Chicago Chesed Fund

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hebrew Names, Jewish Names, & Secular Names. A Guest Post, Annotated

This was originally posted here in May 2009.  In June 2013 we posted on three closely related topics:  When one should name a daughter; The profound significance of the naming of a child; and Why some Gedolim insist that we only give our children traditional names.


This is an article that appeared in the "Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society" (Fall 1997.) I referred to it in a post that discussed Jewish names that are abbreviations, and the author kindly sent me a copy. The article is thorough and engaging; Some format static was introduced by my inexpert conversion of the document from pdf to html. I have neither the skill nor the inclination to fiddle around with it, and the errors are inconsequential.

I have added my own remarks in and after the footnotes, and my interpolations, annotations, and addenda are clearly marked as such by being in bold italics.

Secular Names
Steven Oppenheimer, D.D.S.
And G-d formed from the earth every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to Adam to see what he would call each one; and whatever Adam called each living creature, that remained its name (Hu Sh'mo).1
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch2 says the word Shem (name) comes from the word Sham (place). A person's name (Shem) indicates his place in the world. When someone is given a name, that name has a profound effect on that person's essence. The Besht, the Ba'al Shem Tov, commenting on this verse in Genesis,3 wrote HaShem Hu Ha'Neshama Shel Ha'Adam, one's name is one's very soul. In fact, the middle letters of the word neSHaMa (soul), spell the word Shem (name).
The Midrash states:
The Jews were redeemed from Egypt through the merit of four things: they didn't change their names, they didn't change their language, they didn't engage in gossip (Lashon HaRa), and they didn't engage in licentious behavior; they didn't change their names, they went down [to Egypt] as Reuven and Shimon and they left [Egypt] as Reuven and Shimon; and they didn't call Reuven, Rufus, and they didn't call Shimon, Luliani, nor Yosef, Listim nor Binyamin, Alexander.4
If a person's name is so important, and if the Midrash states that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt because they didn't change their names, how is it that today, secular names are so widespread among Jews? If one can learn from Galut Mitzrayim, the exile in Egypt, and extrapolate from Geulat Mitzrayim, the redemption from Egypt, then it would seem that we should not have secular names, but good Hebrew names! How is it that so many Jews in America today have Hebrew and English names? Could it be that we are holding up the Geulah by having secular names?
Maharam Shick5 quotes the Midrash, (that they didn't change their names) and writes that it is a Torah prohibition to have a non-Jewish name. We see this from the verse Hivdalti etchem min Ha'Amim, (and I have separated you from the nations)?6 Maharam Shick quotes Rambam7, that we see from this verse that one is not permitted to dress like the Gentiles. So, too, says Maharam Shick, we are not allowed to call ourselves by a non-Jewish name. "And don't say", says Maharam Shick, "that I also have a Hebrew name to be called up to the Torah, that is foolish and stupid, and it is still prohibited to have a non-Jewish name."
The Talmud8 quotes the verse in Mishle9, "and the name of the wicked shall rot," and brings a grim story referred to in a passage from Lamentations.10 A child was given the name Do'eg (in spite of Do'eg's bad reputation).11 His mother would measure his weight every day and would give the increase in his weight in gold to the Beit HaMikdash. In spite of this, the child died a horrible death. The Talmud states that none should name their children after wicked people and because of the unfortunate choice of name and the deviation from custom, "see what happened to him." The Migdal Oz, Rabbi Ya'akov Emden, writes12 that just as we are not allowed to name someone after a wicked person as it says in Mishle, "and the name of the wicked shall rot," so too, it is also not permitted to have a non-Jewish name.
Rabbi Yosef Rosen, zt"l, writes13 that one is permitted to have a secular name that is a translation of one's Hebrew name.
It interesting that the Chatam Sofer, writes14 that someone who has two names, shem kodesh and shem chol, a Hebrew name and a secular name, should not be called to the Torah by both names. He was not referring to the Hebrew name and the English name but to the Hebrew name and the Yiddish name. The Yiddish name is the shem chol, the secular name. If your name is Tzvi Hersh you should only be called up by the name Tzvi.
How is it that so many of us have Hebrew and secular names? Not only that, but throughout the ages we see Jews have taken secular names. We find many non-Hebrew names among the zugot mentioned in Pirkei Avot. Antigonos and Avtalyon are some examples. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, points out that many Amoraim had non-Hebrew names, such as Mar Kashisha, Rav Z'vid, Mar Zutra, and Rav Papa. Most of the names of the Geonim were Aramaic and not Hebrew. The author of the Maggid Mishnah was Rabbeinu Vidal. The name Maimon, the father of Rambam, appears to be a secular name.15 Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk was also called Rav Velvele; his grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the Bait HaLevi, was called Rav Yoshe Ber, and Rav Yitzchok Dov Bamberger of Wurtzburg was called Rav Seligman Ber.16 The great thirteenth-century leader of French Jewry was known by the Hebrew name, Rav Yechiel of Paris and by the French, Vivant of Meaux.17
