Family Values – Winter 1994
Question: Should Humanistic Jewish children be given Hebrew names?
Responsum: Giving names to babies is as old as human speech. Giving Hebrew names to Jewish babies is as old as the Jewish people and the Hebrew language.
Personal names, unlike family names or clan names, designate unique individuals. But, since they are usually limited in number, they need to be reinforced by family names or clan names or even nicknames, in order to provide a unique identification. One name, like Yohanan, is insufficient. It is personal, but not unique. It needs surnames to make it more specific — a patronymic like Yohanan ben Ezra (Yohanan, bom of Ezra) or a place name like Yohanan Yerushalami (Yohanan of Jerusalem).
Historically, personal names often reflected the religious commitments and aspirations of the parents who conferred them. The name Eliyahu (Elijah) means “labored is my god.” The name Yehezkel (Ezekiel) means “God is strong.” Children were walking advertisements of cultic attachments.
Personal names also reflected the hopes of the parents. David means “beloved”; Etan means “mighty.” The chosen name pointed to some ideal characteristic the parent wanted the child to embody. The right name, it was hoped, would help to produce the right result.
In time two changes occurred. As Jews ceased to live in Hebrew-speaking environments, non-Hebrew names became more popular. In the Oriental world, non- Hebrew names simply replaced the Hebrew ones. In the Ashkenazic world, Jewish boys — and sometimes girls — received two names: a non-Hebrew name used for secular purposes, and a Hebrew name used for ceremonial purposes.
The second change was the tendency to give children the Hebrew names of ancestors as a way of conferring immortality on the departed. Babies were named after deceased grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Ashkenazim refused to name children after living relatives out of fear that “stealing” a name would endanger the life of its owner. Sephardic and Oriental Jews, however, often named children after living family members. Today, in the Diaspora, most Hebrew names are secondary and are derived from ancestral names. Hebrew naming is a way of honoring the family’s past.
In modern Israel, Hebrew names have become primary again; the secular name and the ceremonial name are one and the same. For secular Israelis, personal names and the new surnames some have adopted have less to do with ancestors than with the sound and meaning of the name. When David Green of Poland became David Ben Gurion of Palestine, the new surname was not chosen because it was ancestral. The meaning, “young lion,” was attractive and evocative of positive feeling.
For Humanistic Jews in the Diaspora, Hebrew names generally are secondary and ceremonial. But they are important. Since Hebrew is uniquely Jewish, a Hebrew name reinforces Jewish identity.
Humanistic parents have several options if they want their child to have a Hebrew ceremonial name. They can choose the Hebrew name of a deceased or living relative as a way of honoring the dead or the living. Or they can choose a Hebrew name that reflects their hopes for the child, like Haim (life) or Aliza (joy). This second option is becoming increasingly popular. A third option that has become quite common is to use a biblical Hebrew name, such as Adam or Miriam, as the primary secular name.
Humanistic Jews are guided by the past but are not bound by the past. Folk superstitions, like not naming children after living relatives, are no longer relevant. And to feel compelled to find a Hebrew ceremonial name that sounds like the secular name is absurd. If names are significant, it is better to give a girl called Lynne the Hebrew name of Ahava (love) than to choose Lenh (ewe lamb) simply because it begins with the letter L.
In an assimilated secular world, Hebrew names help to remind us of our Jewish identity. It would be wonderful if their meaning also would help to reinforce our commitment to humanistic values and ideals.