The Torah recounts how, three months after Moses was born, his mother tucked him into a basket, which she placed in the marsh at the river’s edge. Later, Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe and saw a basket among the reeds. She saved Moses and, in a fascinating turn of events, gave him to the child’s own mother to nurse him. The verse then states: “The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he became like her son. She named him Moses (Moshe), and she said, ‘For I drew him (mishitihu) from the water.’ ”

The obvious question is, is the name “Moses” Hebrew or Egyptian? At first glance, the verse seems to be using a Hebrew etymology, implying that it is a Hebrew name. But how would Pharaoh's daughter Bithiah even know Hebrew, let alone give the child a distinctly Hebrew name?

The Name Is Hebrew

One opinion is that it was indeed a Hebrew name. Bithiah had learned the Hebrew language from the Israelites who had settled in Egypt.1

In a similar vein, the Talmud explains that Bithiah was going down to the river in order to immerse, cleanse herself of the idolatry in her father’s house, and adopt the Jewish faith. The commentaries explain that Bithiah indeed learned Hebrew, and when the time came, she named her adopted son the Hebrew name “Moses.”2

Others3 maintain that it was actually Yocheved, Moses' mother, who called him that when she returned him to Bithiah, and Bithiah was agreeable to that name. Thus, the verse would read: “The child grew up, and she [Yocheved] brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he became like her son. She [Yocheved] named him Moses, and she said, ‘For I drew him from the water.’ "

Additional Egyptian Meaning

The name “Moshe” is a conjunction of two Egyptian words: mo, which means “water,” and uses (or sha), which means “saved” or “drawn” from. Thus, Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, the Malbim, explains that the name “Moshe” actually has a similar connotation in both Egyptian and Hebrew.4

Hebrew Translation of Egyptian Name

Some suggest that Bithiah named Moses with an Egyptian name that has been lost to us. The name “Moses” is actually Scripture’s Hebrew translation of the original Egyptian name.5

Saving a Life

The Midrash relates that Moses actually had ten different names given variously by his parents, his tribe and the Jewish people (see What Was Moses’ Name?). Nevertheless, it is very telling that the name he is known by is Moses, harking back to the heroic act of Bithiah, who put herself at risk to save a helpless child of a foreign nation. It was ultimately this selfless act that eventually brought about the salvation of the entire Jewish nation.

For more on this, see The Origins of Moses' Name.