Doesn't all this seem to be against the Midrash that we spoke of earlier? Rav Moshe Feinstein states18 that many non-Hebrew names that have gained acceptance in the Jewish community today as Jewish names started out as secular names taken from the countries in which Jews lived. At the time, says Rav Moshe, the rabbis complained about Jews taking these names, but they eventually gained acceptance. Today's secular names are not any worse than the old secular names. The new names just haven't been around as long. Eventually, they, too, will probably be accepted. And, therefore, when one writes a get, a bill of divorce, all secular names are equal, one isn't any holier than another.
Let us address, then, the last two remaining questions: (1) What about the Midrash, (they did not change their names) and, therefore, the Jews merited redemption? And if this is so, (2) Why do so many of us have a secular name? Rabbi Yehuda Loew, zt"l, the Maharal MiPrague, explains our Midrash as a special requirement only for the Jews of Egypt.19 They had not yet become a nation and needed the strict adherence to retaining their names and their language to serve as a distinction between them and the Egyptians. Rabbi Loew explains that one's name serves as one's personal connection to one's nation. A people's language serves as its connection to its nationhood. Rav Moshe also makes this point, that the requirement not to have a secular name was only for that period in time and is not a law today. While it may not be desirable to give your child a secular name, there is no issur (prohibition) involved.
As for the second question, "Why do so many of us have secular names?", I would like to share a fascinating historical insight. There are, apparently, three categories of names that Jews have had. 1) Shem kodesh – names taken from Tanach (Bible) or Gemara (Talmud). These were given at the Brit and were used for Aliyahs to the Torah, Jewish legal documents, and in prayers for the sick. 2) Shem chol – these were usually Yiddish-German nicknames that were given on the Shabbat that the mother came to Shul during the Cholkreisch (hollekreisch) ceremony. In Eastern Europe, in recent generations, this ceremony has been lost. 3) Shem lo yehudi – during the period of emancipation, these names were adopted by the Jews of Central and Western Europe for the purpose of governmental registration. These names were unrelated to the Cholkreisch ceremony.
The purpose of the Cholkreisch ceremony was to establish the child's nickname, the shem chol, to be used in his everyday life. The Cholkreisch ceremony is about 1,000 years old. Rav Simcha of Vitry20 and Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid both write about this ceremony. The first one to mention it by name and explain the name, however, was the fifteenth-century Rabbi Moshe HaLevi MiMagentza, the Maharam Mintz. He explained that Hol or Chol referred to the secular name and Kreisch referred to the calling out (Tze'a'ka) of that name. ["In German, in the southern region, they call Tze'a'ka, kreisch."]
Rabbi Avraham Moshe Tendlau (1801-1877) wrote that the word "kreisch" used in the sense of "Tze'aka" comes from the old German "kreien", or "kreischen". This is similar to the English word in use today, 'cry']. On the first Shabbat that the mother came to Shul, the children of the community would be invited to the home of the new baby. They would lift up the cradle and call out the nickname, the shem chol, of the new baby. The adults would throw fruit to the children. The sixteenth-century rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Hahn Neuerlingen, author of Yosef Ohmetz, warned about the custom of throwing fruit to the children. The fruit got squashed and this was Bizui Ochlin, a desecration of food. The custom arose to throw candy to the children. This is probably the origin of today's custom to throw candy to the children at joyous occasions in shul. There are those who say that the lifting of the cradle during the naming is the origin of the name Hollekreisch. In French, lifting the cradle is called, "haut la creche" which is similar to the term "hollekreisch".21
Rabbeinu Tam22 indicates that Jews would give themselves Hebrew names but the Gentiles would call them other names. When his Aunt Rachel got divorced, she had a secular name given to her by the Gentiles, Belle-Assez which means very pretty. This is the origin of the Yiddish name Bayla. The Rosh also speaks of Gentiles giving Jews names during his time. Zanvil was a nickname for Shmuel, Rechlin for Rachel, Mirush for Miryam, Bunam for Simcha, Seligman for Pinchas, Wolf for Shimon, and Zalman for Shlomo.23
Historically, there was a distinction between the Shem Kodesh, the Hebrew name, and the Shem Chol, the secular name. The Shem Kodesh served for d'varim she'b'kedusha, holy matters, such as being called to the Torah, prayers, and the writing of Jewish legal documents. The Shem Chol served for secular matters, as a nickname used by the person's family and friends. The Shem Kodesh was given in Shul at the time of the Brit; the Shem Chol was given at the baby's home while he lay in his cradle. We see this from Maharam Mintz who wrote over 500 years ago about a man called Meshulam Zalman. "He is called Meshulam to the Sefer Torah and this is the Shem Kodesh that his father gave him at the Brit, and the secular nickname for Meshulam is Zalman, the name given to him by his father and mother in his cradle on the Shabbat that she went with him to Shul, and this (ceremony) is called 'Hol Kreisch'."24
The student of the Trumat Ha'Deshen (1389-1459) wrote a sefer called Leket Yosher. In the introduction, he introduces himself as follows: "My name is Yuzlan and I am called to the Sefer Torah as Yosef B'Reb Moshe." Concerning his Rebbi he wrote: The Gaon is called to the Sefer Torah as Yisrael B'Reb Petachya, z"l, but the world calls him Rabbi Isserlin ."25 Rabbi Moshe ben Yisrael, zt"l, is known as the Ramo. Ramo is an acronym for Rav Moshe Isserlis. Isserlis means "son of Yisrael."
