the god in question.

    In that case, we ruled leniently, which implies that we go by the temple’s official teachings, and do not split off the folk religion for a separate discussion. In which case, Hinduism in general is less problematic than (eg) Catholicism.

    To give results of research into a question that bothered me after reading this post: When Jews started referring to the days of the week as Tiw’s, Woden’s, Thor’s, and Frigg’s, they probably had already gone out of style. And, like Sun, Moon and Saturn, they were probably also once-removed from the gods in question by being named for planets that were named for those gods. Tue is the Norse god of war, and is thus synonymous with Mars, Woden – Mercury (in terms of planets), Thor – Jupiter (again in terms of planets, as for gods: Zeus – Jupiter – Woden/Oden is the father), and Frig is Venus. Saturn and Saturday finds a parallel in our calling the planet Shabtai in Hebrew. Anyway, the days were named for the seven “moving stars”, not for the gods themselves.

    But I do have a problem with the Persian pantheon. When we took on a month name of Tammuz, and when Mordechai and Esther led the Jewish people, Demuzi, Marduk and Ashtarte worship was alive and popular. I presume we invoke the “appears in Tanakh” rule, but Tammuz only appears once in Tanakh (Yechezqeil 8:14) naming the god himself, and to tell you how bad the worship of it was. Unlike the examples of the gemara, which are of the Tanakh using place-names taken from names of gods.

    As for contemporary questions, there are also Corpus Christi, TX, and cities named Christchurch in both England and New Zealand. (The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation named itself for the part of NZ their hometown is in rather than after the city. Although they do carry “Christchurch Jewish Synagogue” on their stationary as well. (If the synagogue reopened after their earthquake last Feb. A different topic.)

    And what comes up most frequently, especially this time of year as we try to coordinate days off at work… When speaking to non-Jewish or non-observant co workers, do you avoid saying the word “Christmas”? And what do I do with reading the name of the author of the Slate article, “Christopher Beam”?

    And do I care that the pronunciation we tend to use, “Moom-bye” is not the correct (don’t read this out loud until we got everything worked out!) “Moo-m-bu(t)-ee” — and I doubt too many of us even know how to make that “(t)” sound!

    Last, to be nitpicky… The quote from Slate is self-contradictory. The city was NOT renamed for the goddess; the second paragraph about bringing transliteration back in line with the city’s name is more accurate. The “renaming” was only in foreign languages. As the article itself says later, “Speakers of Marathi and Gujarati, the local languages, have always called the city Mumbai.” (Which is what I was told at the time by co workers from that part of the world.) Thus the whole thing has more to do with anti-colonialism than some religious reawakening.

  7. Question. The article says that one may not pronounce the name of a city named after an idol. Does that mean that the name has to be the same as the idol? What if the city name is modified to indicate that it is a city? To use your example, if Bob is the name of a local idol, and the city is named “Bobville” or “Bobopolis” is that variation sufficient to permit pronouncing the name of the city? (I ask this because, from the article, it appears that the city name is a variation of the idol’s name, perhaps to make it clear that it is a geographic name under the local language, as would appending “-ville” or “-opolis” in English.

    (Related historical question. Was Alexander the Great ever worshipped as a god? If so, then the writing and pronunciation of the city name Alexandria would support this thesis.)

  8. I have a quibble. “Verbal” means in words, but is not necessarily oral. “Oral” means by mouth but is not necessarily verbal. This of all the common examples of “oral ____” and “verbal ______”. Not all are interchangeable.

  9. What about the month of Tammuz? It seems to originate in AZ. At the time it was adopted the AZ was likely extant.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tammuz_(deity)

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