What’s in a Jewish Name?

Jewish traditions for selecting a child's name.

There is a Hebrew folk saying, recorded in the Bible, to indicate that a person’s name can illustrate his or her character: kishmo ken hu–“Like his name, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25). If, for example, a woman’s name is Rinah, meaning “song” (or “joy”), and she is a musical person, one might use this saying to indicate how appropriate her birth name is in retrospect, looking back on her life from the present.

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Names in the Bible can also be seen to predict at birth what that person’s character will subsequently turn out to be. For example, the name of the patriarch Jacob, or Ya’akov, means “usurper”; it describes both how he tried to usurp his brother Esau’s prior exit from the womb by grabbing his heel during birth (Ya’akov in fact derives from ekev, “heel”) and how he ultimately usurped Esau as the heir of their father, Isaac, and grandfather Abraham. Similarly, the name of the prophet Samuel, or Shemu’el, means (according to some scholars) “the one about whom God heard me,” referring to his theretofore barren mother’s prayer for a child.

Traditionally, in other words, the name given a child is considered to be a matter of great importance, having considerable influence on the development of that child’s character.

Although no codified rules exist to guide parents in the naming of their children, custom has evolved a variety of practices (minhagim) commonly accepted by Jews in different localities.

Ashkenazi Naming Customs

Among Ashkenazim — that is, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin — the custom is to name the child after someone, usually a family member, who has recently died. In most cases this is a grandparent or great-grandparent. The usual explanation for this practice is that the parents hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in his or her life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.

Sephardic Naming Customs

Sephardim–that is, Jews of Iberian or Middle-Eastern origin–usually name their children after a grandparent, either living or dead, and many Sephardic grandparents look forward to being honored with grandchildren who bear their own names while they are still alive to see it. Sephardim are also much more punctilious about naming a boy after a man and a girl after a woman than are most Ashkenazim. In Sephardic families this procedure often has the effect of strengthening transgenerational ties between grandfathers and grandsons, and between grandmothers and granddaughters.

Jewish Name and/or Secular Name

Frequently, Jewish parents give their child both a Hebrew name and a secular name for use in general society. Sephardim often choose a non-Jewish name whose meaning approximates that of the Hebrew name. Thus, for example, a boy might be called Rahamim, meaning “compassion” (a name almost exclusively used by Sephardim, by the way), and Clement, based on the Latin clementa, and meaning virtually the same thing. Among East European Jews, the Hebrew name would be accompanied by a Yiddish one, again often with a similar meaning. Thus the name Dov, meaning “bear” (in this case a name found almost exclusively among Ashkenazim), might be followed by the Yiddish name Ber. Hence, a man would be known as Dov-Ber, both formally and even in ordinary conversation. If a diminutive were to be used, it was usually based on the Yiddish name alone; hence, Dov-Ber would be called Berl as a nickname, or Zev-Wolf would be Velvel.

German-speaking Jews, for the most part, did not attempt to make any connection between the Hebrew and German names given a child. Thus a boy might well be named, for example, Avraham Franz (the latter an especially popular name because of German-speaking Jews’ affection and respect for the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef–an advocate of equal rights for Jews).

American Jews, most of whom are descended from Ashkenazic immigrants, have generally followed the East European custom of making some connection between the two names given a child at birth, but more often than not the link is a phonic one rather than one based on meaning. Thus, if American Jewish parents name their child Sarah after a grandmother of that name, they are usually only interested in an English name beginning with “s”. So ”Sarah,” whose English name (if she too lived in America) was likely to have been something like Sadie, now has a granddaughter named after her with a name something like Samantha. In fact, this practice is so widespread that unlearned American Jewish parents may actually ask what is the Hebrew equivalent for a name like Sadie and are surprised to learn that there is no real equivalent but only a phonic similarity to a number of Hebrew names that begin with the Hebrew letter sin.

Current Trends in Jewish Names

Currently in the United States biblical names are enjoying great popularity, and many American Jews are giving their children Hebrew baby names that have English equivalents. Thus a child might be given the name Ya’akov after his grandfather and be called Jacob in English–though that namesake might also have been named Ya’akov in Hebrew but have been called something like Jerome in English. Then too, the new Jewish self-awareness occasioned by the successful revival of the Hebrew language in the State of Israel has led to the growing popularity of new Israeli names–Ari, for instance, or llana–not only for Israeli children but for American Jewish children as well.

Considering the importance of a name to the overall identity and ideals of a child, many Jews feel that it behooves Jewish parents to select names for their children that will strengthen ties to family and reinforce the historical continuity of the Jewish people.

Reprinted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela M. Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

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