Shelach – Derogatory Name Calling

In modern society people sometimes call each other just by their last name. For example, one would say, “Shwartz come over here.” But is this is a derogatory way to refer to someone?

We find in this week’s Torah portion of Shelach the episode of the “Meraglim,” the spies who reconnoitered the Land of Canaan and brought back a bad report. Calev was one of the two spies, besides Yehoshua, who was not going to bring back a bad report, but he had to get everyone’s attention so they would listen to him. So, what did he do? The Torah states, and Rashi comments (Bamidbar 13:30):

Calev silenced the people to [hear about] Moshe, and he said, “We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it.”לוַיַּ֧הַס כָּלֵ֛ב אֶת־הָעָ֖ם אֶל־משֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר עָלֹ֤ה נַֽעֲלֶה֙ וְיָרַ֣שְׁנוּ אֹתָ֔הּ כִּֽי־יָכ֥וֹל נוּכַ֖ל לָֽהּ:
Calev silenced: Heb. וַיַּהַס, he silenced them all [the spies so that the people could hear what he was going to say].וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב: הִשְׁתִּיק אֶת כֻּלָּם:
to Moshe: to hear what he would say about Moshe. He cried out, “Is this the only thing the son of Amram has done to us?” Anyone listening might have thought that he intended to disparage him, and since there was [resentment] in their hearts against Moshe because of the spies’ report, they all became silent so they could hear his defamation. But he said, “Didn’t he split the sea for us, bring down the manna for us and cause the quails to fly down to us?” – [Sotah 35a]אֶל־משֶׁה: לִשְׁמֹעַ מַה שֶּׁיְּדַבֵּר בְּמֹשֶׁה, צָוַח וְאָמַר “וְכִי זוֹ בִּלְבַד עָשָׂה לָנוּ בֶן עַמְרָם?” הַשּׁוֹמֵעַ הָיָה סָבוּר שֶׁבָּא לְסַפֵּר בִּגְנוּתוֹ, וּמִתּוֹךְ שֶׁהָיָה בְלִבָּם עַל מֹשֶׁה בִּשְׁבִיל דִּבְרֵי הַמְרַגְּלִים, שָׁתְקוּ כֻלָּם לִשְׁמֹעַ גְּנוּתוֹ, אָמַר “וַהֲלֹא קָרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם וְהוֹרִיד לָנוּ אֶת הַמָּן וְהֵגִיז לָנוּ אֶת הַשְּׂלָו”:
We can surely go up: even to heaven; if he tells us,“Make ladders and go up there,” we will succeed in whatever he says. — [Sotah 35a]עָלֹה נַֽעֲלֶה: אֲפִלּוּ בַּשָּׁמַיִם, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר עֲשׂוּ סֻלָּמוֹת וַעֲלוּ שָׁם, נַצְלִיחַ בְּכָל דְּבָרָיו (סוטה ל”ה):
silenced: Heb. וַיַּהַס, a term denoting silence; similarly, “Silence (הַס) all flesh” (Zech. 2:17); “’Still (הַס)! This is for not mentioning [the Lord’s Name]’” (Amos. 6:10). Similarly, it is the custom for someone who wants to silence a group to say, “Shhh!”וַיַּהַס: לְשׁוֹן שְׁתִיקָה, וְכֵן “הַס כָּל בָּשָׂר” (זכריה ב’), “הַס כִּי לֹא לְהַזְכִּיר” (עמוס ו’), כֵּן דֶּרֶךְ בְּנֵי אָדָם, הָרוֹצֶה לְשַׁתֵּק אֲגֻדַּת אֲנָשִׁים אוֹמֵר “שי”ט”:

The Mizrachi commentary, upon summarizing Rashi, makes a couple of very fascinating points. Calev had to stealthily figure out a way to gain everyone’s attention whilst they were eagerly listening to the slander of the rest of the spies. The Mizrachi says that the phrase וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב, Calev silenced, comes from the word הַס, (hoss) or hush, as in the way one shushes a crowd; they would say hoss (or hush, which may be where that expression comes from). We also find this in the Medrish Bamidbar Rabba, that Calev stood on a bench and quieted the people by saying “hoss hoss” (hush hush) and they became quiet. The Mizrachi also says that everyone wanted to listen to him because they thought that he would also slander the land. Calev even said aloud, “I am on your side;” but in his heart he thought the truth. The other spies therefore told everyone that Calev could be trusted. At that point he stood on the bench, quieted everyone who was screaming at Moshe Rabbeinu, and they listened, for they thought he would continue with slander (lashon hara). But as the pasuk recounts, he defended Moshe Rabbeinu and the land. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
However, the Mizrachi makes one other point. He says, “It would seem to me that besides this, just by the way he spoke, that he called [Moshe} ‘Ben Amram’ and not by his [first] name we can understand this, and he called him in this way in order to mislead them in thinking that his intent was to degrade him.”
Why is calling Moshe Rabbeinu by the name ben Amram [the son of Amram], who he was, derogatory? It must be that calling a person by his first name is a sign of endearment and that calling him otherwise might indicate a sign of negativity or hostility. At the very least, it is certainly disrespectful.

Yet we can also learn from here that although calling someone by only their last name, or the son of so and so, can be a lack of respect and improper manners, calling them by their first name is in fact a sign of endearment. So what logically follows is that when one must show proper respect to someone of authority, or one who is of an older generation, where a casual endearment would be inappropriate, it is certainly derech eretz [proper manners] to use titles like Mr., Mrs., Dr., Rabbi, etc. and their last name, or Reb/Rav so and so (with their first name).

Calev’s actions speak to the heart of the matter on the subject of proper manners, in how to refer to people in a respectful manner.