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Naming a Child


Who gets to pick a child’s name – his father or his mother? What is the Ramban’s approach to this issue? Why was his grandson named for the other grandfather and not for himself? What is the source for the custom to take turns in choosing children’s names? Is the parent’s financial situation a factor in choosing a child’s name? There are some interesting names and name combinations among the Jewish People. Where did they originate? When parents divorce, who gets to choose their baby’s name? And what happens if one parent named a child without the other parent’s consent? If a child was given a wrong name by mistake, or there was a mistake in the order, is the name cancelled? Does the parent lose his turn if the baby dies before naming? Who gets to name the first of twins? Of this and more, in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha we read of Yehuda’s marriage to Bat Shua, and the three sons she bore: “And she conceived and bore a son, and he named him Er. And she conceived again and bore a son, and she named him Onan. Once again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah, and he (Yehuda) was in Chezib when she gave birth to him” (Bereshis 38: 3-5).

Some commentaries explain (Da’as Zkeinim Miba’alei Hatosefos [Bereshis 38:5] Rabbani Chaim Paltiel [Bereshis 38:5], Toldos Yitzchak [Shemos 18], and others) that in ancient times the custom was for the father to choose the name for the first child, and the mother – the second. Therefore, when Bat Sua named their third child, the Torah had to explain it was because Yehuda was absent at the time of his birth.

The Abarbanel adds that this custom remains in practice today. The Ramban, though, after mentioning this explanation of the psukim (Bereshis 38:5), states the custom “has no flavor or scent.” He doesn’t, however, explain the reason for his aversion.

In this week’s article we will touch upon naming issues – who gets to pick a name for a child: the father, the mother, or both. We’ll also examine various naming practices and the reasons behind them.

Naming Traditions

Unlike Yehuda’s children, most of the Twelve Tribes were named by their mothers. So what was the accepted naming practice in ancient times? Apparently, the custom noted above was not adhered by all, or – following the Ramban’s approach – isn’t the reason behind the names of Yehuda’s sons. As we will see further, then as today, many factors are at play in choosing a child’s name, and no iron-clad custom can always be applied.

The Rashbash (291) tells another interesting story: Shlomo, the Ramban’s son was married to Rabbenu Yona’s daughter. When pregnant with her first child, her father passed away. The Ramban instructed his son to name the baby for her father, Yona, instead of for him – Moshe. He based this request on a pasuk: “And the sun will shine, and the sun will set” (Kohelet 1:5) – when one tzaddik passes away, another is born to continue his mission in the world. Hoping his grandson would follow in his venerated grandfather’s footsteps, the Ramban asked his son to name his baby Yona. And indeed, the Rashbash concludes, that Yona grew up to be a great rabbi. The Rashbash himself was his descendant.

Sfaradi Customs

Rabbi Avraham Meyuchas (Sde Ha’aretz, III chapter 22), one of the leading Torah luminaries in Jerusalem 300 years ago, notes the custom of naming the first children in a family for the parents’ living parents. The first child is named for the father’s father or mother, and the rest in the appropriate order. One may not name the first child for his wife’s parents because in doing so he will be disgracing his own parents. If one of the parents stubbornly demands the name despite the accepted custom, the child should be given two names – one for the father’s father and the other for the mother’s father. The Ben Ish Chai echoes these instructions (Shana 2, Shoftim 27). This custom is the norm among most communities that follow the Sfaradi tradition even today, and is based, according to many, on early sources from biblical times.

It is important to point out that despite it being the custom, it is the father’s obligation to name his child for his father, not the grandfather’s right to demand it. Choosing a child’s name can be a delicate balancing act which often cannot be shared with others, and parents must accept their children’s decision regardless of custom, tradition, or requests.

Ashkenazi Custom

Beis Naftali (chapter 63) notes that the Ashkenazi custom is the polar opposite. The mother chooses the name of the first child, while the second is chosen by the father. The source for this custom can be found in the order of the names given to the Tribes. The first two were named by Leah, and only Levi, the third, was named by his father. (Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky [Mevakshei Torah 21-22] points to this as the source for this custom.)

The essential difference in naming practices between Ashkenazim and Sfardim is rooted in who to name for. Among Ashkenazim, people are not named for the living, while Sfradim see naming for living people as a merit for longevity. Therefore, when the first child is born in a Sfardi family, the obligation to name him for the father’s father (if he is still living) is greater than the obligation to name for a deceased great-grandfather (as done by Ashkenazim). While choosing their parents’ name is certainly an honor to grandparents, it is in no way a direct form of honor. Therefore, for an Ashkenazi family who doesn’t name for living people, the father can easily pass the honor of choosing the first name to his wife, even if the right was, essentially, his own.

