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The Laws of Jewish Names

The Laws of Jewish Names

Parshat Shemot

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The Midrash relates1 that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of four virtues. The first merit mentioned2 is that they didn’t change their names.3

This is considered significant, because all their names alluded to their ultimate redemption.4 Moreover, it is said that by maintaining their own language,5 the Jews effectively separated themselves from the Egyptians, which decreased their involvement in idolatry.6 The same can be said for keeping their Jewish names. (For a chassidic perspective on how the Jews’ keeping their Jewish names led to their redemption, see Are You Inside Your Name?)

Parents receive a glimmer of divine inspiration when they give their child a Jewish nameIn general, the Hebrew name of every object is the conduit for its divine energy.7 The Arizal teaches that the same is true of every person’s name: it is the channel through which the soul’s energy reaches the body.8 It is said that parents receive a glimmer of divine inspiration when they give their child a Jewish name.9

Naming the Baby

A baby boy is named at his brit (circumcision). If the brit is delayed, some authorities maintain that the name should be given when the father is called to the Torah, before the brit. However, the more prevalent custom is to wait until the brit is performed.10 If the child is a firstborn and a pidyon haben (“redemption of the firstborn”) ceremony is being held, some authorities say he should be named at that ceremony.11 If the baby is ill, and people would like to be able to pray for the baby using his name, he should be given a name earlier.12

A baby girl is named at a Torah reading following her birth. It is the Chabad custom to name a baby girl at the first possible Torah reading.13 (Torah readings take place on Mondays and Thursdays, as well as on Shabbat and other special days on the Jewish calendar.) Some people have the custom of waiting until Shabbat to name the baby, when it can be done in the presence of the greater community.14 The naming is usually accompanied by a feast15 to celebrate the soul’s entering the body at that time.

Among Sephardim, the ceremony of naming a daughter is called zeved habat, or “presentation of the daughter.” A special mi shebeirach prayer is recited along with several other prayers, followed by a celebratory meal.

Rights to Name

There are various customs regarding who chooses children’s names. In some circles, the father chooses a name for the first child, the mother chooses a name for the second child, and they continue to alternate.16 The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes17 that one who has no fixed family or communal custom should follow this practice, because it has its origin in ancient sources.

In other communities, the mother chooses the first name, the father the second, and so on.18

In any case, both parents need to agree on the name, and it should not be assigned unilaterally.19 The above order simply determines which spouse suggests the name for the first child, etc. However, the final decision must be mutually agreed upon.

Naming After Relatives

The Ashkenazic custom is not to name a baby after living individualsIt is customary to name children after deceased parents. The Ashkenazic custom is not to name a baby after living individuals.20 The reason for this seems to be that it is a merit for a deceased person to have a descendant (or other relative) named after him or her. If the name is given while its bearer is still alive, this will no longer be possible (in the same family) after that person’s passing.

However, if a baby was already named after a living person, its name should not be changed. But that name should not be used as the main one. This is especially so if the baby was named after another deceased relative, and the parents later realize that the name is shared by a living grandparent.21

In Sephardic custom, naming children after living relatives (as well as deceased ones) is encouraged. This is considered an honor for the relative.22

Naming After a Rebbe

Many chassidim name their children after their rebbes.23 One should not name children after a rebbe while also having in mind that the child is named after someone else of the same name, as it is inappropriate to combine the name of a rebbe with that of a person of lesser holiness.24

Different Names for Siblings

Two siblings should not share the same name.25 This to prevent the effect of an “evil eye” (for more information: Do You Believe in the Evil Eye?) If this was mistakenly done, an additional name should be added for one of the children, which should then be used as the main name.26

If a child died young, G‑d forbid, some authorities maintain that another child in the same family should not be given that same name, while others disagree.27

Naming After a Wicked Person

It is forbidden to give one’s child the same name as a rasha, an evil person.28 This is because the verse states,29 “The name of the wicked should rot [and not be remembered].” In addition, bearing the same name as a wicked person may adversely affect the child’s character.30

Tragic Death

In cases when a name is added, that name becomes the main nameIt is customary not to name a child after someone who passed away tragically at a young age.31 In such a case, the parents should change the name slightly, or add another name that will be used as the first name. In cases where the person was martyred while sanctifying G‑d’s name (e.g., in the Holocaust), it is considered a merit to give a child that name.32 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes33 that if the deceased passed away at a young age from a natural cause and had children, it’s possible that this rule doesn’t apply. In addition, he writes that the rule may not apply if the person was a renowned tzaddik (righteous person).