In Germany, a clear separation was kept between the Shem Kodesh and the Shem Chol. In Eastern Europe, however, over the course of time, this distinction was blurred, most probably as a result of the abandonment of the Cholkreisch ritual. There were some rabbis, such as the student of the Shevet Sofer , (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Tzoval MiFakash) who attempted to stop the mixing of the two names. He allowed use only of the Shem Kodesh when calling someone to the Torah. In time it became common for people in Eastern Europe to use both the secular name and the Hebrew name for all matters. This created halachic problems in writing Gittin (divorce papers). In the past only the Shem Kodesh had been used. Now, it was uncertain exactly what should be written.26
During the period of Emancipation, there were Jews who wanted to be accepted by the Gentile population and took non-Jewish first names. In Prussia, the government prohibited Jews to change their Jewish names to Christian names. In 1787, an Austrian edict limited the Jews to biblical first names. Nevertheless, the assimilationists managed to take Christian names. In 1836, Leopold Zunz published a book entitled Namen der Juden in which he attempted to prove that throughout the ages Jews had names given to them by the Gentiles. In this way, he hoped to persuade the government to allow Jews to choose any name they wanted.
In the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the government allowed the Jews to adopt Christian names. The overwhelming response on the part of the Jews to take such names surprised even the Gentiles. When Maharam Shick27 turned over the official list of names of his congregants to the local government official, the official berated him over the fact that so many Jews had non-Jewish names. The official was astounded that they were not proud enough of their Jewish heritage. It was then that Maharam Schick wrote his responsum decrying taking non-Jewish names.28 He explained that following the law making it obligatory for Jews to have surnames, his father took the last name, SHiK, which was the abbreviation for Shem Yisrael Kadosh – a Jew's name is holy. This was done to remind his progeny of the importance of retaining a Jewish name. It is interesting to note that when a controversy arose over a rabbi who preached in the vernacular rather than in a "Jewish language", Maharam Schick came to his defense and justified the rabbi's practice.29
Non-Jewish names were to be found among Jews even during the time of the Tanaim. There is a Braita30 that teaches:
Divorce papers brought from abroad (to Israel) signed by witneses, even if the names are like the names of idolators, [the divorce papers] are valid. [This is] because most of the Jews [who live] outside of Israel have names that resemble the names of idolators.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes31 that it is impossible to determine when non-Jewish names came to be considered as Jewish names since all these names were originally taken from the Gentiles. In the beginning, the rabbis complained about these names, but they took hold. So, too, the rabbis could complain about the English names that Jews have taken in this country and similar names in other countries, but how much should they complain and how successful would they be? Rav Moshe is telling us that these non-Jewish names have been around for a long time in one form or another.
A number of countries in Central and Western Europe required Jews to register their children's birth in the official registry. Only German names were recognized, and so almost every Jew had a German first name, just as it is common today for Jews in Anglo-Saxon countries to have English names.32
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1844-1918) wrote that since many Jews had left the ghetto and lived among the Gentiles, they were uncomfortable about calling themselves overtly Jewish names, fearing ridicule by the Gentiles, and so chose German names. Rabbi Carlebach recommended that they adopt a translation of their Hebrew names, i.e. Abraham for Avraham and Moses for Moshe. Social pressure, however, eventually led more and more Jews to take German names.33
A name determines one's destiny34
Had the generations so merited, G-d would have given each and every person a name, and from that name we would have known that person's nature and deeds.35
One should ever examine names, to give his son a name worthy of him to becoxme a righteous person, for sometimes the name may be a contributory factor for for evil or for good.36
The Talmud37 brings the story of Rabbi Meir who stopped at an inn with his two travelling companions. Rabbi Meir didn't want to leave his money with the innkeeper named Kidor, because Rabbi Meir doubted his honesty. He based his suspicions upon the verse, "they are a generation ( Ki Dor ) given to perverseness."38 In the end, Rabbi Meir turned out to be right and Kidor, the innkeeper, stole his (Rabbi Meir's) companions' money. They complained to Rabbi Meir that he should have warned them. Rabbi Meir answered, " I considered this name a suspicion, not a definite presumption." In other words, a name can only arouse suspicion that a person may have an intrinsic dishonest nature. A name cannot, however, determine this definitively, since a person may overcome this character flaw and control the negative influences of his name.
We see that one should be very careful to select a name for a child that will have a positive effect upon his growth and development. A Hebrew name carefully selected does just that. This is what the Ba'al Shem Tov meant when he wrote that a name can manifest one's very essence. While the practice of using non-Hebrew names has been around for a long time, it is clear that Chazal saw major benefits in having and using a Shem Kodesh – a Hebrew name.
Every time a person engages in the performance of mitzvahs, he acquires a good name (Shem Tov) for himself. A person is called by three names – that which he is called by his father and mother, that which he is called by others, and that which he acquires for himself. The best of all is the name he acquires for himself [by the performance of mitzvahs].39
Let us strive for the ideal approach. Let us choose a Shem Kodesh and pursue a Shem Tov. Let us pursue mitzvot and be proud to be Jews. And may our names and our deeds hasten the final redemption.

1.Genesis 2:19
2. In his commentary to Genesis 2:19
3 P'ninei Ha'Chasidut. (Blog note: this idea is also found in the Ohr Hachaim Devarim 29:19. By the way, the "Likutei He'aros" on the Ohr Hachaim there credits a sefer called "Ohr Habahir" for the oft searched for statement that the father is given divine inspiration, Ru'ach Hakodesh, when he chooses a name for his son. But I'll tell you that in my opinion, and in my personal experience, headstrong and/or stupid always trumps Ruach Hakodesh; when a Brass Band is playing, it's hard to hear the Kol Demama Dakah.)
4 Shir HaShirim Rabah, Chapter 4 (Blog note: Also in Vayikra Rabba in Parshas Emor #32)
5 Responsa Maharam Shick, Y.D., Chap. 169.
6 Based on Leviticus 20:24 (Blog note: The Maharam Shik's opinion on this matter is by no means normative. He tends toward the extremes when dealing with issues that touch upon haskala.)
7 Hilchot Akum 11:1 (Blog note: The Rambam he brings is a weak raya, especially since the Rambam doesn't mention the issue of Jewish names.)8 T.B. Yoma, 38b
9 Mishle, 10:7
10 Lamentations, 2:20
11 Do'eg Ha'Adomi, who lived during the time of Sha'ul HaMelech, was originally a great scholar and head of the Sanhedrin. He engaged in lashon ha'ra (slander) against David HaMelech and helped poison the relationship between Sha'ul and David. Do'eg died at age 34. The Talmud says that he had no share in olam haba (the world to come).
12 Nachal Tet, 14.
13 Tzafnat Pa'ne'ach, No. 275.
14 E.H., No. 21.
15 Iggerot Moshe, Vol. IV, No. 66.
16 Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, by R. Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger, B'nei Brak, 5755.
17 Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 12, page 810.
18 Iggerot Moshe, E.H., Vol. 3, No. 35. (Blog note: As the author mentions, Reb Moshe says the same svara as the Maharal, although he says it noncommittally-- he says it is a reasonable pshat, but he is not comfortable stating it as a matter of halachic fact. Also, while the author quotes Reb Moshe as saying "While it may not be desirable to give your child a secular name, there is no issur (prohibition) involved", in fact Reb Moshe calls it "megunah," shameful--unless it is given to honor or memorialize a family member who had a non-Jewish name; see below, Additional notes, #3.)19 G'vurot HaShem, Chap. 43.
20 Rashi's noted student and author of Machzor Vitry.
21 Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, loc. cit.
22 Tshuvot Rabbeinu Tam, No. 25.
23 Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz.
24 Ibid.
27 Hungary, 1807 - 1879.
28 Responsa Maharam Shick, Y.D., No. 169. (Blog note: Shick is an old gentile German name. For example, Conrad Shick was a German protestant missionary who lived in Jerusalem in the eighteen hundreds. And see where it is clear that Shick has a long history as a German gentile name. I don't think the Maharam's father thought he was inventing a name. I think the Maharam's father chose the well known name of Shick because he could invest it with a dual meaning. Among gentiles, it is a common German name. Within his own family, he let it be known that it means "Shem Yisrael Kodesh." It would be like naming a child Mickey and saying it stands for Mi K'amcha Yisrael.)  29 Ibid. O.C. No. 70.
30 T.B. Gittin 11b.
31 Iggerot Moshe, E.H. Vol. 3, No. 35.
32 Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz.
33 Ibid.
34 T. B. Brachot 7b.
35 Midrash Tanchuma.
36 Ibid., Parshat Ha'azinu. (Blog note: R' Eliezer Papo in the Pele Yoeitz, Letter Shin, D'H Shem Tov, says that if one is interested in the benefit the child can derive from the influence of a name, one should give his child a name that commemorates some chesed Hashem did for the father, rather than taking a family name. For example, Rav Gifter's daughter's name is Rebbetzin Shlomis Eisenberg, and Reb Moshe's son's name is Rav Sholom Reuven Feinstein, because they were born either during or immediately after WWII. See also below in Additional Blog Notes #4.)37 T.B. Yoma 83b.
38 Deuteronomy 32:20.
39 Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat VaYak'hel.

