A Historical View of Choosing a Jewish Name

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

In the Bible, Jacob blessed his sons and grandchildren, not when they were named (an occasion without ceremony), but when he was on his deathbed, with the hope that the children would remember their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In biblical times, family lineage was very important: genealogies were written down, and these rarely mentioned the same name twice.

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Biblical Names

In biblical times, a parent sometimes chose a baby’s name from circum­stances associated with the conception (as in the case of Isaac) or the delivery (as with Jacob and Benjamin), sometimes from divine acts or attributes (all those including as prefix or suffix “el,” “eh,” “ya,” and “yahu”), and sometimes from nature (for exam­ple, Deborah, meaning bee, and Jonah, which means dove).

During the period of the Second Temple (516 BCE-70 CE), Jews began naming their children after grandparents instead of after events and circumstances. This change in naming custom was due partly to the difficulty of maintaining genealogies in the Diaspora and partly to the influence of non-Jewish practices, espe­cially Greek and Egyptian customs.

Talmudic Names

Since talmudic times, when naming his son at the baby’s circumcision, a father has expressed the hope that his child will grow up to a life of Torah, to marry, and to perform good deeds. This blessing has become part of the circumcision rit­ual, and centuries later, Jews have included it in girl-naming ceremonies, too.

Talmudic rabbis believed that, in biblical times, there had been divine inspiration for naming a baby, but when this ceased, parents chose names known to give good fortune because a person’s name was thought to determine his or her fate and destiny. A further consideration was that the Angel of Death, who was prone to make mistakes, could neglect a person who had the same name as one already dead. These two considerations have affected how Jews chose names for their newborns.

Medieval Names

In medieval times, Jews took great care when choosing a name, because they feared that a soul with the same name could transmigrate into the infant’s body. They were also aware that the name chosen could determine the child’s character. Traditionally, Ashkenazic Jews have not named a baby after a living relative, but after one who has died, to honor his or her memory. In contrast, Sephardic, North African, Middle Eastern, and Asian Jews have called their children after living rel­atives.

Sephardic and Ashkenazic Traditions

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.

Jewish 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.

For help choosing a Jewish name, check out Kveller’s Baby Name Finder
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Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

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