The Jewish Name Game

The WORD – 10/14/10. I’ve always been interested in how we all choose names for our children.  Perhaps, this is the result of the name that my parents gave me.  My three older siblings have typical American/English names:  Shelley, Jerry and Susan.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, my parents gave me the name Avi.

Now, I know that they named me after my grandfather, who passed away a few years before I was born.  They decided to give me his actual name rather than pick a name with that started with the same letter.  I get it.  It’s interesting to note, though, that the one kid with a Hebrew name ended up a rabbi.

In this week’s Torah portion, God gets involved in the name game.  After the first two individuals enter into a covenant with God, God changes their names.  Instead of Avram and Sarai, they became known as Avraham and Sarah.  The letter ‘hey’ in Hebrew is one of the letters used to represent the name of God in shorthand.  So, adding a ‘hey’ to each of their names announced that God was with them.

Although there is no obligation to have a Hebrew or Jewish name, it has been the custom for so long that it feels like a law.  In truth, there really are no Jewish laws about naming in general.  However, there are many traditions surrounding this important decision.

The custom of naming a child after parents or grandparents dates back to the 6th Century BCE in Egypt.  Israelites most likely ‘borrowed’ this custom from their Egyptian neighbors.  The Ashkenazi (Eastern European) custom is to name a child after a relative who has passed away in order to perpetuate the memory of that loved one.  The Sephardi (Western European) custom is to name a child after a living relative in order to honor that person in life.

In modern America, it has become most common to give the baby the same Hebrew name as the person honored, but then give a different secular name (often starting with the same consonantal sound).  Some families use the Hebrew name to name after one person and the English to name after a second person.

A boy does not receive his name until his brit milah on the eighth day of his life.  As a result, some traditional families will not use the boy’s name until it has been official given.  For the first of week of his life, the boy is simply known as ‘he,’ ‘him,’ or ‘yo.’

A girl can be named anytime the Torah is taken out (i.e., Monday, Thursday, Shabbat, Festival, Rosh Hodesh, etc.).  Some families employ the same tradition about not using a name until it is formally pronounced with their daughters as well.

In recent years, a new ceremony has evolved whereby a newborn girl receives her name in her home just as a boy would after his brit milah.  This ceremony is called eithe simchat bat (celebration of a daughter) or brit bat (covenant of a daughter).

No matter how a name is chosen, the words of Pirke Avot 4:17 apply:  ‘Rabbi Shimon taught: there are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood and the crown of Royalty.  The crown of a good name surpasses them all.’




About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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