Additional Blog notes:

1. See the Comment section, below, for an interesting discussion of the names of Mordechai and Esther, which, are certainly not Hebrew, and which some consider reminiscent of the names of certain pagan deities.

2. An Important Preliminary Analysis:

Three Aspects of the Concept of "Names."

What, exactly, does the word "name" mean? What constitutes a name?
See Even Ha'ezer 129 regarding what names are used in Gittin, and see the Chazon Ish EH 93:15 on these halachos, where he extensively discusses the relative standing of the various names a person has, such as the name given at the bris, when one is ill, by one's friends, and various disparate circumstances. For example, in business, when I'm dealing with a non-Jew, I tell them my name is Gene. I chose Gene because non-Hebrew speakers mangle my name, and Eugene means "born of good parents." It is completely unrelated to the name I usually use, but if you ask my business contacts, they'll tell you it is my name. So, is my name Gene? If you say it isn't, then you have to think about whether Reb Moshe's expression that a non-Jewish name is "megunah," shameful, applies to a person named Yaakov Koppel at his bris who chooses to tell people to call him Kyle or Gene or Steven. On the other hand, one can argue that the name a person is known by is more "his name" than the name that's only used to call him up for an aliyah or to write on his kesuva and gravestone. (As it happens, the Chazon Ish holds that one's name is what people call him, unless they know that he has a 'real' name and the 'real' name is used at formal occassions, such as signing documents or getting an aliyah. Reb Moshe said the same thing-- at a wedding, he was writing the kesuva, and the chasan told him that his kallah's name was Sarah, but she has another name that nobody knows and nobody calls her by because she hates it and is embarrassed by it, and Reb Moshe said "Nishtakei'ah" and didn't write it in the Kesuva.) . After all, Tanach is full of names that were given later in life, and they are called names anyway. I know two young men named Josh whose Aliyah names are not Yehoshua, but completely different. (And, among Chasidim, it so happens that almost every person who is called "Zalmen Leib" in his daily interactions is called to the Torah by "Yekusiel Yehuda.") When they get aliyos, people who are paying attention are surprised, because they always knew them as Josh, and here they're getting aliyos by names like Shmuel or Baruch. According to the Chazon Ish, it is not at all simple whether their 'real' names are Josh or the Aliya names.

