Naming  a Jewish Child, Michele Klein

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 twice.[1]

Moses and Pharoah's daughter
The Finding of Moses (detail)
By Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. 1904.
Oil on canvas.
Click here to view enlargement

In 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]).[2]

During 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.

Since 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.[3] This blessing has become part of the circumcision ritual, and centuries later, Jews have included it in girl-naming ceremonies, too.

Talmudic rabbis 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.[4]

In 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 child's character.[5]

Traditionally, 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.

Jewish 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.

Sephardic 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.[6]

In 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.[7]


1. TB Shabbat 137b [back]
For 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]
TB. Shabbat 137b. [back]
TB 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, 1970). [back]
See 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]
Asheri, 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]
Birth Ceremonies (Jewish Women's Resource Center: 1985); see for example the ceremony for Rachel Sylvia Baran, 1981. [back]

excerpted JPS linkFrom: 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..
related Prof. Aaron Demsky, First names: From Isaac to Zahi: Jewish first names through the ages.



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend