May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
– From the Children’s Blessing recited on Friday nights.
Whether you want to give your baby a biblical name or use something a bit less traditional, there is a wealth of suggestions waiting for you online.
According to tradition, the choice of a Jewish name has great significance. Philadelphia’s Cantor Mark Kirshblum puts it very well. “The name of a person describes his or her essence. It provides identity and generational connection. It begins the process of shaping a human being. Choosing a name empowers parents with creativity, just as God empowered Adam when He assigned him the first independent human act, the task of naming the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and every living thing. … A name can be a portent for the future or a wish that the person live up to the potential expressed in the meaning of the name. It is important, therefore, to give much thought to a child’s shem kodesh, sacred or Hebrew name.”
It is a very common custom to name a child after a relative. Although it is second nature for most Jews, Rabbi Benzion Kaganoff writes that “we find no trace of this custom in the Bible. In ancient days the name a Jew gave his child was generally connected with some event, familiar or public, that had happened at his birth. … Over a period of two thousand years we find no recurrence of the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc. Even in the royal family no names were repeated. Not one of the 21 kings of Judah was named after David, first of the dynasty.” Things only began to change in the later Biblical period.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn writes that “when a child is named after the deceased, the latter’s soul is elevated to a higher realm in heaven and a spiritual affinity is created between the soul of the departed and the soul of the newborn child. That deep spiritual bond between these two souls can have a profound impact on the child.”
Although Sephardim may honour a living family member by naming a child after them, Ashkenazi Jews do not follow that practice. As Ritual Reality explains, “they rarely name children after living relatives, probably dating from a superstition of the Middle Ages to avoid having the Angel of Death take the newborn child instead of the aging relative it was named for by mistake.”
I highly recommend the article, Jewish First Names Through the Ages – Juanita to Yente, Shaindel to Sandra. Written by the late Rabbi Benzion C. Kaganoff and published in Commentary Magazine in 1955 (and later expanded into a book), it is the single best piece I came across documenting the evolution of Jewish names. (Kudos to Commentary Magazine for providing free access to this wonderful archival article.)
Rabbi Kaganoff explains that “Jewish names can serve as clues for deciphering the cultural patterns of Jewish history: from them we can determine whether people’s sentiments inclined towards separateness or assimilation—or Jewish nationalism.”
Sometimes, the baby may be named after a great rabbi or after an event. A baby born on Shabbat might be called Shabbatai or a girl born on Chanukah could be called Meira (“she lights”). Other popular sources are Israeli plants, trees and place names, historical figures and animals. However, Dr. Cleveland Evans of the American Name Society warns against going with a faddish name which may not be appropriate a quarter century from now. “Remember that you’re naming a person, not just a child.”
That view is certainly echoed by Malkie Janowski who writes that choosing is not an arbitrary decision and “that parents are granted a minor degree of divine inspiration when they select names for their children. … One’s name is not merely a handle; it is more than a convenient tool by which he/she can be identified and summoned. It is a conduit through which God provides the individual’s vitality, energy and sustenance. Therefore the Talmud tells us that the great sage Rabbi Meir would ‘scrutinize a name’ and deduce aspects of a person’s nature based on the name’s meaning.”
Next time, resources to help choose the perfect Jewish name.