It can be argued, however, that the comparison to Gittin is incorrect: what we call a 'name' for Gittin may be totally irrelevant to what is called a name for the purposes of our discussion. The determination of the name in a Get is based exclusively on clarity in identification. The din that Shemo uShemah are de'oraysa by a get doesn't really require names at all. If the people had unique and prominent physical characterisitics, we could write a get with no names at all, but instead just write "the man with three eyes and the woman with the horn in middle of her forehead." On the other hand, the idea discussed in this article, the preference of using Jewish names, involves two entirely different issues: Ethnic pride/Religious affiliation (in other words, that a Jew should use a Jewish name because it shows pride and affiliation with Judaism, while a non-Jewish name shows indifference, as Rashi says in Shemos when Moshe Rabbeinu did not correct the daughters of Yisro when they referred to him as an "Ish Mitzri,", or the Maharam Shik's "chukos ha'amim,") and the spiritual advantage of the inner essence of whatever the Hebrew name signifies, whether it is a trait or a reference to some bygone tzadik, (as we find by Adam, whose naming of the species in Hebrew was a portentous event that reflected and reinforced their essential reality and spirituality.)

Again: Defining 'name' in the context of Gittin, therefore, is a matter of eliminating, as far as possible, potential ambiguity in the mind of the reader, and clarity in publicizing exactly who was divorced. Defining 'name' in the context of the article, being a two-pronged analysis, might not be that simple. If it is a matter of ethnic pride/religious affiliation/chukos ha'amim, then perhaps we should define 'name' as that which one chooses to use in daily life. If it is a question of the connection with and influence of the spiritual elements of the name, the deeper meaning and history of the name, perhaps all that matters is the fact he uses it to be called up for aliyos.

And since when are Surnames names at all? Perhaps "name" in our culture only refers to the individual's given name, not the family name, which, in a sense, is no different than identifying the person by calling him Hirshel Varzhaner to indicate that he's from Varzhan.
So: the following three dinim and purposes in a 'name" are conceptually and analytically discrete; and unless you are careful to focus on which attribute is relevant to your discussion, you will end up ploydering.
a. Identification
b. Ethnic/Religious affiliation
c. Spiritual influence of the name

Once you have decided which of the above aspects of a name you are examining, you have to determine what the person's real name is- because not everything people call you is your name, and what they called you at the bris might not be your name either.

As the Medrash Rabba Koheles 7:3 on Tov sheim mi'shemen tov says, every man has three names: the name his mother and father called him (she'karu lo aviv ve'imo), the name his friends called him (she'karu lo chaveirav), and the name he is given in the heavenly record of his deeds and behavior (she'karui lo be'sefer toldos briyaso).

3. Reb Moshe says that initially, parents who gave their children secular names were strongly decried by the Gedolei Hador, but over time certain names gained acceptance. But, and this is an important 'but', he also says that once a name is in a family, "kevod hamishpacha" is more important than the general preference for a Hebrew name, and therefore one should take the name of the family member even if it is not Jewish.

