Names are more than convenient labels—going by your Jewish name is a statement of pride in your Jewish heritage. The Jews of ancient Egypt, tradition tells us, kept their Jewish names. That’s one of the ways they remained a cohesive people and merited redemption.
There’s more: Your Jewish name is the channel by which life reaches you from Above. In fact, the Kabbalists say that when parents name a child, they experience a minor prophecy—because, somehow, that child’s destiny is wrapped up in the combination of Hebrew letters that make up his or her name.
Hebrew names are used in prayer in and out of synagogue and for other religious rituals. When a person is called up in synagogue for an aliyah (the honor of reciting a blessing over a Torah reading), he is called up by his Hebrew name. The names that appear on a ketubah (marriage contract) or on a get (writ of divorce) are Hebrew names. When a people are ill and mi shebeirakh prayers are recited for their well-being, they are identified by Hebrew names. When a deceased person is remembered through the Yizkor prayers recited on certain holidays, the Hebrew name is used. Jewish tombstones sometimes carry the Hebrew name instead of or side-by-side with the secular name.
The two main sources for Hebrew names for today’s Jewish babies are older Biblical names and modern Israeli names.
A girl gets her name at the Torah reading in the synagogue. The rabbi or Torah reader recites a prayer for the health of mother and child, and the father provides the name that the parents have chosen. Since the Torah is the source of all of good things, granting a name in the presence of the Torah infuses the name with blessing.
A boy is named at his brit milah (circumcision), when he enters into the covenant of Abraham and becomes a full-fledged member of the Jewish nation.
The sixteenth century Kabbalist, the Arizal, believed that one’s name and its numerical value communicates the very nature of the person. A look at the Hebrew word for soul, “neshama” is very telling- it contains within it the word “shem” meaning name proving the strong link between one’s soul and name. For example: The Jewish approach Adam was the one to assign names to the animals populating the world and whatever he chose remained its name (Genesis 2:19). The names chosen by Adam were far from random. He named the animals in such a way that their titles reflected their inner essence. For example, the donkey was called “chamor” and it is not surprising to learn that the name for material goods that the donkey transports is “chomer”.
The Talmud (Yoma 83b) describes the incident of R’ Meir and his colleagues R’ Yose and R’ Yehudah who sought lodging at an inn for the Sabbath. R’ Meir was known to pay close attention to a person’s name. Upon learning that the innkeeper’s name was Kidor, he refused to entrust his valuables to him, for the name Kidor brought to mind the phrase: "for they are a generation (ki-dor) full of changes, children in whom there is no trust." (Deuteronomy 32:20) Nevertheless, R’ Yehudah and R’ Yose, who did not pay heed to names, entrusted their money to the innkeeper. Subsequently, the innkeeper denied taking their money from them for safekeeping, and it was lost. R’ Meir’s money, however, was spared.
Some Details: Never got a Jewish name? Converting to Judaism? Select a Jewish name that resonates with you. Often, people choose a name that is similar in sound and/or in meaning to their non-Jewish name. Traditionally, Jews name their children after relatives or holy people. Sephardic Jews will sometimes name a child after a living ancestor; not so Ashkenazic Jews. When we pray for someone, we have in mind that person’s Jewish name and that of his or her mother. But when we call a man for an aliyah to the Torah, we use his Jewish name and that of his father. A change in name can result in a change of fortune. That’s why, if someone is dangerously ill, we might provide him an additional name.
And by the way, there is no law that your Hebrew and English name have to match, not even in their first letter.
The Midrash (Tanchuma Ha’azinu 7) says: "One should always be careful to choose for his child a name that denotes righteousness, for at times the name itself can be an influence for good or an influence for bad." The name given to a newborn child is eternal; it behooves one to evaluate the choice carefully.
The Midrash says: In the merit of four acts of restraint were the Jews redeemed from Egypt – they did not change their names; they did not change their language; they did not disclose each other’s secrets; and they did not break barriers of morality (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:21). May the pride in our unique identity bring us one step closer to the final redemption.
Tags: ancient egypt, arizal, biblical names, covenant of abraham, full fledged member, hebrew letters, hebrew name, hebrew names, jewish heritage, jewish name, jewish names, jewish nation, kabbalists, marriage contract, religious rituals, rsquo, secular name, torah reader, Torah Reading, yizkor prayers
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