Bringing a new person into the world is a life-changing experience. There are so many things to learn and so many decisions to make – among them, what to name your child. No easy task considering he or she will carry this moniker with them for the rest of his or her life.
Below is a brief introduction to choosing a Hebrew name for your child, from why a Jewish name is important, to the particulars of how that name can be selected, to when a child is traditionally named.
The Role of Names in Jewish Life
Names play an important role in Judaism. From the time a child is given a name during a Brit Milah (boys) or naming ceremony (girls), through their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, and on to their wedding and funeral, their Hebrew name will uniquely identify them in the Jewish community. In addition to major life events, a person’s Hebrew name is used if the community says a prayer for them and when they are remembered after their passing on their Yahrzeit.
When an person’s Hebrew name is used as part of a Jewish ritual or prayer, it is usually followed by the name of their father or mother. Hence a boy would be called “David [son’s name] ben [son of] Baruch [father’s name]” and a girl would be called “Sarah [daughter’s name] bat [daughter of] Rachel [mother’s name].
Choosing a Hebrew Name
There are many traditions associated with choosing a Hebrew name for a baby. In the Ashkenazi community, for example, it is common to name a child after a relative who has passed away. According to Ashkenazi folk belief, a person’s name and their soul are closely interconnected, so it is bad luck to name a child after a living person because doing so would shorten the lifespan of the older person. The Sephardic community does not share this belief and hence it is common to name a child after a living relative. Though these two traditions are exact opposites they share something in common: in both cases parents are naming their children after a beloved and admired relative.
Of course, many Jewish parents choose not to name their children after a relative. In these cases parents often turn to the Bible for inspiration, looking for biblical characters whose personalities or stories resonate with them. It is also common to name a child after a particular character trait, after things found in nature, or after aspirations the parents might have for their child. For instance, “Eitan” means “strong,” “Maya” means “water,” and “Uziel” means “God is my strength.” You can find additional examples of Hebrew names in Hebrew Names for Boys and Hebrew Names for Girls.
In Israel parents usually give their child one name that is in Hebrew and this name is used in both their secular and religious life. Outside of Israel it is common for parents to give their child a secular name for everyday use and a second Hebrew name to use in the Jewish community.
All of the above is to say, there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to giving your child a Hebrew name. Choose a name that is meaningful for you and that you feel best suits your child.
When is a Jewish Baby Named?
Traditionally a baby boy is named as part of his Brit Milah, which is also called a Bris. This ceremony takes place eight days after the child is born and is meant to signify a Jewish boy’s covenant with God. After the baby is blessed and circumcised by a mohel (a trained professional who is usually a doctor) he is given his Hebrew name. It is customary not to reveal the child’s name until this time.
Baby girls are usually named in the synagogue during the first Shabbat service after their birth. A minyan (ten Jewish adult men) is required to perform this ceremony. The father is given an aliyah, where he ascends the bimah and reads from the Torah. After this the baby girl is given her name. According to Rabbi Alfred Koltach, “the naming can also take place at the morning service on Monday, Thursday or on Rosh Chodesh since the Torah is read on those occasions as well” (Koltach, 22).
References: "The Jewish Book of Why" by Rabbi Alfred J. Koltach. Jonathan David Publishers: New York, 1981.