4. The question of whether to name a child for an event or for a relative is literally antedeluvian: it has been discussed since before Noach. The Medrash in Breishis Rabbah Parshas Noach 37:11 on the naming of Peleg, "Ki beyamav niflegah ha'aretz" says the following:
Reb Yosi: The ancients, who saw ten generations of their living ancestors, named their children "l'sheim ha'me'orah," in the name of an event. We, whose ancestors haven't survived to see us, name our children for them. (Eitz Yosef-- so they should not be forgotten.)
Reb Shimon ben Gamliel: The ancients, who had Ruach Hokodesh, divine inspiration, named their children "l'sheim ha'me'orah," in the name of an event. We, that do not have Ruach Hakodesh, name our children after our ancestors.
So, you see two interesting things in the Medrash; that it is a personal choice whether to name a child after a relative or to commemorate an event, which is slightly different than the Pele Yo'eitz that I brought in the main note section #36. Also, a careful reading shows that Reb Yosi's "ahl sheim ha'me'orah" does not mean the same thing as Reb Shimon ben Gamliel's "ahl sheim ha'me'orah." RSbG means "a future event," which is why he says you need ruach hakodesh to do this; while Reb Yosi does not necessarily mean that, and can mean that they gave the name for an event in the past or the present, or changed the name contemporaneous with some event in the person's lifetime. If he meant the same as RSbG, he would have agreed that naming ahl sheim ha'me'orah would have required ru'ach hakodesh. Since he doesn't say that, he must have not meant the same thing with "ahl sheim ha'me'orah." So: Reb Shimon ben Gamliel is is certainly different than the Pele Yo'eitz, since RSbG is not discussing at all the idea of naming for a past event. Maybe the Pele Yoeitz works with Reb Yosi, maybe not, because the Medrash says that the minhag is to name after relatives, not events.)

5. Reb Moshe, in his Igros YD 3:97 has a fascinating teshuva. The case was that the mother did not tell the father that she gave birth to his child. I assume they were separated for six or seven months, or divorced, or never married. When the boy was born, she arranged the bris without telling her ex about it, and the child was named without the father's input. This sounds weird, but you can see it happening in bitter divorces. where one party leaves town. And, if you know about the battles even happily married couples sometimes have about names, you can be sure that this mother was determined to eliminate her ex's input on this important decision. Obviously, the Millah is valid. But what about the name? Does the father lose the right to name his child?
Reb Moshe says that there are no hard and fast rules about who may name a child. In the case of Moshe Rabbeinu, the name that is used was given him by the daughter of Pharaoh, while his father and mother called him other names, as explained in the Yalkut Shemos Remez 166. Certainly a mother's right to name her child is at least as valid as the father's. The preference of the name given by Yaakov to Binyamin over that given by Rachel, Ben Oni, was pursuant to reasons specific to that particular event. So this child's name will be that which the mother gave him, but his father can call him by a different name. The teshuva clearly indicates that he is called to the Torah by the name given to him by his mother (here, his maternal grandfather as directed by the mother,) at the bris.

6. Naming a child is a very important and auspicious event. There is an amazing Drisha in Yoreh Dei'ah at the end of 360 that states the following: When one has a choice of which of certain events involving mitzvos to attend, there are rules of priority. For example, if there is a choice of attending a levaya, or a wedding, or a bris, the Tur there discusses the order of relative importance. The Drisha states that in those cases where a bris has top priority, attending the naming of a girl has equal status. Although he does not cite his source, this comes from the Eliah Rabba. It is clear that this shittah holds that the importance of attending a bris is not the milah, it is the fact that the child is named at that time. Therefore, he holds, attending the naming of a girl has exactly the same significance and importance.

Steven Oppenheimer is a practicing endodontist in Miami Beach, Florida. This article was dedicated to the memory of his beloved father, Chayim Gershon ben Meir, A"H.
Barzilai is a quasi-functional biped metabolising in Chicago. His notes and comments are the product of a hobby that is, currently, pretty much the only thing keeping him from demonstrating his disagreement with Camus.
Thank you Dr. Oppenheimer for your kind permission to republish the article.

Lehavdil elef havdalos:
Purely out of bemusement, allow me to direct you to an article called "Holle's Cry: unearthing a birth goddess in a German Jewish naming ceremony.", by Jill Hammer, published in 2005 in a Journal which is dedicated to exploration of feminine spirituality in Judaism named "Nashim". The article's perspective is at odds with Rabbinic Judaism and disdainful towards Orthodox philosophy and traditions, and it helps to have a couple of beers in you before you start to read it. But it does cite many interesting minhagim associated with the Holkreisch ceremony. The fact is that individual feminists occasionally appeared in the Orthodox milieu long before its modern incarnation as a movement, and it is possible that some of the ideas in the article reflect the attitudes and intentions of some ur-feminists. We all have the odd relative or two we prefer to not talk about.   Antiquity is not evidence of legitimacy.  An old fool is still no more than a fool.  You might have to sign up for a free membership to view the entire article.


