Hebrew Bible torah

Names play a prominent role in the book of Exodus in general, and in this week’s Torah portion in particular, providing an excellent opportunity to discuss Jewish naming traditions.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Shemot” (Exodus 1:1-6:1). The word “shemot” means “names” and in it we read the names of all who came down to Egypt with Jacob about twenty years earlier. Indeed, the second book of the Torah is called “Shemot”. As one can imagine, names play a prominent role in the book of Exodus in general, and in this week’s Torah portion in particular.

One of the contexts in which names are important has to do with the Exodus.

The Midrash tell us that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four things. One of these things is that they kept their Jewish names throughout the period in Egypt. They did not switch over to giving their children Egyptian names. Only Jewish names. This served in their merit for redemption because keeping Jewish names, and by extension, the Jewish language, helps keep Jews Jewish. When Jews are being Jewish there is less assimilation. This is what the Torah wants.

With this backdrop, we are going to examine Jewish naming practices from Biblical times to today.

The name conferred upon a person in early Biblical times was generally connected with some circumstance of that person’s birth. For example Leah named her son “Naftali” to recall a personal struggle she overcame (Naftali means to “wrestle and win”), “Asher” was named due to the good fortune Leah experienced (Asher means “happy”), and Rachel names her son “Joseph” because she had a son “added “ to her share of the tribes (Joseph means to “add”).

In fact, one will note form these examples, and more, that it was generally the mother who named the children in Biblical times! Furthermore, children were always named at birth. The custom to only name a baby a week later at his circumcision is a custom that developed many years later.

Another Biblical naming custom that continue to this day is to name one’s children after animals, particular powerful or beautiful ones. For example, Rachel (“sheep”), Zev (“wolf”), Ari (“Lion”), Caleb (“dog”), Jonah (“dove”), and so on. We also find Jewish names serving as references to God like Ariel (“lion of God”), Melech (“king”), Bat-El (“daughter of God”).

During the periods of exile, first in Babylon and later the Roman exile, non-Jewish names began to creep into the Jewish community. Greek names such as Alexander, Jason, Philo, and Antigonus were regularly used. The same for Roman names such as, Antonius, Marcus, Rufus, and Tiberias.

Throughout the Talmud one will notice that Babylonian names are most predominant, which makes perfect sense as the Talmud was written in Babylon.

We find great rabbis with such names as Abba, Huna, Abaye and Papa. Converts to Judaism in the Talmudic era would keep their original non-Jewish names and seemingly not take on a Jewish name upon conversion, as is the practice today. This can be seen with characters, such as Monbaz, and Helena. In appreciation to Alexander the Great for the honor he showed the High Priest and the protection he offered for Jerusalem, Alexander became a Jewish name which continue to this very day.

A post Talmudic Jewish naming custom which continue to this day is the custom of naming children after grandparents and other ancestors. In fact, in some cases, the practice of naming after grandparents was the cause of continuous naming cycle.

For example, Maimonides’ grandfather was Joseph ben Isaac ben Joseph ben Obadiah ben Solomon ben Obadiah, with the same names getting used over and over again. A humorous example is the family of the famous Talmudist Kalonymus. In the Kalonymus family we have Meshullam ben Moses ben Ithiel ben Moses ben Kalonymus ben Meshullam ben Kalonymus ben Moses ben Kalonymus ben Jekuthiel ben Moses ben Meshullam ben Ithiel ben Meshullam. In this latter example we have only five names being used for 14 generations!

A later European custom which also continue today is giving a child two names. One name to be used in the secular world and one name to be used in the Jewish world. Very often the secular name is related to the Hebrew name. For example, someone with the name Leo will often be an “Aryeh” or “Yehuda” in Hebrew and Moe will often by “Moshe.”

In the Sephardic Jewish world the same thing can be seen. Haroun is Aharon, Moussa is Moshe and Ibrahim is Avraham. Sephardi Jews also name after living relatives, usually grandparents, where as such a thing is unheard of in Ashkenazi circles.

Nowadays a boy’s name is given at the brit, the circumcision. If it is known that the brit must be delayed, many authorities rule that the name should be given without the delay, at the next Torah reading service (the Torah is read Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat). Nevertheless, most people will leave the baby nameless until the brit actually takes place. If the baby is ill and in need of prayers, the baby should be named right away so that people can pray for him using his full Hebrew name, as is preferred in Jewish tradition.

A baby girl is named at a Torah reading service following her birth. Some people wait until Shabbat to name the baby. This is because more people are present in the synagogue and Shabbat and will share in the celebration of the new baby. So too, a “kiddush”, a Shabbat food-centered reception is customarily service in honor of the naming of a baby girl, and a kiddush must be hosted on Shabbat or a holiday.

In some communities, the father chooses a name for the first child and the mother chooses a name for the second child, and so on. In other communities, the order is reversed. It goes without saying, however, that both parents must ultimately agree on the name. As mentioned above, the names we give our children should be meaningful and symbolize our hopes and prayers for our children.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below: