1. Sheep (F/M)

Rachel, which means “ewe,” is the name of Jacob’s second (and most beloved) wife. There is also the Yiddish male name Shepsl, which literally means “lamb,” but may very well be a diminutive form of Shabtai, which means “[born on] Shabbat” and has nothing do with sheep.

2. Lion (M)

When Jacob blessed his sons, he compared several of them to animals. Judah is likened to a lion. For this reason, Yehudah (Judah) is commonly paired with Aryeh (Hebrew for lion) and Leib (Yiddish for lion). Another common combination is David Aryeh Leib since King David was a descendant of Judah and the first of a long line of Judean kings. This name also appears as Leon (yes, back in the middle ages Leon was a Jewish name) and Leibel, the diminutive form of Leib.

3. Gazelle/Deer (F/M)

Jacob blessed his son Naphtali to be like the ayalah sheluchah, the swift gazelle, also called a tzvi. Naphtali Tzvi is often followed by Hirsh (or Hersh or Hertz, depending on dialect), which is Yiddish for “deer.” Although not technically accurate, this reflects the historical use of the word tzvi, which slowly drifted from meaning gazelle to deer among European Jews who were familiar with deer but never saw gazelles. The diminutive form is Hershel.

Hinda is Yiddish for “female deer” and also appears in the diminutive form of Hindel (or Hindy in English).

4. Wolf (M)

Jacob compares his youngest son, Benjamin, to a hungry wolf. Ze’ev is Hebrew for wolf, and volf is Yiddish. Put it all together and you get Binyamin Ze’ev Volf, or Velvel (or Volva) in the diminutive.

5. Fish (M)

Unique among Jacob’s grandchildren were Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, upon whom Jacob conferred the status of sons. In his blessing to the duo, he expressed his wish that they “multiply like fish.” Thus, we have the name Ephraim Fishel (Yiddish for “little fish”), but not Manasseh Fishel. (It’s also interesting to note that Joshua, a scion of the tribe of Ephraim, is identified as the son of Nun, which is Aramaic for “fish.”) Another somewhat common pairing is Yerucham Fishel. Fishel is a reference to Joseph, whose sons were compared to fish. Joseph was an orphan, and Yerucham means “is granted mercy.” The names can therefore be seen as a reflection of the verse “in You the orphan is granted mercy.”

6. Bear (M)

The bear’s place in Jewish tradition is somewhat less than glorious. In Hosea 13:8, G‑d says that He will punish those who forgot Him “like a bereaving bear,” and two bears were the agents through which the 42 youths who tormented Elisha met their end. In interpreting a mystical vision, “And behold a second beast, similar to a bear” (Daniel 7:5), Rav Yosef taught: These are Persians, who eat and drink like a bear, and are corpulent like a bear, and grow hair like a bear, and have no rest like a bear.” Yet, the Rebbe sees something positive in this name, which signifies the ability to refine and focus the brute force of the bear for positive, holy purposes. The Hebrew name is Dov and the Yiddish translation is Ber. The two are often contracted into a single word, Duber, and common Yiddish diminutive forms are Berel, Berish or Berkeh.

7. Bird (F)

Tzipporah was the wife of Moses. Her name means “bird.” The commentaries explain that just as the blood of a bird purifies a home that is covered in leprosy, Tzipporah cleansed her father’s home from idols. Alternatively, just as a bird is admired for its beauty, so was Tzipporah admired for her loveliness. This name is often shortened to Tzipah (in Yiddish) and Tzippy (in English and Modern Hebrew). There is also the name Feigel or Feigeleh, which is Yiddish for “bird.”

8. Dog (M)

Among the 12 scouts Moses dispatched to the Holy Land, Caleb and Joshua were the only two who remained faithful and refused to speak harshly of the land that G‑d promised their ancestors. Although pronounced differently, it is striking that Caleb is spelled exactly the same as kelev, Hebrew for “dog.”

9. Bee (F)

Deborah is Hebrew for “bee.” It’s also the name of two great women mentioned in the Torah. The first was the nursemaid of our matriarch Rebecca. The more famous Deborah, however, was Deborah the Prophetess, who judged and taught the Jewish nation for 40 years and bravely led them in battle against their Canaanite oppressors.

10. Ibex (F)

The victory that Deborah predicted over the Cananites came about through the wise and cunning actions of Yael (Jael), who invited the enemy general Sisera into her home and then killed him with a tent peg while he slept. Yael means “ibex.”

11. Dove (F/M)

Yonah is Hebrew for “dove” and is the name of the (male) Biblical prophet who chose to flee and hide rather than follow G‑d’s instruction to chastise the wayward people of Ninveh. Since this name is feminine in structure (it ends with a “hay”), it is given to both boys and girls. Its Yiddish counterparts, Taibel or Toba, however, are only given to females.

12. Names That Never Made It

Jacob also blesses Issachar to be like a pack donkey, and Dan to be like a snake who lies in wait on the roadside. For reasons that may be somewhat obvious, Issachar Chamor (donkey) and Dan Nachash (snake) never became popular Jewish names. It is fascinating that Chamor and Nachash do feature in the Bible as enemy kings—Chamor of Shechem (Genesis 34) and Nachash of Ammon (I Samuel 11).

On the subject of nasty animals that never made it, there is a fascinating scene described in II Kings 21 in which an ancient Torah scroll was found in the Temple by King Josiah. Three of the people in the episode are named for rodents. The prophetess Hulda (“weasel”), Akhbor (“mouse”) and Shaphan (“rock hyrax”). None of these names have made it into common Jewish nomenclature.

It is also noteworthy that Falk (“falcon”) and Fuks (“fox”) are both extinct Yiddish first names, which still live on as relatively common last names.