Naming Children

A review of Jewish practices from the Bible to the present

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Reprinted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism, edited by Rela M. Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

There is a Hebrew folk saying, recorded in the Bible, to indicate that a person's name can illustrate his or her character: kishmo ken hu--"Like his name, so is he" (1 Samuel 25:25). If, for example, a woman's name is Rinah, meaning "song" (or "joy"), and she is a musical person, one might use this saying to indicate how appropriate her birth name is in retrospect, looking back on her life from the present.

Names in the Bible can also be seen to predict at birth what that person's character will subsequently turn out to be. For example, the name of the patriarch Jacob, or Ya'akov, means "usurper"; it describes both how he tried to usurp his brother Esau's prior exit from the womb by grabbing his heel during birth (Ya'akov in fact derives from ekev, "heel") and how he ultimately usurped Esau as the heir of their father, Isaac, and grandfather Abraham. Similarly, the name of the prophet Samuel, or Shemu'el, means (according to some scholars) "the one about whom God heard me," referring to his theretofore barren mother's prayer for a child.

Traditionally, in other words, the name given a child is considered to be a matter of great importance, having considerable influence on the development of that child's character.

Although no codified rules exist to guide parents in the naming of their children, custom has evolved a variety of practices (minhagim) commonly accepted by Jews in different localities.

Among Ashkenazim--that is, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin--the custom is to name the child after someone, usually a family member, who has recently died. In most cases this is a grandparent or great-grandparent. The usual explanation for this practice is that the parents hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in his or her life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.

Sephardim--that is, Jews of Iberian or Middle-Eastern origin--usually name their children after a grandparent, either living or dead, and many Sephardic grandparents look forward to being honored with grandchildren who bear their own names while they are still alive to see it. Sephardim are also much more punctilious about naming a boy after a man and a girl after a woman than are most Ashkenazim. In Sephardic families this procedure often has the effect of strengthening transgenerational ties between grandfathers and grandsons, and between grandmothers and granddaughters.

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David Novak

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies and is Professor of the Study of Religion and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.