First Names, Prof. Aaron Demsky

The rabbis teach us (Midrash Eicha Rabba 1:3) that every person has three names: the name his parents gave him, the name by which others call him and the name he creates for himself. Taking the rabbis' thought a step further, we might say that a name is an expression of identity on several different levels, some of which we will explore here.

Beginning at home, we find first names indicating the place of the child in the family. In a traditional Sephardi family, a firstborn might be called Bekhor (m) or Bekhorah (f) (lit. firstborn; see Dr. Joseph Lowin's article on b-kh-r). The feminine name Rishonah (firstling) is a modern development. Compare the Roman custom of calling one's children Primo, Quintus, Septimus, Octavius. This was not a common Jewish custom, probably because of fear of the evil eye, and yet we do note a few other numerical names through the ages: Shelisha/Shelesh (Third; I Chron. 7:35,37); and the name of the Babylonian Rabbi Sheshet (Six), perhaps the equivalent of the Latin name Sixtus or alternatively, indicating that he was born on the sixth day of the week, i.e., "Friday."

Often a child's first name places him in the context of the larger family. If the family is of Ashkenazi origin, they might name a child after a deceased family member in order to perpetuate that person's memory. A Sephardi or Oriental Jewish family will name a firstborn in honor of a living grandparent. Family is interpreted more broadly in Hasidic circles, where it is common to name a child after a recently deceased Rebbe; certain traditional names have thus become associated with particular Hasidic groups, such as Shneur Zalman, Menahem Mendel and Chaya Musha with the Habad Hasidim and Yoel(ish) with the Satmer Hasidim.

Ideology too is reflected in the choice of names. Zerubavel was a popular name in the early days of the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Palestine in the early part of this century); Zerubavel was the Jewish governor during the period of the Return to Zion and restoration of the Second Temple in the 5th century BCE. Another popular name was Nimrod, a negative figure in Jewish tradition: the meaning "we will revolt" expressed the defiance of a new generation breaking with its past on the one hand, and perhaps expressing their desire for independence from gentile rule, on the other. In identification with national heroes in the early days of the State of Israel, the name Herzl and the names of the first prime ministers were particularly common.

During our long history, the Jewish people honored gentile benefactors by naming their children after them. Sometimes, names like Alexander and Cyrus caught on, while others like Bonaparte and Balfour(ah) were short-lived. Some names commemorate the day the child was born, giving us Shabtai (Sabbath); Pesah (Passover); Hanukkah and Yom Tov (holiday); Nehamah/Menahem (Comfort/er) for a child born on the Ninth of Av, the day both Temples were destroyed; Esther/Hadassah for a girl born on Purim. A boy born on the 7th day of Adar — the traditional birthday (and yarzheit) of Moses — and whose brit milah would therefore be celebrated on the 14th of Adar (Purim) might be given the double name Moshe Mordechai.

Linked names are quite common in the Jewish tradition. Some are derived from the Torah reading, particularly from Jacob's blessings of his sons (Genesis 49) in which he associates various animals with the characters of each son. In Eastern Europe, some of these Hebrew names were linked to their Yiddish equivalents, giving us Yehuda-Aryeh (in Yiddish — Leib, meaning lion; aryeh in Hebrew); Naftali-Zvi (in Yiddish, Hirsh, meaning a hind or deer; zvi in Hebrew); Benjamin-Ze'ev (in Yiddish, Wolf, meaning just that; ze'ev in Hebrew). Jewish immigrants to America chose the English equivalents of these double names, giving us such names as Leo, Leon, Leonard (Leib); Harry, Harris, Harold (Hirsch); Walter, William (Wolf). Other Torah-derived linked names contain the word haim (life) such as Yosef Hai (Gen. 45:26); Yaakov Hai or perhaps Haim Yaakov (Gen. 47:28); Haya Sara (Gen. 23:1). Another two are Yaakov Yosef (Gen. 37:2); and Yoel Moshe (Exodus 2:21).

"But Avraham fell on his face and laughed..."
Abraham laughing
"And Avraham called the name of
his son, who was born to him
Yitzhak / He Laughs"
(Genesis 17:17, 21:3)

Some given names express good luck and fortune, either in Hebrew or in foreign equivalents that have been accepted as traditional Jewish names. In Hebrew we have the feminine name Mazal (luck), and the masculine names Gad (luck) and Shem Tov (good name). From foreign languages we have: Kalonymus, or in its shortened form Kalman, derived from the Greek for "good name"; Simha Bunim, derived from the French for "good name" (bon nom); Fortuna is another example among Sephardi women.

Not since the biblical period have we witnessed such an explosion of innovative and diverse Jewish names as the one which characterizes the renaissance of the Hebrew language and the birth of the State of Israel.

Biblical first names, for example, have come into fashion again among Jews (and for gentiles as well, for that matter). Most biblical names are sentences or declarations of faith or thanksgiving in Hebrew, having both a subject (generally God) and a predicate that may be a verb or a noun. For instance, Jonathan is derived from the divine name Yeho, i.e., the tetragrammaton, the ineffable YHWH and the verb natan, "(He) gave," or Daniel from the divine name El and the verb dan + i, "God has judged me," or Elijah which means "My God is YWH." Of course these names can be shortened by eliminating one of the linguistic elements giving us Nathan, Dan and Eli.

The study of Hebrew first names provides us an opportunity to explore our familial, religious, cultural, and ideological identity. So, too, does it shed light on how our parents and grandparents viewed themselves and their offspring, in that continuum we call the Jewish experience.

These are the Names: Studies in Jewish Onomastics (Hebrew and English), eds. Aaron Demsky, Joseph A. Reif & Joseph Tabory. By permission of the author.
In Israel order from: Bar-Ilan University Press, Ramat Gan, Israel Fax: 03-5353446.
In the States order from: Ideal Book Store, 547 West 110th St. New York, NY 10025. Fax: 212-662-1640   Email:
Prof. Aaron Demsky is professor of Biblical History at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. He is the founder and director of the Project for the Study of Jewish Names. He has published widely in scholarly and popular journals.



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