Names & Judaism
"With each child, the world begins anew." (Ancient Jewish Saying)
Judaism places great importance on the naming of each new child. It is believed that the name of a person or thing is closely related to its essence. The name given to a child by a parent provides them with a connection to previous generations. It allows the parents to make a statement about their hopes and aspirations for their child. In many ways a Hebrew name brings to the newborn a sense of Jewish identity.
According to Anita Diamant in "What to Name Your Jewish Baby," "Like Adam's appointed task of giving names to all living things in Eden, naming is an exercise of power and creativity." Many parents today put a great deal of thought and energy into deciding what to name their Jewish baby.
Hebrew names started to compete with names from other languages early on in Jewish history. As far back as the Talmudic period (200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) many Jews gave their children Aramaic, Greek and Roman names.
Later, during the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe, it became customary for Jewish parents to give their children two names. A secular name for use in the gentile world, and a Hebrew name for religious purposes.
Hebrew names are used for calling men and women to the Torah. Certain prayers, such as the memorial prayer or the prayer for the sick, also use the Hebrew name. Legal documents, such as the marriage contract or ketubah, use the Hebrew name.
Today, many American Jews give their children both English and Hebrew names. Often the two names start with the same letter. For instance, Blake's Hebrew name might be Boaz and Lindsey's might be Leah. Sometimes the English name is the English version of the Hebrew name, like Jonah and Yonah or Eva and Chava. The two main sources for Hebrew names for today's Jewish babies are older Biblical names and modern Israeli names.
Hebrew Names from the Bible
The majority of the names in the Torah originate from the Hebrew language, and over half of these 2800 names are of a personal nature. For example, there is only one Abraham in the Torah. Only about 5% of the names found in the Torah are used today.
Alfred Kolatch, in his book "These are the Names," organizes Biblical names into seven categories:
- Names describing the characteristics of a person.
- Names influenced by the experiences of the parents.
- Names of animals.
- Names of plants or flowers.
- Theophoric names with G-d's name either as a prefix or suffix.
- Conditions or experiences of mankind or the nation.
- Names which express hope for the future or a desired condition.
Modern Israeli Names
While many Israeli parents give their children names from the Bible, there are also many new and creative Modern Hebrew names used in Israel today. Shir means song; Gal means wave; Gil means joy; Aviv means spring; Noam means pleasant; Shai means gift. Jewish parents in the Diaspora might find a Hebrew name for their newborn from among these modern Israeli Hebrew names.
Finding the Right Name for Your Child
So what is the right name for your child? An old name or new name? A popular name or unique name? An English name, a Hebrew name, or both? Only you and your partner can answer this question!
Talk to those around you, but by no means allow others to name your child. Be clear that you are merely asking for advice or suggestions. Listen to the names of other children in your circles, but think about the popularity of the names you are hearing. Do you want your son to be the third or fourth Jacob in his class?
Go to your synagogue's library or the bookstore and check out some name books. Here are two of the better-known Hebrew baby-naming books:
Best Baby Names for Jewish Children, by Alfred J. Kolatch
What to Name Your Jewish Baby, by Anita Diamant
In the end you will have heard many names. While finding the name you want before the birth is a good idea, do not fear! If you have not narrowed your choices down to a single name as the due date approaches, be patient. Looking into your baby's eyes and getting to know their personality can help you to pick the most fitting name for your child.