In the Bible, Jacob blessed his son 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
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," "eli,"
"ya," and "yahu") and sometimes from
nature (for example, Deborah [bee] and Jonah [dove]).
the period of the Second Temple (516 B.C.E. -
70 C.E.), 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 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.
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 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
Ashkenazi 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, and Middle Eastern and Asian Jews have called their children
after living relatives. 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 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.
parents have never given a newborn the name of a baby who had died previously.
Until the middle of the twentieth 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 Ashkenazi 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.
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.
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.
Shabbat 137b [back]
example, Sarah and Abraham laughed when they were told that a
child, Isaac (Itzhak, "he will laugh"), would
be born to them in their old age: Genesis 17:17-19. Rebecca's
twin sons were called Esau and Jacob, derived from Hebrew words
meaning "thick-haired" (Esau's appearance at birth),
and "one that takes by the heel" (as Jacob was born
with his hand on his brother's heel): Genesis 25:25-26. Leah named
her children herself, as did Rachel although Jacob altered the
name of he younger son: Genesis 35:18. [back]
Shabbat 137b. [back]
Yoma 38b. A thorough review of naming customs throughout
Jewish history can be found in Lauterbach, J.Z., "The naming
of children in Jewish folklore, ritual and practice," in
Studies in Jewish Law, Custom and Folklore (New York: Ktav,
Lauterbach, J.Z., 1970, op cit., pp. 20ff. The naming customs
of the Hasidai Ashkenaz are amply documented in Judah be
Samuel of Regensburg, Sefer Hasidim, edited by R. Margoliyot
(Jerusalem: Mossad ha-rav Kook, 1957), sign. 51 in the testament,
also sign. 244 and others. Trachtenberg, J., Jewish Magic and
Superstition (New York: Atheneum, 1982): p. 287. Gluckel of
Hameln (c. 1700) reported in her memoirs, that her newborn baby
was named after a close relative who had died. [back]
M. Living Jewish (Everest House, 1978), p. 49. Grunwald
"Tales, Songs and Folkways of Sephardic Jews," Folklore
Research Center Studies, 6 (1982)... Information from Yemen is
taken from a traveler to Yemen in 1857-59, Jacob Saphie, see Lauterbach,
1970, op cit., p. 21. [back]
Ceremonies (Jewish Women's Resource Center: 1985); see for
example the ceremony for Rachel Sylvia Baran, 1981. [back]
Michele Klein, A Time to be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish
Birth. © copyright 1998 by Michele Klein (Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society of America), pp. 199-200. Permission of the
author and Jewish Publication Society of America..
Aaron Demsky, First
names: From Isaac to Zahi: Jewish
first names through the ages.