What's in a Name?

We are expecting a baby and are having trouble picking a name. What general guidelines are there in Jewish tradition? How come the name of the father is never given to the son – e.g. Isaac Levy III or Jacob Cohen Jr.? If it's a boy, can we name him after a female relative? Is there any prohibition against announcing the name before the Bris?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

First I would like to wish you "Bisha'ah Tova" – may the birth go smoothly and at the right time!

The Talmud says that parents receive one-sixtieth of prophecy when they pick a name. But that doesn't seem to help parents from agonizing over which name to pick!

Ashkenazi Jews have the custom to choose a name after a relative who has passed away. This keeps the name and memory alive, and in a metaphysical way forms a bond between the soul of the baby and the deceased relative. This is a great honor to the deceased, because its soul can achieve an elevation based on the good deeds of the namesake. The child, meanwhile, can be inspired by the good qualities of the deceased – and make a deep connection to the past. (see Noam Elimelech – Bamidbar)

Sefardi Jews also name children after relatives who are still alive.

It is also customary to name a child based on the Jewish holiday coinciding with the birth. For example, a girl born at Purim time might be named Esther. Similarly, names are sometimes chosen from the Torah reading the week of the birth.

The Torah emphasizes how parents took great care in picking the names of their children. For example, Leah chose to call her fourth son Judah (in Hebrew, Yehudah). This name comes from the same root as the word "thanks." The letters can also be rearranged to spell out the holy Name of God. The significance is that Leah wanted to particularly express her "thanks to God." (Genesis 29:35)

In Hebrew, names are not merely convenient conglomerations of letters. Really, the name of something reveals its essential characteristic. The Midrash (Genesis Raba 17:4) tells us that the first man, Adam, looked into the essence of every animal and named it accordingly. The donkey, for example, is characterized by carrying heavy, physical burdens. So in Hebrew, the donkey is named CHAMOR – from the same root as CHOMER, which means physicality. The donkey (chamor) typifies physicality (chomer). Contrast this with English, where the word "donkey" doesn't reveal much about the essence of a donkey!

When naming a child, it is important to pick a name that will have a positive effect, since every time the child hears it they will be reminded of its meaning (Midrash Tanchuma – Ha'Azinu 7). The child who is called Judah is constantly reminded of how much gratitude we should have toward God! Another example of a popular name is "Ari," which is Hebrew for lion. In Jewish literature, the lion is a symbol of a go-getter, someone who sees the opportunity to do a mitzvah, and pounces on it. (see Shulchan Aruch OC 1)

Of course, there are bad names, too. You wouldn't want to name your child "Nimrod," since the very name means "rebellion." In Biblical times, when Abraham was teaching monotheism, Nimrod was the man who threw Abraham into a fiery furnace – out of rebellion against God.

You can name a baby boy after a female, however you should try to keep as many letters the same as possible. For example, if the woman's name was Dina, call the child Dan. If the woman's name was Bracha, name him Baruch.

I think it's a good idea to give your child a Hebrew name that can also be used in English – e.g. Miriam, David, Sarah. This way, your child not only has a Hebrew name, but he'll use it, too! This can be an important hedge against assimilation; the Midrash (Bamidbar Raba 20:21) says that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt, partly in the merit of having kept their Jewish names amidst the assimilationist society of Egypt. As a child, I had one uncle who always called me by my Jewish name ("Shraga" means candle). I believe that being reminded of my Jewish name all those years was instrumental in maintaining my Jewish identity.

As for announcing name of a baby before the Bris, it is not forbidden. However, in a metaphysical sense, while various measures of the soul are given at conception, forty days later, and at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Jewish boy receives an important component of his soul at the Bris, and a person cannot truly be "named" until attaining that completion. This is based on the fact that God changed Abraham's name in conjunction with his Bris – at age 99! (see Genesis 17:15; Sanhedrin 91b; Nedarim 32b with Rosh; Tanya 28; Zohar Lech Lecha 93a; Taamey Minhagim 929)

To learn more, check out Aish.com's Hebrew name finder, and read Bris Milah by Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn.

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