Choosing a Hebrew Name

As with a literal newborn, the convert as a spiritual newborn selects a Hebrew name and adopts Abraham and Sarah as spiritual parents.

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Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).

The sages say that one of the virtues of the Jews in their exile in Egypt was that they did not alter their names. That would have signaled an altered worldview, the adoption of a new lifestyle, a quick and efficient scrapping of the past. 

A change of name for the convert, following that logic, signals the embracing of a new philosophy, a new identification, a purposeful, mindful statement of intent for the long future. "A convert is as a newborn child, k'tinok she'nolad." A new person needs a new name. That is why the rabbis instituted that converts should choose Hebrew names for their new Jewish lives. hebrew letter tiles

Changing Given Name a Choice, Not a Requirement

Many rabbis hold that converts should not only add a Hebrew name but also modify the given name used in pre-conversion years. Other rabbis differ, pointing to Ruth, the most famous female convert to Judaism, who did not change her Moabite name at all. Still other rabbis hold that all converts should be named Abraham or Sarah, the very names they were given when they "converted" to the service to God. Tradition imputes to them the constant activity of converting men and women to the worship of God. But Jewish communities never followed that advice.

Some rather strange names for converts surface in the times of the Talmud. One is "Son of Hay Hay," another is "Son of Bog Bog." The theory offered is that these converts were in danger of reprisals for defecting to Judaism and, in order to hide their convert status, did not use their Hebrew names or their spiritual patronymic, "son of Abraham, our father." Rather, they devised names that subtly conveyed their convert origins, as for example, "Son of Hay, Hay," which indicates that he is the spiritual heir of the two people who had the Hebrew letter hay added to their names, Abraham and Sarah. "Son of Bog Bog" did the same, only more secretively--the numerical total of the Hebrew letters bet and gimel, pronounced bog, is five, as is hay.

The choice is ultimately the convert's, and should be made with full knowledge of the scope of names available, not only in terms of pleasant-sounding words, but of their meanings.

Converts Adopt Abraham and Sarah as Spiritual Parents

What is not the choice of converts is the identity of the parents. In Jewish life, a person is formally called by his or her given name, and as the son or daughter of the parent. (Reference is generally made to the father--except in illness or in danger, when compassion needs to be elicited and the person is referred to as being the child of the mother.)

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.