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