Naming Children

A review of Jewish practices from the Bible to the present

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Frequently, Jewish parents give their child both a Hebrew name and a secular name for use in general society. Sephardim often choose a non-Jewish name whose meaning approximates that of the Hebrew name. Thus, for example, a boy might be called Rahamim, meaning "compassion" (a name almost exclusively used by Sephardim, by the way), and Clement, based on the Latin clementa, and meaning virtually the same thing. Among East European Jews, the Hebrew name would be accompanied by a Yiddish one, again often with a similar meaning. Thus the name Dov, meaning "bear" (in this case a name found almost exclusively among Ashkenazim), might be followed by the Yiddish name Ber. Hence, a man would be known as Dov-Ber, both formally and even in ordinary conversation. If a diminutive were to be used, it was usually based on the Yiddish name alone; hence, Dov-Ber would be called Berl as a nickname, or Zev-Wolf would be Velvel.

child baby playing blocksGerman-speaking Jews, for the most part, did not attempt to make any connection between the Hebrew and German names given a child. Thus a boy might well be named, for example, Avraham Franz (the latter an especially popular name because of German-speaking Jews' affection and respect for the Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef--an advocate of equal rights for Jews).

American Jews, most of whom are descended from Ashkenazic immigrants, have generally followed the East European custom of making some connection between the two names given a child at birth, but more often than not the link is a phonic one rather than one based on meaning. Thus, if American Jewish parents name their child Sarah after a grandmother of that name, they are usually only interested in an English name beginning with "s". So ''Sarah," whose English name (if she too lived in America) was likely to have been something like Sadie, now has a granddaughter named after her with a name something like Samantha. In fact, this practice is so widespread that unlearned American Jewish parents may actually ask what is the Hebrew equivalent for a name like Sadie and are surprised to learn that there is no real equivalent but only a phonic similarity to a number of Hebrew names that begin with the Hebrew letter sin.

Currently in the United States biblical names are enjoying great popularity, and many American Jews are giving their children Hebrew baby names that have English equivalents. Thus a child might be given the name Ya'akov after his grandfather and be called Jacob in English--though that namesake might also have been named Ya'akov in Hebrew but have been called something like Jerome in English. Then too, the new Jewish self-awareness occasioned by the successful revival of the Hebrew language in the State of Israel has led to the growing popularity of new Israeli names--Ari, for instance, or llana--not only for Israeli children but for American Jewish children as well.

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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.