A Baby By Any Other Name…

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JTA is currently featuring an article about the challenge of choosing a name for a Jewish baby, so I thought I’d mention that we at MJL have an article about choosing a name for your baby, and especially about various naming customs in different Jewish communities.

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I’m not planning on having a kid anytime soon, but I have been thinking about naming more than usual because I have a few friends who are in their third trimester of pregnancy, and also because my mother just died so I’ve been thinking about derivations of her name I could use for future children.  As we mention in our article, it’s very common for Jews to name their babies after deceased parents or grandparents, and while I think it used to be normal for people to use the original name again, I often see couples doing some kind of derivation in order to get to a name they like better.  My younger sister, for instance, is named after our great-grandmother Roberta.  My parents wanted something more Jewish and less masculine, so they kept the R, looked for something Israeli-sounding, and ended up with Renana.

It struck me today how completely different our current naming process us from the one we see in the Bible.  Naming is a really big deal in the Bible, and almost every time a woman gives birth to a child in the narrative, the name is given and explained based on the circumstances of the woman’s life, or sometimes of the birth itself. Consider this passage from Genesis 31:35:

The Lord saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The Lord has seen my affliction'; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.'” She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also” so she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing.

Here’s another good example from Genesis 38:27-29:

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twins in her womb! While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Perez. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hang was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah.

It’s interesting to me that in the Bible people aren’t being named after each other, they’re named because of what’s going on around them when they’re born.  Now people look for names that are interesting, unusual, or pretty. On the one hand, I can see why–if I held by this method and had a daughter this year she’d be named Weep Despondent Fox–but on the other hand, I think there’s something nice about having a name that’s really based on you and what was going on when you were born.

One of the really nice things about giving a baby a Hebrew name is that you can almost cover both bases–name the baby something that is both pertinent to the situation of its birth, but also something that sounds pretty and name-y.  Instead of Weepy Despondent I could go with Naomi Mara. Naomi is a famous mother in the Bible, and the name comes from the root word Na’im, which means “pleasant.” In Ruth 1:20 we get a new kind of naming, “‘Do not call me Naomi,’ she replied. ‘Call me Mara, for Shaddai has made my lot very bitter.'”

Mara means “bitter” in Hebrew. It’s a sad name, one that is taken when Naomi feels forsaken by God, but it’s actually quite beautiful, and what happens to Naomi? She ends up doing pretty well when Ruth marries Boaz and gets them both out of the poorhouse. In fact, Naomi is one of King David’s ancestors. By calling my kid Naomi Mara I could be honoring my mother, and also expressing the sadness of this stage in my life.

That’s just an example off the top of my head, but my point is that you can do a lot with names in Hebrew if you bother to look into the stories and etymology behind them. And I think my method is way better than that of Lisa Keys who wrote the article for JTA. She ends up with Leon just because it sounds Jewish Grandpa-y and she and her husband can agree on it.

Posted on November 21, 2008

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  1. Pingback: Baby name meaning and origin for Boaz

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