What do bees, wolves, bears, lions, foxes and weasels have in common? (a) They are all not kosher, and (b) they are all Hebrew (and Yiddish) Jewish names.

At first blush, this seems strange, since the sages place great significance on a person’s name. A name can affect the trajectory of one’s life1 and may predispose one to certain tendencies (which can be overcome with effort).2 Based on the verse “The mention of the righteous is for a blessing, but the name of the wicked shall rot,”3 they caution us to name children after people with good characteristics.4

Furthermore, we are told not to compare our children’s negative traits to those of impure animals (“Will you stop jumping like monkeys and shouting like hyenas?”), as it can have a negative spiritual effect on the child.5 And many are even careful not to show pictures of non-kosher animals to very young children.6

Yet, we find that many Jews, especially those from Ashkenazic communities, bear the names of impure animals.

Precedent For Non-Kosher Animal Names

Before both Jacob and Moses passed away, they blessed the 12 tribes, comparing some of them to various non-kosher animals. Furthermore, several righteous people, including prophets, had the names of non-kosher animals. For example, Devorah, the name of a prophetess, means “bee.” Chuldah, another prophetess, means “rat” or “weasel.” We also have names like Aryeh, “lion,”7 and Shual,8 “fox,” in Scripture.

We don’t call or compare our children to impure animals out of anger, because in that instance we’re comparing them to the negative traits and aspects of the animal. However, when we’re giving the child the name of the animal, our intention is only to impart the positive qualities of that animal.9

Similarly, King Solomon tells us to learn from the ways of the ant,10 and the Talmud teaches that “even if the Torah had not been given, we would be able to learn modesty from the cat and not to steal from the ant.”11

Interestingly, some are of the opinion that if one’s children pass away very young or are sickly, they (or the future children) should be given the name of an animal, such as Tzvi Hirsch (gazelle or deer), Areyeh Leib (lion) or Zeev Volf (wolf).12

Lofty Souls Hidden in Non-Kosher Names

The mystics teach us that parents receive a glimmer of prophecy when they give their children Jewish names.13 Some explain that in order to conceal the greatness of certain souls as they come down into this world, the child is sometimes given the name of an impure animal.14

Importance of Jewish Names

Jewish names are integral to our identity as Jews. The Midrash relates that one of the reasons why the Jews merited redemption from Egyptian exile was that despite all the hardship, they kept their Jewish names,15 which kept them bound to G‑d and His Torah.16 Thus, the merit of having and using a Jewish name can bring blessings and salvation not only to the individual, but to the world as well.

For more information on the topic of Jewish names, see What’s In a Name?, or to learn about a specific name, see Popular Jewish Girl Names and Popular Jewish Boy Names.