The book of Shemos, which we begin to read this week, opens with the list of names of the sons of Yaakov, who descended to Egypt. The Torah’s listing of names, which occurs not only in this week’s parashah, but in many parshios across the Torah (and in particular in the book of Bereishis), demonstrates the significance in a particular name. Names are important, and the Torah makes a point of recording them. We take the opportunity to investigate some of the halachos and customs that relate to giving children names.
The Importance of Names
The Gemara states that “a name causes,” meaning that the name of a person has a concrete influence on a person’s inner nature and basic character traits. Chazal also relate the tale of Rabbi Meir, who used to “be particular about names.”
Rabbi Meir was once travelling, together with Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi, when the three arrived at an inn. Rabbi Meir found out that the name of the innkeeper was Kiddur. Rabbi Meir understood that the name was related to the verse “for they belong to a generation of upheaval”. This implied that the innkeeper was a wicked person, and Rabbi Meir accordingly refrained from depositing his belongings with the innkeeper. His companions, who didn’t attach significance to names, deposited their money with the innkeeper, who proceeded to deny the deposit. Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi were thus forced to concede the importance of looking into names.
Moreover, Arizal (Gilgulim, Introduction 23) writes that the name parents give to their child is placed into their minds by Divine influence, in accordance with the soul of the child. Parents usually consider choosing names as a matter of taste, or a matter of family honor. Although this is also true, one should be aware that the matter is far loftier than might appear.
On account of the fact that a person’s name has an influence on his inner nature and character, Chazal state (Tanchuma, Haazinu 8) that a person should “name his child with a name worthy of a tzaddik, for sometimes a name can bring good, or bring ill.” Chazal, it would appear, chose to use the word “sometimes,” to indicate that, although a person always retains his free will, his name can influence the ways he chooses. ((Maggid Meisharim therefore writes that a person whose name is Avraham will have an inclination towards chessed, Yosef towards gevurah, and so on.))
May One Use Non-Jewish Names
Based on the above introduction, we can well understand that a person should not name his child with names of the wicked, which can have a potentially bad influence. Does this principle also apply to ordinary non-Jewish names?
A short historical analysis will reveal that many Jews, over all generations, were called by non-Jewish names. Even in the Gemara (Gittin 11) we find that “most of the Jews outside of Israel are called by non-Jewish names.” Some of the amoraim themselves were called by names that are clearly not of Jewish origin, such as Rav Papa, Rav Zevid, and so on.
Based on this phenomenon, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim, vol. 4, no. 64) writes that although the use of non-Jewish names is not recommended, there is no prohibition against using the names. He adds, as we have noted, that many Jewish leaders over the generations were called by non-Jewish names, mentioning Maggid Mishnah (Vidal) and the father of Rambam (Maimon) as examples.
The reason for this phenomenon, Rav Moshe explains, is that after names are integrated within the Jewish people, there is no longer any concern in using them. This is especially prominent in Germanic names that were adopted by Jews, and effectively became “Jewish names.” Shut Maharashdam goes further and writes that although there is a general prohibition of emulating non-Jews, this prohibition applies only to a person’s dress and custom, but not to names. ((By contrast, Maharam Schick (149) writes that calling a person by a non-Jewish name transgresses a Torah prohibition(!), because of the issue of emulating non-Jews.))
Rav Moshe proceeds to explain that although the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba, chap. 32) mentions a virtue of the Jewish people in Egypt in that they did not change their names, it is possible that this virtue was limited to the pre-Torah era. Before receiving the Torah, the names of the Jewish people helped set them apart from non-Jews and avoid assimilation. After we have the Torah, however, the mitzvos of the Torah fulfill this purpose, and there is no longer a need to name children with specifically Jewish names.
Naming with Two Names
Rav Moshe concludes his responsum by quoting the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 37:7), which states that whereas in times of yore, names were chosen based on events, today we should name our children for our ancestors. Based on this, Rav Moshe writes that it is therefore correct to name a child with the name of his ancestors, even if the name is not a Jewish name.
Often children are given two names even when being named for an ancestor who had just one name. The question, however, is whether adding extra names is considered legitimate or does the extra name detract from the effect of naming after somebody?
