Musing about Names


A story is told about a father who wanted to name his son Pinchas. Both his father and his wife’s father were named Pinchas. His father was a bank robber and his wife’s was a horse thief. The couple went to the Rav and asked, “Since both of our fathers have the same name, how will we know whom he is named after?” The Rav, said, “Don’t worry, when you see how he turns out, then you will know!”

Our tradition teaches us that the names we choose for our children have significance, and can even have an effect on their character. As it says in the sefer by Harav Avraham Levy, Veyikareh Shmo BeYisrael, about Jewish names, “Someone who is called Avraham will have an inclination to do kindness, and somebody called Yosef may become someone who supports others, like Yosef Hatzadik. And even if a person with the name of a tzadik is wicked, he may also have some of the good characteristics of the righteous person.”

Parents put a lot of thought into naming a baby. So it is comforting, in the midst of their sometimes difficult deliberations, to know that the Talmud says that parents receive one sixtieth of prophecy when choosing a name for their child. Let’s explore how parents use their prophecy when naming their children, one of the few times that a parent gets to make a decision on their own without advice from their children.

Customs of Previous Generations

Did you ever notice that the Torah does not mention the naming of children after ancestors? We don’t find that Yaakov named any of his children after his grandfather Avraham. None of the people who went down to Egypt were named after Avraham, Noach, or Adam. In addition, most of the names we see when the Torah lists generations of people are not used today. Another interesting observation is which names have become popular and which have not. For example, Devora and Chulda were both prophetesses. But Devora is much more common than Chulda. Some of the names of the Twelve Tribes are used regularly, like the name Reuven, and others rarely, like Zevulun.

Ashkenazi Jews name their children after relatives who have died or after great people from previous generations. Sefardim name their children after relatives who are still alive. A woman of Sefardi background explained to me that it is a great honor to name the first boy after the father’s father and the first girl after the father’s mother. The second girl and boy are named after the mother’s mother and father. “It is so commonly done,” she explained, “that you almost don’t even have to ask what the name of the oldest child will be; you know it will be the same as the grandparent!”

Jewish names were not always used in other countries. According to Rabbi Rouben Arieh of Ohr Hamizrach Congregation, in Iran, although Jewish boys were given Jewish names at their bris, Jewish girls were often not given Jewish names at all. My parents came from Germany, and although they had Jewish names, both they and most of their brothers and sisters were called by their secular names. Even when I was growing up, in the Sixties and Seventies, it was much more common to use names like Judy, Debby, Joey, Eve, and Becky, even in very Torahdik families.

There is an old family story that I think is quite astonishing. My grandfather, born in Germany, probably in the late 1800s, was called Heinrich. When he was becoming a bar mitzva, he asked his mother what his Hebrew name was so that he could get an aliya. His mother really had no idea, because they had never used his Hebrew name since his bris. She guessed that his Hebrew name was Chaim, because that is the Hebrew name for Heinrich. He got his aliya using the name Chaim, and he got married using the name Chaim. Years later, when the family left Germany to go to England before the War, my grandfather went to the shul to pick up his wimpel. A wimpel is a long strip of cloth used at a baby’s bris and then embroidered with the baby’s name, which is donated to the shul when he is three years old. To his shock, he found out that his name was actually Naftali. It is hard, nowadays, to believe that a Hebrew name was used so rarely in a religious family.

Sometimes names were given at the whim of government officials or because of mistakes. Livia, a survivor of the Holocaust who was born in 1917, in Czechoslovakia, told me. “My Yiddish name was Shaindl, but my secular name was supposed to be Lili. My father was hiding from the draft at the time (World War I), so my grandfather went to city hall to register my birth. He was told that Lili was not on the official list of names and therefore could not be used, and so I became Livia.

One of my friends was supposed to be named Helen, after a grandmother, and her father dutifully went to record her name. However, because of his accent – he came from a part of Poland where they could not pronounce an initial H – the clerk heard “Ellen.” And that is how she came to be Ellen.

Then there is the classic story we have all heard about the man who came to Ellis Island using a fake name. When the official asked him for his name, he said, Oy, shoin fargessen (Oy, I forgot already). His official name then became Shawn Fergusson.

Names Today

Today, many families give their children Jewish, Hebrew, or Yiddish names and use them in day-to-day life. They are comfortable using those names in public although they may be hard for some people to pronounce. Sometimes that makes things very hard for the neighbors. For example, about 30 years ago, I had a son born on erev Tisha b’Av. We named him Nechemia, as seemed suitable for that time of year. We were living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. All my non-Jewish neighbors were waiting eagerly to hear the name of the new baby. But after a few horrified looks when I said Nechemia, I just told them his name was Nathan. A friend told me that Nechemia was just impossible to pronounce, and called him Nehumyum.

There are many different customs about naming children after ancestors. Some people are very careful to use the exact name of their forebear, even if it sounds odd to modern ears. My grandmother’s name was Rickel, although she was called Lotta. She told her children that nobody should name after her, because she thought Rickel was not a nice name. How surprised she would be to know how many girls in our family are called Ricky, a perky, modern-sounding name!

A friend of mine named her son after a grandfather, Chanoch Avraham. Right after the bris she started to call him Heynuch, because that is what her grandfather was called, and she wanted to give her grandmother pleasure by using the exact name of her husband. I was really surprised to hear the family use a name that is very uncommon just to please a grandparent.

Even though we in Baltimore proudly use Hebrew names for our children, some families think it is important to give their children a secular name as well, so that their children can have an official name that sounds normal for working with the general public. They feel it is unfair to saddle their children with a name that is impossible to pronounce, or perhaps they think an English name will protect their child from discrimination. Although I understand that having a familiar name may make life more convenient for the child, I wonder if it is really necessary. In the United States it seems that people from many cultures are not embarrassed to use their ethnic names no matter how strange they sound to English speakers.

Some people change a Yiddish name to a Hebrew name, because they like the Hebrew name better: for example, Raizel to Shoshana, Yentel to Adina, Ber to Dov, or Golda to Zehava. Names that were used in Europe may sound very odd. Sometimes they are so unusual that people from other parts of Europe have never heard of them. A friend is named Nicha, after her grandmother. Most people have never heard of that name, and repeatedly ask her if she is sure it is not Necha. To avoid all the hassle, Nicha just uses her English name.

Some secular names have become traditional Jewish names. An example would be Alexander, which, in Yiddish, became Sender. It seems Alexander the Great came to the Bais Hamikdash and wanted to have a statue of himself placed inside. The Kohen Gadol, Shimon Hatzadik, suggested, instead, that all the baby boys born that year should be named Alexander in his honor. And that is what happened.

A woman I know was born in Egypt. She was given the name Victoria, after her grandmother, when her father was called up to the Torah to name her. She thinks the name came from Queen Victoria of England, who was good to the Jews. Later in her life, she asked an adam gadol whether she should give herself a Jewish name but was told that Victoria was her name and she should be proud of it.

Parents who think out of the box may choose a name that requires an explanation when you hear it. One of my children called his daughter after a grandmother named Tova. He added the name Tzofia – as in the song Eishes Chayil, where it means to anticipate. Tzofia Tova means to anticipate good. When I visited them in the hospital, I was very surprised to hear from one of the nurses that the English version of Tzofia, Sophia, is currently one of the most popular American names.

What’s in a Name?

On may wonder what the point is of giving a child a name that is never used. For a boy this is less of an issue, because even if no one calls him by all four of his names – yes, I know someone who actually has four names – he is reminded that he has four names every time he gets an aliya in shul, and he will also have to know his father’s Hebrew name. My husband has three names, and once one of my sons came home from shul on Simchas Torah before he had gotten his aliya. When I asked him why he left early, he told me with embarrassment, “I forgot my name, so I couldn’t get an aliya.” He couldn’t remember all three of his father’s names.

Sometimes it is hard to find the connection between the original name and the name given to the child. Someone I know is named Shulamis, after a grandmother called Selma. Most of her friends have not made the connection that the letters shin, lamed, and mem in Shulamis are the same sounds as in Selma!

Then there is the question of naming a girl after a male relative or a boy after a female relative. A friend named her son Gavriel (with the accent on the last syllable) after a grandmother named Belle, because the last sound of the name Gavriel rhymes with Belle! Another friend explained that she named her daughter after a grandfather named Yaakov. They did not want to use the name Yaakova, so they called their daughter Tiferet, because that is one of the middos of Yaakov.

