NAMING A BABY
Bringing a new person into the world is a life changing experience. There are so many things to learn and so many decisions to make, one of the most important decisions you will need to make is what to name your child. It is a formidable task considering your child will carry this moniker with them for the rest of his or her life. Your child’s name will become his or her identity. It is the way he or she will be known by family and friends, the way he or she will know themselves.
Below is a brief introduction to choosing a Hebrew name for your child. Naming a Jewish baby is not only a statement of what we hope she will be, but also where she comes from.
The Sages say that naming a baby is a statement of its character, its specialness, and its path in life. For at the beginning of life we give a name, and at the end of life a “good name” is all we take with us.[i]
Further, the Talmud tells us that parents receive one sixtieth of prophecy when picking a name. An angel comes to the parents and whispers the Jewish name that the new baby will embody. So it can be a most profound spiritual moment.
CHOOSING A JEWISH NAME
There are many customs connected to choosing a Hebrew name for a baby. In the Ashkenazic communities, it is common to name a child after a relative who has passed away. This keeps the name and memory alive, and in a metaphysical way forms a bond between the soul of the baby and the deceased relative. This is a great honor to the deceased, because its soul can achieve an elevation based on the good deeds of the namesake. The child, meanwhile, can be inspired by the good qualities of the deceased and make a deep connection to the past.[ii] On the other hand if one were to name a child for a living relative and closely interconnect their souls, it can be a harbinger of bad luck to the older person as doing so can shorten his lifespan.
In the case of a relative who passed away, but another closely related living relative has the same name such as a parent, grandparent, or sibling then the name should not be used.
Sephardic Jewry specifically name children after relatives who are still alive. The source for this custom traces its roots to the era of the Talmud, where children were named after some of the great sages of the time whilst the sage was still alive[iii]. The Sephardic community does not share the Ashkenazic belief that naming a child for someone living can harm the live relative; to the contrary they believe that it brings good luck for the live relative and it will give him or her long life, therefore it is a common practice among the Sephardic communities to name children for living relatives.
Though these two traditions are diametrically opposed they share they share the same common denominator of parents naming their children after a beloved and admired relative, connecting future generations to the long unbroken chain of all Jewry that through unrelenting faith have used the Jewish name as a way of perpetuating their Jewish heritage.
Some have the custom of choosing a name based on the Jewish holiday coinciding with the birth. For example, a baby born in early spring near the holiday of Purim may be named Esther or Mordechai. A girl born on Shavuot might be named Ruth, and a child born in summer near the Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av might be named Menachem or Nechamah which in Hebrew means consolation.
Sometimes names can be chosen from the Torah portion that is parallel to the week of the birth. Numerous names and events are mentioned in each Torah portion, offering a very wide array of options for a spiritual correlation between the baby and different biblical figures.
In Hebrew, a name is not merely a convenient conglomeration of letters. Instead a name reveals its essential characteristics. The Midrash[iv] tells us that the first man, Adam, looked into the essence of every creature and named it accordingly. The donkey, for example, is characterized by carrying heavy, physical material burdens. So in Hebrew, the donkey is named Chamor from the same root as Chomer, which means materialism. In stark contrast to other English or other languages where the word “donkey” doesn’t reveal much about the true essence of what a donkey really is.
The same idea applies to names of people. For example, the Matriarch Leah named her fourth son Judah in Hebrew, Yehudah. This comes from the same root as the word “thanks” The letters can also be rearranged to spell out the holy Name of God. The significance is that Leah wanted to particularly express her “thanks to God.” [v]
It is important to choose a name that will have a positive effect on the soul of the child, since every time it is used the person is reminded of its meaning.[vi] The person who is called Judah is constantly reminded of how much gratitude we should have towards God.
Esther, the hero of the Purim story, is a name which comes from the word “hidden.” Esther was known to be a very beautiful woman and in the end she was chosen to be the queen, but whatever her external appearances, her hidden internal qualities were even more beautiful.
Another example is the popular name Ari Hebrew for lion. In Jewish literature, the lion is a symbol of a go-getter, someone who sees the opportunity to do a mitzvah, and pounces on it.[vii]
Of course, there are bad names, too. You won’t want to choose the name Nimrod since the very name means rebellion. And in biblical times king Nimrod threw our forefather Abraham into a fiery furnace as an act of rebellion against God.
INTERCHANGING GENDER NAMES
If one wants to name a male after a female, one should try to keep as many of the letters of the name as possible. For example, Dina could be interchangeable with Dan, or Bracha and Baruch.
HEBREW ENGLISH CORRESPONDING NAMES
In Israel parents usually give their child one name that is in Hebrew and this name is used in both their secular and religious life. Outside of Israel it is generally more common for parents to give their child a secular name for everyday use and a second Hebrew name to use in the Jewish community. It’s a good idea to give a child a Hebrew name that can be used consistently in both secular and Jewish settings like Miriam, David, Jacob, Sarah, Noah, Rachel just to name a few. This way, your child not only has a Hebrew name, but he will be able to constantly use it. This is also a very important hedge against assimilation; the Midrash [viii]says that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt partly in the merit of having kept their Jewish names. Otherwise one should try to make sure the two names are phonetically related so that it will be easy for the baby to remember his Hebrew name when he gets older.
ANNOUNCING NAME PRIOR TO BRIT
Once the Brit is finished, certain prayers are recited and the official naming of the baby takes place. There is a popular misconception that it is forbidden to announce the name of a baby before his Brit. We do not name the child before the Brit, being that the Divine soul only begins to shine its light from the moment of the Brit when with the removal of the foreskin the body and soul become fully united.[ix] Thus, since the Jewish name is directly connected to the soul, the Brit is the most appropriate time to give the child it’s Jewish name. Also the Torah tells us that God changed Abraham’s name in conjunction with his Brit at the age ninety nine[x].
NAMING AFTER SOMEBODY WHO PASSED AWAY YOUNG
There is hesitancy to use the name of a person who died at a young age, or suffered an unnatural death. The reluctance stems from the fear that the misfortune may, in a spiritual manner, be carried over to the new bearer of the name. Although “dying young” is a relative term, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein one of the greatest Halachic (Jewish law) authorities in the previous generation, ruled that if a person was married and had children, it makes no difference at what age he or she died, provided they died naturally because of ill health. They are considered to have lived a full life and accomplished what they were meant to accomplish. They are not to be considered among those who had a bad Mazal (fortune) in life. Both the prophet Samuel and King Solomon died at the “young” age of 52, yet traditionally their names have always been used by Jews all over the world. However, if a person died unnaturally, Rabbi Feinstein suggests that the name be altered.[xi]
It may be for this reason that when naming after the prophet Isaiah who was murdered many Jews omit the last letter of his name (in Hebrew, Yeshaya instead of Yeshiyahu).[xii]
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky a contemporary of R Moshe Feinstein considered the age of 60 the demarcation line between young and old. The Talmud[xiii] relates that Rabbi Yosef made a party when he reached 60, celebrating the beginning of longevity.
[i] Brachot 7b; Arizal – Sha’ar HaGilgulim 24b
[ii] Noam Elimelech Bamidbar
[iii] Shabbat 134a
[iv] Genesis Raba 17:4
[v] Genesis 29:35
[vi] Midrash Tanchuma Ha’Azinu 7
[vii] Shulchan Oruch O.C. 1
[viii] Bamidbar Raba 20:21
[ix] Zohar Lech Lecha 93a, Ta’amei Minhagim 929
[x] Genesis 17:15
[xi] (See Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 122, 5733/1973 edition.)
[xii] Yam Shel Shlomo Gittin 4:30
[xiii] Moed Katan 28a