A Historical View of Choosing a Name

Naming a child can reflect ancestry, associations with the baby's arrival, and hopes and dreams for his or her future.

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Sephardic Jews have sometimes derived names from the circumstances of birth, as in biblical times; for example, they have named a son born during Hanukkah named Nissim, meaning "miracles." Orthodox Jews still favor the traditional naming patterns, in which family names are passed from generation to generation, fostering a sense of family continuity and tradition. When a baby is named after a well-loved relative, the child may grow up identifying with this ancestor and may be proud to continue in family footsteps.

historical baby namingJewish parents have never given a newborn the name of a baby who had died previously. Until the middle of the 20th century, such parents gave the new infant a name believed to have protective charm in the hope that tragedy would not strike again. For example, the new baby in an Ashkenazic family was called Alter (if a boy) or Alte (if a girl), meaning "the old one," in the hope that the Angel of Death would not recognize or identify a baby without a real name. The child would receive a real name only on reaching a marriageable age.

Sephardic parents gave a newborn the protective name of Marcado or Marcada, meaning "one that is sold," and Judeo-Arabic speakers named the infant Makhlouf, meaning "substitute" or "compensation," when previous babies in the family had died. Such a baby was symbolically sold at birth and was cared for by the "buyers" for the first three days. Sometimes parents named the baby Zion, son or daughter of the Jewish people, in the hope that this appellation was too general for the feared Angel of Death to recognize, or they named him Hayyim, meaning "life." In Yemen, parents named a baby with one of their own names if previous children had died, believing that this offered protection against evil forces or the Angel of Death.

Present Names

In recent times, some Jewish parents in the United States have discussed the significance of their baby's name and have spelled out their hopes for their child at the naming ceremony. For example, a couple named their daughter Rachel Tzipora and chose to read at the naming ceremony biblical verses beginning with the letters in these two names. Taken from Proverbs, Psalms, and the Book of Ruth, the chosen verses referred to qualities traditionally valued in Jewish women--virtue, wisdom, and love--as well as their hope for longevity and for their daughter to become like Leah and Rachel who, through their sons, built the community of Israel.


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Michele Klein has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of London. She is the author of New Life: A Diary For Jewish Parents and A Time To Be Born.