Say Her Name, Say All Their Names

Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of remembering names, and speaking them aloud

Like many of us, I have been thinking a lot lately about Breonna Taylor. I’ve been particularly reflecting on the hashtag “Say Her Name.” There is power in saying someone’s name.

Remembering and reciting names of those we’ve lost is a very Jewish idea. Rabbi Edward Cohn, Rabbi Emeritus from Temple Sinai of New Orleans, is the man who served as my rabbi most of my adult life. He is well known for many things, one of which are his wonderful sermons. His insights always provoked thoughtful conversations, particularly around our emotions, social justice mitzvot (obligations), and many other Jewish lessons. One of the lessons I learned from him is the notion that every person dies three deaths: the first death is the death of the body, the second is when the soul leaves the body, and the third death occurs after the very last time that anyone still living says the person’s name aloud.

As long as we keep saying her name, Breonna Taylor’s memory lives on, and drives us to continued action.

Jewish tradition also informs us through Midrash that we are given three names. “A person has three names: one that he is called by his father and mother; one that people know him by, and one that he acquires for himself.”

We have learned so much about Breonna Taylor and what a rich life she led. By saying her name, we make sure her full humanity is recalled and that she is not some overlooked statistic. She was a real person, taken too soon; an EMT, a friend, a daughter. Breonna Taylor.

Jewish tradition also asks of us to remember the dead and honor them by saying their names at least once a year on the anniversary of their death, which we call in our tradition the yahrzeit. We say their name before saying Kaddish. We keep saying their names.

In contemporary Jewish practice, we not only say Kaddish for our own loved ones, but also for the Jews who have perished that have no one to say Kaddish for them. In relatively recent years, the names of non-Jews such as the Righteous among the nations, victims of terror and natural disasters as well as victims of officer-involved violence and unjust deaths, have been added to many of our Kaddish lists. In this spirit I believe we should add the names of Sandra Bland, Miriam Carey, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.

We honor the dead by not letting them die the third and final death, the death that finally settles in the last time someone says their name. Especially as we continue to press for justice, we cannot let these names leave our mouths—and so alongside our entire community, we will continue to say their names!

What names will you speak aloud this week?

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