  1. I am a little surprised that someone addressed this topic without discussing what I would think are the two best known examples -- Mordechai and Esther. Both are not only secular names, but downright idolatrous in origin, references to Marduk (who the Kenaanim called "Molekh") and Ishtar (a/k/a "Asheirah").

    Perhaps the comparison isn't to an American Jew named Christopher, but perhaps to someone in Inquisition Spain named Christobol. (Not that I mean to imply that Don Christobol Cologn was necessarily Jewish; it's just the whole "Columbus was a Jew" thing made that example come to mind.)

    The megillah tells us Esther had a Jewish name, "Hadassah". Chazal argue as to who Mordechai was; or in terms relevent for this discussion, whether Mordechai was the civil name with someone whose Jewish name was Ezra or Chaggai.


  2. Dont forget Rabeynu Peter from the baaley ha tosfos.

  3. I'm waiting for someone to say "and how about Satmar, which takes its name from a town called Saint Mary?"

    The issue of using names of idolatrous origin raises issues far more serious than the appropriateness of using secular names. We can't even say "meet me at the statue of Odin." How can it be that Mordechai and Esther were given names that are recognizable echoes of the names of Idols that were currently worshipped? What happened to "lo yishama ahl picha? We have to say that these names were given to reflect, as the Gemara says, Mor deror and Hasteir astir, and thereby the ostensible echo of Idols was rendered coincident and halachically irelevant. I don't see any alternative at all to that pshat.

  4. Satu Mare means "Great Village". The Romanian "Mare" is like the Russian "Mir".

    "Sfanta Maria" would be Romanian for "St Mary". And I doubt the Satmar would use it for self-identification any more than the Tzelemer would call themselves after "Deutschkreutz" (or "Keresztúr" or Németkeresztúr", or "Sopronkeresztúr" - name changed as borders did).

    The urban legend was discussed on online fora before, so I just had to dig up the recalled conversation.


  5. Thank you, Micha, for correcting the misunderstanding. For readers, let me clarify that the word "mir" in Russian has several meanings. In addition to "community" and "assembly," it also means "world" and "peace." So if Satu Mare means great village, a literal translation would be Village Great.

    However, Micha, I am waiting to hear what you have to say regarding the Mordechai/Esther issue.

  6. I don't have much of an answer. It's the same question as using the name of "Tammuz" for a month. Perhaps it was permissible because by the time they took on these civil names, Zoroastrianism had already made Marduk, Ishtar and Tammuz historical. I don't understand fully how that works -- but I heard it about Tammuz; I'm just extending the same notion.

    But I think the original question is more interesting. My parents named me both Micha and Mitchel. I don't know too many Jews who would care about halakhah and still name their child Jesus. People who name their children Isidor and Isabelle (love and beauty of Isis, respectively; yet another reference to the same goddess as Asheirah) don't know the religious origins.


  7. I think that's undebatable; if the religion is no longer followed, its gods become irelevant lehalacha, kal vachomer from bittul being mattir an idol. I wonder, though, if that was the case when Mordechai and Esther were given their names. And I see that you are not nispa'el from my lomdus about mor dror and hasteir astir rehabilitating the names.

  8. One could say Chazal were explaining how HQBH allowed it to happen, what He was hinting at when He drew our attention to heros with names that remind one of Mor-deror and Hesteir panim.

    It's like "yarmulka". The word is a general Slavic term for a cap. (And before that, Turkic.) But if we didn't associate the word with Yarei Malka, would we have adopted it and embraced it? Perhaps, perhaps not.

    These post-facto etymologies have meaning, but they're still post facto.


  9. Or, since Mordechai and Esther's parents were tzadikim, (since Chazal say taht when a tzadik's name is given as x ben y, y was a tzadik as well,) they gave them these dual meaning names for exactly the reason Chazal give. Or they were just indulging in wishful thinking, like the Sefardim that name their kids Yinon because that's supposed to be one of Mashiach's names.

  10. Why did the Mahram Shick make such a taram about names but said nothing about the equally disparged practice of adopting languages other than loshon kodesh?

  11. I suppose because in his time, among Jews everyone spoke Yiddish, which, of course, is Lashon Hakodesh. Actually, it could be said to be a lashon hakodesh in that it is spoken exclusively by the Jews. Not as good as Hebrew, but it certainly is not a chukos ha'amim language, and would qualify for Lo shinu.