Amongst Sfaradim, however, who customarily name the first child for the father’s parents, if the parents are still alive, passing the naming right to the mother would display total lack of honor to the father’s parents and is therefore, forbidden.

Changing Custom

Apparently, the original custom was that employed by the Sfaradim. Once Ashkenazim stopped naming for living people, the custom changed. Halachic sources note several reasons for the change:

Likutei Maharich (III, Seder Hamila) explains that since couples would spend their first years of marriage, during which the first birth took place, living in the wife’s father’s home, it became customary to honor the mother’s father in choosing the name for the first child.

Was this only the custom if the couple was literally living under the parents’ roof, or did it include the figurative sense of living under their wing: receiving their financial support, even if the couple was living elsewhere? This would have contemporary ramifications, because nowadays, although couples live in their own residence — perhaps even in another country — they are often supported by one set of parents who finance their studies, apartment, or expenses. Does this support create an obligation to name the firstborn child for the supporting side’s family? And if, due to the circumstances, the young couple does actually live in their parent’s house or basement – is the young couple more obligated to name their firstborn child for the side of the parents in whose house they live? These points remain up for discussion.

Matnas Moshe (77) quotes the Keter Efraim’s reason for the Ashkenazi custom of giving the first name to the mother’s side: since the mother leaves her friends and family, she names her first child for one of her family members to remind herself of them. [Apparently the fact that the husband may be the one who left his family has no bearing here, because leaving family and friends is essentially more stressful for the mother than for the father.]

Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein shlita (Chishukei Chemed, Eiruvin 13a) notes that his brother-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Kaniyevsky once told him that the mother earns the name because of the pain she undergoes in childbirth.

Creative Solutions

The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Gitin 4:26) writes that when husband and wife don’t see eye to eye, there are several solutions that can be employed. These solutions resulted in some interesting names and combinations.

One is the name Shneur which carries the literal meaning of “two lights”. The Maharshal recounts that his grandfather, Menachem Ben Zion had a baby boy. Menachem Ben Zion’s father was named Meir, and his wife’s father was named Uri. The couple argued what to name the child, until they reached the conclusion to name him Shneur in memory of the two luminaries, Meir, and Uri.

Another compromise resulted in some interesting name combinations. Many people carried a Jewish name alongside a non-Jewish or colloquial name in Yiddish or other language: Shlomo Zalman (Solomon), Zevi Hirsch, Dov Ber, Chaim Leib, etc.

When two parents each wanted to name the newborn for individuals from their side, each took one of the names, and together created a new combination. The Maharil uses this explanation as the cause for some interesting name combinations found amongst Jews: Yekutiel Zalman – two names that have no connection at all.

Divorced Parents

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe YD III, 97) was approached once by a divorced father whose son was given a clandestine bris and name without notifying or consulting him. After the deed was done, the father wished to change the baby’s name. Rav Moshe, in his response, deals only with the naming aspect, and answers that the wife did no wrong in naming her child, and the name need not be cancelled. She had the right to name her son however she wishes, but the father has the same right as well. In this case, Rav Moshe says, the child will really have two names, and neither parent has the right to determine which will be the dominant name. We see this also in the Torah – Rachel named her second son Ben Oni, but his father, Yaakov, named him Binyamin. The fact that his name Binyam was used, is not because his father’s name overrode his mother’s, but because his mother had died and wasn’t on the scene to promote her name. Moshe Rabbenu was likewise named by different people different names, but the name that superseded them all (and was used by Hashem) was that he was given by Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved him from the Nile.

Mistaken Names

What happens if both parents decided on a name, but a different one was given by mistake at the naming ceremony? Kol Naftali writes (chapter 63) that the naming is cancelled, and the baby should be named again. The same is true if the parents mixed up the turns, and one chose the name when it was actually the other parent’s turn.

Missed Opportunities

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe YD III, chapter 101) was approached by a couple who lost their firstborn baby before his bris. They wanted to know who gets to choose the name of the second child – the father or the mother? The father claimed his wife had missed her chance because the baby died, while the wife claimed she’d never gotten a chance to begin with.

Rav Moshe ruled that it was the mother’s right to name the first child. Since the baby died before he was named, she retains the right to choose the first name. Therefore, the mother chooses the name for the second child. However, a baby who died after being named robs the party of his naming right.

A baby who died within thirty days of birth is considered unviable, and the parent who chose the name is not seen as having gotten a chance to name a viable child (see Igros Moshe there).

This ruling has interesting consequences in naming twins. If a younger twin is given a bris before the older one (for whatever reason) or it happens to be a girl who is named before her elder twin’s bris, the parent whose turn it is to choose the name does so for the first twin being named. Here the custom follows, not birth order, but naming order.


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