It is not necessary to follow this rule when naming after a parent or grandparent.34

Changing a Name

If a name was given by a party other than the parents, the parents may choose a different name, which should be added to the name which was given.35

If a person has a serious illness, it is considered a segulah (spiritually propitious act) to give him an additional name, because this name will bring him additional mazal (good fortune). The name that it added is often one which denotes healing or long life (e.g., for boys: Chaim—“life”; Rafael—the name of the angel of healing; or Alter—“elder.” For girls: Chaya—“life,” or Alta—“elder”). In cases when a name is added, that name becomes the main name.36 The new name is formally given at a Torah reading using the text of a mi shebeirach prayer. If possible, the person receiving the new name or a relative of that person should receive an aliyah at that time.37

Being Called to the Torah by Name

When a man is called to the Torah, he is called by his Jewish name and his father’s Jewish name. In Yemenite and some Sephardic communities, the name is not called out; rather, the announcement “Ya’amod Kohen (“Kohen, please rise”) is called out, and the man whom the gabbai had designated for this honor approaches the Torah.38

When a man’s mother is Jewish but his father is a gentile, he should be called up by his maternal grandfather’s name.39 Some authorities say he should be called ben Avraham,” “the son of [our Patriarch] Abraham.”40

Praying For an Ill Person

When praying for someone who is ill or otherwise in need of divine assistance, we mention his or her name and mother’s (Jewish) name. Since Jewish identity is established maternally, it’s the mother that connects the soul to G‑d.41 (See Why is a person’s mother’s name mentioned when praying on his/her behalf? for more information.)

When praying for a gentile, one should mention his or her name and father’s name.

Writing a Legal Document

Correct spelling of the name is significant When writing a Jewish legal document, such as a ketubah (marriage contract) or a get (bill of divorce), the name used is the one by which the person was actually called during the preceding thirty days. Correct spelling of the name is significant, and should be established by someone familiar with Jewish law.42

Name of a Prospective Spouse

Rabbi Yehudah Hechassid wrote in his testament43 that a man should not marry a woman whose name is the same as his mother’s, and a woman should not marry a man whose name is the same as her father’s. Some authorities say that this testament was only intended for Rabbi Yehudah Hechassid’s own descendants. Others argue that this is good advice for everyone.44

The reason given is that the name in question will be used often for one’s spouse, and will not be treated with the respect owed to one’s parent.45

In practice, the Tzemach Tzedek states (in the name of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi) that one should be stringent regarding the case of a man marrying a woman whose name is the same as his mother’s, since this is also mentioned in Mishnat Chassidim,46 which is based on the writings of the Arizal. However, regarding the case of a woman marrying a man whose name in the same as her father’s, there is more room for leniency. In fact, the Talmud47 cites several examples of rabbis whose names were identical to the names of their fathers-in-law.48

If one wishes to marry a man or woman who shares one’s parent’s name, an additional name may be added to the prospective spouse’s or in-law’s name, so that the names are no longer identical.49

For more information on the topic of Jewish names, see What’s in a Name?

Footnotes
1.

Leviticus Rabbah 32:5.

2.

The other three are: (a) They didn’t change their language. (In Exodus 5:3, the Jews are referred to as “Hebrews.” The Midrash understands this to mean that they spoke Hebrew.) (b) They didn’t gossip. (Months before the Exodus, the Jews were told that they would be “borrowing” the Egyptians’ wealth and not returning it [Exodus 3:21]. Yet not one of them told any Egyptian about this.) (c) They did not intermarry or sexually consort with the Egyptians. (During the entire exile there was only one woman who had such a relationship with an Egyptian man [see Leviticus 24:11]).

3.

See the beginning of the Book of Numbers, where all the names mentioned are Jewish ones.

4.

See Exodus Rabbah 1:5.

5.

See above, footnote 2.

6.

Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah, chs. 24–25.

7.

Tanya, Shaar Hayichud Vehaemunah, ch. 2.

8.

