Why do many Jews today name children after deceased relatives, recycling the same names over and over again? This does not seem to have been our way in the biblical era.


You are correct; very few people—if any—seem to have been named after relatives in biblical times. Instead, children were named after the circumstances of their births, or other memorable events. In this they were following the example of the very first two biblical names: Adam was named for the adamah (earth) from which he was formed, and Eve (Chavah) was thus named for she was the mother of all chai (life).

By the Tannaitic period (over 2,000 years ago), things had changed, and the custom to name children after ancestors became prevalent. Why is this? The sages of the Midrash discussed this question:1

Rabbi Yossi was of the opinion that because of the instability of the times, people feared that their children would forget their heritage. Naming children for their grandparents was a way to foster a sense of continuity and purpose. In contrast, in biblical Israel, people had long life spans and a strong cultural identity, and so people had the confidence to use some creativity in name-giving.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (who himself was part of a famous chain of Gamliels and Shimons) taught that our ancestors had divine inspiration to guide them to the appropriate name for their kids. We, however, who do not merit such insight, name our children after our parents.

Nevertheless, the great Kabbalist, the Ari, asserts that whenever parents give a child a name, a spirit of prophecy is somehow involved. So, in truth, the significance of a given name—in addition to its connection with an ancestor—has real meaning in that child’s life.

Please let me know if this helps.

Yours truly,
Rabbi Menachem Posner