Nathan or Dathan? How to pick a Hebrew name

Rabbi Harvey Belovski on what to consider when baby-naming

By Rabbi Harvey Belovski, August 4, 2010

The story is told of a boy travelling with his mother on a bus in Israel. He escaped from his mother’s grasp and ran off down the bus. His mother called, “Esav, Esav (Esau), come here.” Responding to the other passengers’ astonishment, she asked, “What’s your problem? It’s a biblical name!”

While even in the most secular circles, such lack of sensitivity to Jewish history and tradition is rare — Esau is the archetypal Jewish enemy — this story illustrates the importance attached to names.

The Torah puts much emphasis on personal names: there are numerous significant namings, including Isaac (named after Sarah’s laughter at the prospect of his improbable birth) and the 13 children of Jacob. Classic sources suggest parents gain a moment of divine inspiration when they choose their child’s Jewish name, while the kabbalists identify one’s name with one’s true aspirations and deepest spiritual potential.

Although modern sources emphasise the importance of a Hebrew name, many early sages carried what we might call today “non-Jewish” monikers. The great teacher and high priest Rabbi Yishmael appears throughout the Talmud, and ancient tradition holds that the rabbis adopted Alexander as a Jewish name to honour Alexander the Great.

Despite its overt Christian association, there was even a medieval talmudist called Rabbenu Peter (see Tosfot to Gittin 8a): he was a student of Rashi’s grandsons, who was martyred in the Crusades. And until today, there are rabbis, including the author of this article, who mostly use their English names.

It is not uncommon for the newly religious to abandon an English name in favour of a Jewish one. Understandably, this might upset parents, who may insist on calling their daughter Beatrice long after her metamorphosis into Breindel.

And the following wry social comment may be a sign of the times. A Jewish woman in Edgware turns to her friend and says, “Wish me Mazeltov; I have a new grandson.” The friend says, “What’s his name?” “Shlomo,” the first woman replies. “Shlomo — what kind of a name is that?” “He’s named after his grandfather, Sidney.”

While every rabbi has been asked innumerable times, “she’s called Deirdre, so what’s her Jewish name?”, there need be no connection whatever between the two.

Whereas many Sephardic Jews are quite comfortable naming their children after living relatives, this is frowned upon as ayin hara (attracting the evil eye) by Ashkenazim, who tend to only use names to honour the deceased. This expresses the parents’ aspirations for their child and, according to the Jewish mystics, elevates the soul of the deceased.

Sadly, there can be too many deceased relatives for the number of babies available, and parents wish to use two names for their newborn. Additionally, parents naming a baby often elect to add a name to that of a relative who died young. According to most sources, the name Sarah Chanah successfully honours both Sarah and Chanah, a baby girl’s deceased grandmothers.

However, the view of the leading halachist, Rabbi Avraham Karelitz (the Chazon Ish, who died 1953) is that Sarah Chanah is a completely new name. Given this, the trend to name a baby after a relative of the opposite gender is more than a little odd, if understandable. Interestingly, double-barrelled names are a comparatively new phenomenon.

While it is evident that people commonly used a broad range of Hebrew names, including names of festivals, ritual objects and more unusual ones from the Bible, in many places this trend fell out of fashion. Certainly among Ashkenazim, a rather conservative stock of names was (and in some places remains) common; they tended to stick to standard biblical names such as Rachel, Dinah, Sarah, with a sprinkling of Yiddish and local names too.

It is obvious that some biblical names would have been considered unsuitable — the ten spies who were punished, Haman, other enemies or people who died in odd circumstances. However, it is a mystery why many of perfectly kosher biblical names have never been popular.

The rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language, the return to the Land and the interest in studying the less familiar parts of Tanach, have kindled interest in more varied names. Ignoring the odd insensitive choice, such as Nimrod (traditionally, the builder of the Tower of Babel) and the wicked queen Jezebel, a plethora of biblical, agricultural and geographic names has developed, some obscure. Examples are Puah, Seneh (bush, popular, apparently, during the Gulf War of 1991 — after George Bush), Nurit (buttercup), Kinneret, Techelet (blue dye) and Lulava.

This trend attracted opprobrium in 1995, when a group of Israeli rabbis tried to outlaw certain “unsuitable” names, such as Omri (wicked king) and Katif (name of pre-disengagement town in Gaza).

Jews have wandered through many lands and picked up names en route. For Ashkenazim, Yiddish names are especially resilient, even in places where Jews no longer speak mameloshen. Other European curiosities are double-barrelled Hebrew-Yiddish combinations, like Ze’ev Wolf and Shlomo Zalman, and borrowed names, such as Bunim, a corruption of the French bon homme, good chap.

A mohel recalls once performing a brit in an outlying community. The family had a dog, which barked loudly when he arrived; the owner calmed it with the words, “down, Shlomo!” Following the brit, the mohel was surprised to be asked to name the baby Jason.

The parents explained: “We were inspired to become involved in Jewish life by the singer Reb Shlomo (Carlebach), and so we resolved that when we set up home, we’d name our first dog ‘Shlomo’!”

Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green (United) Synagogue

    Last updated: 9:40am, August 10 2010