Thus Abigail the prophetess interpreted her husband’s name as an expression of his character, saying, “Naval is his name, and abomination (nevalah) goes with him” (I Samuel 25:25).
In a similar vein, the Talmud (Berachot 7b, as interpreted by Maharsha) states that G‑d’s works are drawn down into this world through a person’s name. Thus, a person’s name is the basis for how his life will turn out (see there regarding Ruth the Moabite). For this reason, Rabbi Meir would make deductions about a person’s character based on his name (Yoma 83b). Although Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi did not follow his view, the Talmud relates a story which supports Rabbi Meir’s view, and the other sages eventually came to agree with him. Along the same lines, Rabbi Yitzchak says, “The spies [who brought back a bad report about the land of Israel] had names that reflected their deeds.”
Conversely, the Midrash tells us (Numbers Rabbah 16:10) that there were people who led righteous lives despite having been given names with negative connotations. This demonstrates that it is possible for one to rise above the negative disposition that a name might otherwise have given him.

9.

Sefer Hagilgulim, Introduction 23, quoted in Taamei Haminhagim 929; see also commentary of Ohr Hachaim on Deuteronomy 29:17.

10.

See Rabbi Y. Z. Wilhelm, What’s in a Name? 2:5.

11.

Ibid., 6.

12.

Ibid., note 9.

13.

The naming is not postponed to Shabbat, because this is the time when a girl’s Jewish soul begins its entry into the body—just as it begins its entry into a boy’s body at the time of his brit. (Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, p. 297)

14.

See Minchat Yitzchak, vol. 4, p. 107, quoted in What’s in a Name? 3:9.

15.

See Taamei Haminhagim 929.

16.

This order is alluded to in Genesis 38:5, as explained in the commentary Da’at Zekeinim on that verse.

17.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, pg. 295.

18.

Divrei Yechezkel pp. 61ff, quoted in What’s in a Name? 1:7.

19.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag ibid.

20.

See Sefer Chassidim 460; Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, p. 298.

21.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag ibid.

22.

Ibid.

23.

See Avot D’Rabbi Natan 15:3, where it is related that a convert who converted due to Hillel’s influence named one of his children Hillel.

24.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, p. 297.

25.

Sefer Chassidim; see Pit’chei Teshuva, Yoreh Deah 116:6.

26.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, p. 301.

27.

See Darchei Teshuvah 116:48.

28.

See Talmud, Yoma 38b, and commentary of Rabbeinu Chananel there; Genesis Rabbah 49:1; commentary of Maharsha on Talmud, Taanit 28a.

30.

Rabbeinu Chananel ibid.

31.

Yam Shel Shlomo, Gittin, ch. 4, sec. 31. He argues that the prevalent custom is to refrain from naming children Yeshayahu after Isaiah the Prophet, who was brutally killed by his grandson. Rather, the name is altered slightly.

32.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 5, p. 243.

33.

Igrot Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:122.

34.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 5, p. 242.

35.

Ibid.

36.

Code of Jewish Law, Even Haezer 129:18; Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 5, p. 243.

37.

Shaarei Halachah Uminhag, vol. 3, p. 301.

38.

What’s in a Name? 41.

39.

Based on Rema, Orach Chaim 139:3.

40.

Mishnah Berurah 139:10.

41.

See What’s in a Name? 29:2.

42.

See Code of Jewish Law, Even Haezer 129.

43.

Testament of R. Yehudah Hechassid, sec. 23.

44.

Piskei Dinim Tzemach Tzedek, Yoreh De’ah 116.

45.

See What’s in a Name? 35, note 2.

46.

Mishnat Chassidim 5.

47.

Sotah 10b and Menachot 29b.

48.

See also Chatam Sofer, Even Haezer 116, who argues that Sefer Chassidim (also written by Rabbi Yehudah Hechassid), sec. 477, refers only to three consecutive generations having the same name (i.e. a woman, her daughter-in-law, and her daughter-in-law’s daughter-in-law). However, if only two generations are involved, one need not be stringent.

49.

Tzemach Tzedek, ibid.

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Anonymous Atlanta September 22, 2017

Naming after cremated relative Can a baby boy be given the Hebrew name of a male relative who was cremated after death by choice? The deceased was of the Reformed movement, the child is of parents of the Conservative movement. Reply

Mendel Adelman October 30, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Hello Anonymous,

While many mourning customs are not done for those who were cremated, we still do things to elevate the soul, such as giving charity and saying kaddish.

Although it is generally accepted not to name a child after a wicked person, in this scenario, the choice of cremation was an outcome of the person's environment and upbringing. Therefore, the person does not fall in to the category of "wicked", and a child may he named after them.

