Hebrew name word cloud

What’s In a Jewish Name?… A Lot, That’s What

Dear Josep,

Long time no write! Hahahahaha just kidding. But our readers don’t know that I’ve been pestering¬†you off-blog on a regular basis the past few weeks. Or is it months? ūüėõ

I haven’t posted anything on here for almost a month. As you know very¬†well, I’ve been busy–busy with various events and projects, one of which is¬†the final revisions for my novel, which is scheduled for publication this coming fall (and is the main reason for the aforementioned pestering).

In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed your holidays and had the opportunity to rest. January 1st was not “my” new year, but having another point in time to reflect on the past year is nice. Especially since, contrary to John Oliver’s experience of¬†2016, I had an absolutely amazing year.

Seriously. I went to update¬†my personal website¬†and remembered the feeling I had when I first wrote the content for it: “I have no publishing credits. I have no experience. I have no academic degree. I am a generally inferior human being.” Well, I still don’t have a degree, but screw that.¬†I realized my lifelong dream of walking into a bookstore, seeing a book on the shelf, picking it up, and being able to say, “I wrote this.”¬†And that¬†was only the beginning! After¬†15 years of trying to publish fiction, not only did I get two short stories published and another accepted, I found a publisher for my novel. Several pieces of mine¬†were published¬†on well-known websites like Kveller and Aish.com. I even had a little piece accepted for publication in the print version of¬†Writer’s Digest¬†(to be published in the March/April issue).

I am proud of what I have accomplished this year. I know you don’t feel you deserve any of the credit, but obviously, your presence in my life¬†inspired¬†some or most of¬†content in several of these projects. So, thanks for existing. ūüėȬ†And even you can’t deny that you’ve helped me a great deal with both books,¬†so thank you for that, too!

Another exciting thing that happened recently, as you know, is that my sister welcomed a new baby into her family. And the rest of this post is in her honor.

Back towards the beginning of my sister’s pregnancy, she consulted me on name ideas. Recently, when we were discussing it again before the birth, she told me I should write a blog post about it. So, here I am. ūüėČ

Now, I have teased you plenty¬†about the naming customs in your culture, from your *cough* unoriginal¬†first names to your inordinately complicated surnames. No sir, I am never going to let you forget that time I remembered your own grandmother’s name better than you did. ūüėõ

But thinking about it in this context–I get it. Your culture is very¬†Catholic. Catholics name children after saints, I assume with the hope¬†that the child will emulate the fine qualities of that saint. And there are only so many saints to name kids after. Especially when your ancestors have been paranoid about using Jewish-sounding names for the last five centuries. ūüėČ

In Judaism, first names have great¬†significance. We believe that names capture the essence of the person. Some believe that they can alter that person’s destiny. I mentioned before that it is said that parents receive a certain level of prophecy when choosing a name for their child. It’s serious business.

So we want to choose names that contain most or all of the following:

  1. A deep and positive meaning
  2. A positive family connection (e.g. naming after a beloved relative)
  3. A connection to the Jewish context of the child’s birth¬†(a particular holiday, that week’s Torah portion, etc.)
  4. A pleasing sound (and is reasonably pronouncable by most people who will be using it)

Historical Jewish Names

Jews have traditionally named their children either after Biblical figures (Judah, Sarah, Jacob, Esther) or sages from the Talmud (Hillel, Akiva). We have also borrowed names from the cultures and languages around us. I am far from an expert on the matter, but from the little research I’ve done, it appears that foreign-language names were more frequently given to women. (Such as: Preciosa or¬†Dol√ßa in medieval Spain, Aysha (=”life”) or Mas’uda (=”joyful”) in Morocco, and Frieda (=”joy) or Gittel (=”good”) in Eastern Europe.)

It has always been seen as proper and beneficial to name children after relatives or important figures in the community. We hope that by having their names, our children will emulate their fine qualities.

In Ashkenazi and some Sephardi cultures, there is superstition around naming children after living relatives. So we usually only name kids after deceased relatives. In some Sephardi cultures, it’s the opposite–it is a great honor to have a child in the family named after you while you are still alive.

In ultra-Orthodox/haredi communities, these naming customs remain virtually unchanged. The most common names are Biblical names and/or Yiddish names, often after deceased relatives or great community leaders.

Modern American Jewish Names

Some modernized American Jews, mostly of the older generation, gave their kids both an “English name” (which they generally go by in day-to-day life and use on their legal documents) and a “Hebrew name” (used in Jewish ritual contexts, such as prayer). Americans also often have middle names that are not used day-to-day, so between the English name they use, the middle English name, and all the Hebrew names, they can end up with a lot of extra names!

For example: my husband’s English name is Ethan Gabriel, and his Hebrew name is Yitzchak. He was named after his grandfather Egon, whose Hebrew name was Yitzchak, too. My husband¬†went by Ethan for the first two decades of his life. When he became religious, he changed it to the original Hebrew version of Ethan (Eitan), and added that to the beginning of his Hebrew name. But then his mother told him they’d actually named him after all three of his deceased great-grandfathers,¬†giving¬†him¬†three Hebrew names at his circumcision ceremony: Yitzchak Avraham Haim! So now his Hebrew name is Eitan Yitzchak Avraham Haim. Quite a mouthful!

My parents also have two English names and three Hebrew/Yiddish names each (!). I think they decided to simplify matters with their own kids.¬†So I “only” have two names, that work in both languages: Daniella Naomi.

Israeli Names

During the early years of the Zionist movement,¬†pioneers were eager to shed their Diaspora identity. They preferred to name their children distinctly Hebrew names rather than Yiddish ones.¬†They continued to use the classical Biblical names like David, Sarah, Yosef, and Tamar (all of which are still on the top 10 list of given Jewish names in Israel), but they also started giving modern Hebrew names like Rotem (a kind of flower), Shira (“song”), and Tal (“dew”). In the religious community, modern Hebrew names have a more religious bent, such as Shirel (“song of God”) or Benaya (“God¬†has built”).

As you may remember, all my kids’ names are in the latter category. They are modern names, but heavily anchored in Biblical texts. Their names were all inspired by those of a deceased person we wanted to honor.

My sister wanted to name my niece after our grandmother. But the English name has a negative Hebrew meaning, and the Hebrew name was kind of antiquated. So we tossed around ideas for names with similar sounds and meanings, fretting over spellings and pronunciation, until she eventually chose one. The name she settled on also happens to associated with the holiday of Chanukah. My niece was born on the fifth night.

This amount of thought going into a name is totally 100% normal to me, and it only occurred to me recently that it might be very strange to other people. Just as it is completely bizarre to me that names like “Jayden” that don’t¬†mean anything are so popular in the USA. Why would someone give their kid a name that’s just a bunch of sounds put together?!

To each his own, I guess…



5 thoughts on “What’s In a Jewish Name?… A Lot, That’s What

    1. Thank you! I assumed my sister would be uncomfortable with my sharing her daughter’s name on such a public platform, but if you’re really curious, send me an email (letterstojosep at gmail) and I’ll tell you privately. ūüôā

  1. Great post as usual. 2 notes I do have to make:
    1. There are Sefardi communities who hold like the Ashkenazim and don’t name after a person who is alive.
    2. Uri is not a modern name but Biblical. Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur. It may have gained popularity during the 20th Century but it’s an old name. My husband was named Uri Chaim after his GREAT grandfather Uri Chaim Danziger who was born in the late 19th Century in Lithuania to a VERY Litvishe family!

  2. Nisa’s Hebrew name is Nisan coupled with the English name Cheryl. As are her sister and brother. Combining two worlds.G

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