A Historical View of Choosing a Name

Naming a child can reflect ancestry, associations with the baby's arrival, and hopes and dreams for his or her future.

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Reprinted with permission from A Time To Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

In the Bible, Jacob blessed his sons and grandchildren, not when they were named (an occasion without ceremony), but when he was on his deathbed, with the hope that the children would remember their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In biblical times, family lineage was very important: genealogies were written down, and these rarely mentioned the same name twice.

Biblical Names

In biblical times, a parent sometimes chose a baby's name from circum­stances associated with the conception (as in the case of Isaac) or the delivery (as with Jacob and Benjamin), sometimes from divine acts or attributes (all those including as prefix or suffix "el," "eh," "ya," and "yahu"), and sometimes from nature (for exam­ple, Deborah, meaning bee, and Jonah, which means dove).
During the period of the Second Temple (516 BCE-70 CE), Jews began naming their children after grandparents instead of after events and circumstances. This change in naming custom was due partly to the difficulty of maintaining genealogies in the Diaspora and partly to the influence of non-Jewish practices, espe­cially Greek and Egyptian customs.

Talmudic Names

Since talmudic times, when naming his son at the baby's circumcision, a father has expressed the hope that his child will grow up to a life of Torah, to marry, and to perform good deeds. This blessing has become part of the circumcision rit­ual, and centuries later, Jews have included it in girl-naming ceremonies, too.

Talmudic rabbis believed that, in biblical times, there had been divine inspiration for naming a baby, but when this ceased, parents chose names known to give good fortune because a person's name was thought to determine his or her fate and destiny. A further consideration was that the Angel of Death, who was prone to make mistakes, could neglect a person who had the same name as one already dead. These two considerations have affected how Jews chose names for their newborns.

Medieval Names

In medieval times, Jews took great care when choosing a name, because they feared that a soul with the same name could transmigrate into the infant's body. They were also aware that the name chosen could determine the child's character. Traditionally, Ashkenazic Jews have not named a baby after a living relative, but after one who has died, to honor his or her memory. In contrast, Sephardic, North African, Middle Eastern, and Asian Jews have called their children after living rel­atives.

Sephardic and Ashkenazic Traditions

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Michele Klein has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of London. She is the author of New Life: A Diary For Jewish Parents and A Time To Be Born.

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