You might want to connect the name to another figure in Jewish history, so that the name is not exclusively after that person. That should circumvent the issue entirely. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org June 14, 2016

Re: Yiddish vs. Hebrew If it is a completely different word, then it's fine. But if the names are similar sounding, then it's better not to. Reply

Anonymous Queens June 10, 2016

Yiddish vs. Hebrew Can a baby be named the Hebrew equivalent of his living grandfather's Yiddish name (e.g. Lev, Leib)? Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org November 4, 2015

Re: So long as the names are not 100% identical, it does not matter if they share certain letters. Reply

Anonymous nyc November 3, 2015

Question can siblings be named Eliyahu and Eliana? does this considers the same since sibling should not have same meaning of the name? Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org February 19, 2015

RE: Naming girls after male relatives, vice versa Strictly speaking, it is halachically permissible to interchange male and female names. Nevertheless, many Rabbinic authorities maintain that it is not a correct practise, and they discourage doing so. Reply

Anonymous NY February 19, 2015

Is it ok for one son's name to start with "Yo" and his brother also starts with "Yo"? Reply

David New York February 15, 2015

Naming girls after male relatives, vice versa Is it permissible to name a baby girl after a deceased male relative or a baby boy after a deceased female relative? Reply

Mrs. Chana Benjaminson via mychabad.org September 18, 2014

To Anonymous According to Ashkenazi custom naming a nephew with the same name as an uncle is not an issue. Ashkenazi Jews don't name after living parents and grandparents. Reply

Anonymous USA September 17, 2014

question My hebrew name is chaim shalom and my brother wants to name his son with chaim being the middle name

Does this pose a problem? (If it matters, I am Ashkenazi) Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org May 27, 2014

Re: grandfather with different English and Hebrew names Generally, English and Hebrew names have no bearing on each other. Additionally, because Isaac is sometimes used as a Hebrew name, it is considered a different name than Yitzchak. Reply

Anonymous london May 26, 2014

grandfather with different English and Hebrew names I am expecting my second child soon and my wife and I are mulling over names. We both like "Isaac" as a possible first or middle name. My father's name is Albert. Since that is not a Hebrew name his Hebrew name is "yitzchak", which in English is Isaac. He only is called yitchak whe called for an honour at synagogue. We are ashkenazi and so by tradition don't name after living relatives but this is an odd case as we are talking about an English name matching the hebrew name of a grandparent.

Anyone habe thoughts on what is permitted or customary here?

Thanks Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org April 28, 2014

Re: Name changes for a very ill person? Because a person's Jewish name represents his or her soul's essence, changing the name would change the essence too. By doing so we provide G-d with a "way out," saying that if there was perviously a decree on this person, it is no longer relevant because it is not a different person. Reply

Shlomo Chaim Sydney April 27, 2014

Name changes for a very ill person? If a person is critically or terminally ill, why would a name change be appropriate? Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for Chabad.org March 24, 2014

To Anonymous in NY As long as the complete name is not the same as a sibling's, even if part is similar, it is not a problem. Reply

Anonymous ny March 24, 2014

sibling should not share the same name. If siblings last two laters of their names ends with "el" or if their first two laters of their names starts with "yo" does it consider as same name?? Reply

Anonymous February 10, 2014

Significance of a name change What is the significance of someone (leader, elder) unilaterally renaming another person? The person that was renamed is an adult, in good health and in good favor with the one giving the name. Is there a cultural significance to this? Thanks. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org February 5, 2014

Re: Charles Almod If a name was given completely in error (for example, the one giving the name misheard what the parents said), then the name is completely invalid. However, when a parent named the child unilaterally without the consent or permission of the other parent, things are a bit more complicated and Rabbi should be consulted (in this case, obviously after the fact).

If needs be, a name can be added at a later date. Reply

charles almod Brooklyn February 4, 2014

A rabbi can always be consulted ahead of time but if a parent named a child unilaterally without the consent or permission of the other parent, then does it hold any validity or have any halachic bearing?
Or can another name be added at a later date via a Torah reading?
is there any halachic process to invalidate or add a name? Reply

Anonymous New York February 3, 2014

Step Sibling My mother remarried and my step sister, who I met just a few years back, has a name that I have always wanted for my child. Should I not name my baby with that name? This would be the child's step aunt. Reply

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