In Israel, it is common for nonreligious people to use names found in Tanach, and they are not always the names of our heroes. For example, one common name is Nimrod, who was a very wicked king. Rabbi Avraham Levy states in Veyikareh Shmo BeYisrael that it is very bad to use the name of such a wicked person and suggests that mohalim try to convince the parents to use a different name. If that doesn’t work, however, one shouldn’t worry, because the name can also turn out to mean something good; he mentions that many people named Nimrod became observant Jews. He tells a story about Rav Kook, the Rav of Rechovot: Once a neighbor had a baby boy and did not invite Rav Kook to the bris, perhaps because they were naming the baby Nimrod. When Rav Kook met the father, he told him that Nimrod was an excellent name for their baby and that he was davening that the baby would nimrod (rebel) against the ways of his fathers and become an observant Jew!

A Meaningful Name

Another situation that affected my generation more than the current younger generation was the tragedy of the Holocaust. Some survivors had whole families killed during the War, and now that they are grandparents and great-grandparents, they desperately want the new babies to be named after their relatives. This sometimes put an unwanted pressure on new parents, because they didn’t always want to use those names. “When I had my first few children,” Rivka said, “my husband’s grandfather would call us up and say, ‘You had a boy.’ Here are some names to choose from.’ He had so many relatives that had been killed in the War that he couldn’t wait to have grandchildren named after them. At the time it felt a little demanding, but now that I am older, I am understand him better. I am also very proud of my married children, who, on their own initiative, ask my mother-in-law for names to use for their own children. My mother-in-law wants at least one commemoration for each family that was killed. For example, one of my sons named his daughter Basya, after a niece of my mother-in-law who was killed along with her husband and her young children. My granddaughter now represents that whole family in my mother-in-law’s eyes.”

In my own family, we had an unusual opportunity when naming one of our children. A few weeks before he was born, my parents asked us if we had any name in mind if we had a son. We didn’t. They asked us if we would name him after a Russian man who had recently died in Baltimore without having had children. “It would mean a tremendous amount to his widow,” they told us. Of course, it made it easier for us to answer in the affirmative, because the man had a common name, Shlomo. The almana (widow), Mrs. Fishman, always got a lot of pleasure from our son and gave him special attention. And I was very happy to be able to start off my son’s life by doing such a chesed. It was so easy for us to do, and it meant so much to her.

Someone else in town also chose to name their first child after someone who was not a relative but would have been forgotten if not for this name. Shortly before the baby was born, the family found out that the wife’s grandmother had been married before. She had never told her children, who were born from her second marriage, about her first husband. For some reason, she started talking about him a few years before she died. She told them that he had fought in the American army during World War II and had been killed in Italy and buried in a non-Jewish cemetery there. She described how terribly shocking and tragic this was for her and how happy her marriage to him had been. When her children chose to name their first son Moshe, after this first husband, it gave the grandmother great pleasure. His name had been Moshe Tzvi, but they left off the second name on the advice of a rav, because he had died unnaturally without children.

Not Always Rosy

Despite all these interesting and pleasant stories, we all know that friction sometimes arises in families about the name. Parents and grandparents have strong feelings and care very much about names for their relatives. Young parents don’t always understand these feelings, and don’t want to use those names. One young mother was pregnant with her first child. Her grandmother, whose name was Henya Rivka, had just died. The young couple was very worried, because they really did not like that name. They went to ask the rav a shaila, and he had a great answer: “Don’t worry, you’ll have a boy.” And indeed, that was how the dilemma disappeared.

Unfortunately, the problem is not always so easily solved. Some grandparents are very strong and insist that the name be used just at it is, and are not satisfied unless it is used in its totality. A friend told me about a man who insisted that his children name their son a certain name, while they couldn’t bring themselves to use that name. The man was so adamant and unbending that this became a big source of friction between the father and his children. Since no compromise could be found that satisfied them all, the young parents did not use the name at all. What a sad outcome for what should have been a joyous occasion. But it is the child’s parents who ultimately decide on the name. As Rabbi Levy quotes from the sefer Shaar Hagilgulim, by Rav Chaim Vital: “The names that parents choose for their children are not randomly chosen; rather, Hashem puts in their minds the name that is suitable for that neshama.” 

We tend to take names for granted, but behind every person’s name is an interesting story about how the name was chosen and the person who is being remembered through that name. Even the mistakes are interesting and sometimes meaningful. Parents exercise their divine inspiration and fulfill their parental obligation when choosing a name for their child. As Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes in his article, “Naming a Baby” on, quoting from sources, “The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment. The Sages say that naming a baby is a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life. For at the beginning of life, we give a name, and at the end of life a ‘good name’ is all we take with us.”



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