From the wording of Iggros Moshe (op. cit.), it emerges that there is no concern in adding extra names, and the child would still be considered as being named after the deceased ancestor. Therefore, when asked concerning naming a daughter after an ancestor who died young, he writes that one should add an extra name, and “there is no concern in doing so.” This is also explicit in an additional responsum of Rav Moshe (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah, vol. 2, no. 122).
A similar ruling emerges from Ikrei Dinim (Yoreh De’ah no. 26), who writes that a person should name his firstborn son after his own father (meaning, the deceased father of the child’s father). If the child’s mother insists that the child be named after her own father, and the child’s father wishes to appease her, the child should be named by both names, and by doing so there is no offence to the honor of the father’s father. ((He adds that there is a segulah for avoiding infant mortality in calling a child by two names.))
However, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman (Ayeles Hashachar, Matos 32:42) writes, quoting from Chazon Ish, that when a name is added, it becomes somewhat of a different name. A possible proof to this position is from the concept of changing one’s name (see below), which is usually conducted by adding a name to the previous name.
Bad Omens in Naming
One of the most common concerns in naming after a deceased relative is the concern for a possible bad omen. Therefore, many people avoid naming a child after a person who was killed, died young, or died without children.
One of the first sources for this concern is a teaching of Yam Shel Shlomo (Gittin chap. 4, no. 31), who writes that it is customary to use the name Yeshayah, rather than the name Yeshayahu, because Yeshayahu, the prophet, was killed. ((Rema (Even Ha’ezer 129:26), however, writes that the name Gedalyahu is spelled with the final letter vav, and Beis Shmuel (129, letter yud) writes that it appears that he disputes the position of Yam Shel Shlomo, according to whom the standard for Gedalyahu would be to write the name without the final letter vav since the Gedalyahu of the Tenach was killed. However, Chasam Sofer (Even Ha’ezer, vol. 2, no. 25), writes that there is no dispute over the matter, and all opinions agree that one should not call by a name that bodes evil for its bearer.))
In this connection, we find an important chiddush in the Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah, vol. 2, no. 22). He claims that naming a child after somebody who died young is not a bad omen. He cites Shmuel and Shlomo as examples of biblical characters who did not live long, yet their names are not avoided. However, he adds that it stands to reason that naming after somebody who did not have children is, indeed, a bad omen, and should be avoided. The general custom, it should be noted, is not in accordance with Rav Moshe’s chiddush. People generally avoid giving a child the name of somebody who died young.
Rav Moshe writes further that a subtle change in a name is sufficient to alleviate the problem in naming of bad omens. An example, as noted before, is the change from Yeshayahu to Yeshayah. Alternatively, he writes that adding a second name would also solve the problem.
A third way of solving the problem is suggested by the Steipler (Karyono De’igresa, vol. 2, no. 149). His novel suggestion is that, for example, if a person wishes to name his son Avraham, to perpetuate the name of an ancestor of that name who was killed, he should name him Avraham but have in mind Avraham Avinu.
An additional issue in naming children is the matter of calling boys after a deceased female relative, such as calling Sariel after Sarah, or girls after a deceased male relative, such as Tziviah after Tzvi, or Ariella after Ariel. It stands to reason that these names are not the same, and the ‘calling after’ deceased relative should be limited to boys for men, and girls for women. ((See also Divrei Malkiel (vol. 3, no. 75) and Tzitz Eliezer (vol. 11, no. 56), who discuss the calling of a brother and a sister by names that are derived from the same root, such as Eliezer and Eliezra, and also mention the idea of calling a girl by a boy’s name, and vice versa. Both ideas are frowned on, but permitted if necessary.))
As noted above, names have a deep significance for a person’s nature and character. For this reason, people do not change a person’s name, without due cause. However, when a person is in grave danger, Rema writes that it is customary to change a person’s name, because the change of name is liable to bring about a change in fortune.
One of the common questions of changing names today is that of baalei teshuvah, who were born to secular parents, and now wish to change their secular name to a Torah name. Even in this regard, poskim write that a person should not rush to change his name, for doing so is a meaningful act. However, Rav Mordechai Gross writes (Shema Garim, no. 5) that if a person was given a name that has no connection with anything Jewish, then it is appropriate for him to change his name.
Although the ordinary method of changing names is to add an extra name to the original name, under special circumstances it might even be worthy to entirely uproot the original name, and to be called by an entirely new name.