Guide to Choosing a Jewish Name

This article teaches how to identify the right Jewish name for yourself, or for your child.

Just as Abraham’s original name was Avram, and Sarai his wife’s, their journey includes receiving the Hebrew letter hey into their names to reflect their G*d experience. So, too, it became traditional for parents to intuit and ritually bestow a sacred name upon each of their children. It is customary to withhold public and familial knowledge of this name until the communal rituals of welcome take place. Tradition holds that the name of a soul exists before birth, and what that name is can actually be perceived by the parents. Parents don’t always get this right, so it is possible to change one’s sacred name later in life. Because one’s name is made from the lashon kodesh, the letters of the holy language of the Jewish people, this name is part of ritually establishing the child’s place within the Jewish people and our covenant of ethical living and shared culture. One’s sacred name ideally gives inspiration for living by creating connection to personal, biblical, literary, or historical Jewish ancestors, or to important ideals or texts.

• A Jewish sacred name is a first name, not a surname (last name), and can also double as a person’s every day name. Last names didn’t come into human society until Roman times; before that a person was known as, for example, Goldie bat Shmuel, Goldie the daughter of Shmuel (Samuel). Due, scholars typically say, to acts of war like rape, Jewish identity was changed sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 500 C.E. to be determined by whether the mother was Jewish, so that formulation would read: Goldie bat Liba, Goldie the daughter of Liba. Increasingly, both parents are listed in naming formats for life cycle rites: i.e., Goldie bat Shmuel v’ Lieba, Goldie the daughter of Samuel and Liba. A local rabbi will be able to advise you on which format is appreciated in your community.

• The Jewish sacred name will be required on documents for conversion, naming and circumcision, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage and, heaven forefend, divorce, in healing prayers when needed, and in the end, on one’s grave marker.

• If you are a Jewish parent who will be raising a child you do not have a Jewish sacred name, this is an appropriate time to take one for yourself or to amend yours if that is necessary.

In some traditions a master designates for an acolyte his or her sacred name. In traditional Korean families, for example, the father-in-law names the baby. In the Torah, the mother usually does the naming. In modernity, the parents usually find a name on which they can agree.

Choosing a Sacred Name

First, to get a feel for this, consider whether your own names the right ones for your soul. Try this:

Name Empathy

This experience helps you discover and empathize with the difference between a name that fits and one that misses the mark.
• Gather a few friends together.
• Consider your secular name, if you have one. Create a movement to do with your hands, face, and body as you tell your name to the group.
• Now have the group echo your movements and name back to you on the count of three as close as they can to the way you did it.
• Take in this reflection of how you feel about your secular name.
• Now, do the same sequence with your sacred Jewish name, if you have one.
• Again, experience this reflected back to you.
• Do both names fit? Or does one or the other or both need to be adjusted or replaced?

Finding Your Own or Your Child’s Jewish Sacred Name
 Lists of traditional considerations for name selection are given below, but more important than reading through them is to sit quietly and listen beyond your intellect for what the name is meant to be.
 Begin by creating some mental and emotional space for yourself. Register with one sentence each thing waiting for you to do, and promise to each item you will get back to it with focused attention as soon as you are able. First, you have something to essential to attend to, finding the sacred name.
 Now release any prior intentions to name the child (or yourself) after some person, place, or event. Set aside consideration of the pressures various family members may be exerting for you to choose their preferred name. Let your spirit leap beyond all that.
 When you feel empty, centered, and ready, sit comfortably and ask: “What is my [child’s] Jewish sacred name meant to be?”
 A quality of being may come to you, something from nature, an ancestor--many things are possible. Collect whatever comes to you as valuable information that contains the name needed or that will point you toward it. You may want help with translating what comes to mind into Hebrew or Yiddish.
 Explore the contexts in which the names being considered may appear. Check out Torah stories and popular culture in Israel. Some words take on colloquial meanings within a particular culture that may not be pleasant and are to be avoided. Care is required.
 Imagine the name on a necklace being worn by your child or appearing on a letter addressed to him or her. Does light, love, meaning shine through? Inside, where it counts, when you have found it, you will know the name is right.

Basic Jewish Naming Guidelines

• Upon the establishment of the State of Israel it became popular to take Hebrew rather than regional Yiddish or Ladino names. Recently, some are again taking Yiddish and Ladino sacred names for their children or themselves in order to preserve Jewish culture and honor family connections.

• A Jewish person can have a secular name too [Gittin 11b], but this is not necessary and can inhibit transmission of identity. Names that work equally well in the larger culture in which one lives, such as Miriam or Dan, can be ideal.

• For adults, a sacred name can be added to, or a different one can be chosen later in life if the given name doesn’t sit well with the recipient.

• It is recommended to use the selected name in some way for thirty days and then be called to the Torah to affix it ritually. [E.H. 129, "Bet Shmuel" 33; "Igrot Moshe" by R' M. Feinstein, E.H. IV 104]

• If grandparents-to-be pressure their children to choose a particular name, the code of Jewish law says that the child’s parents do not have to choose that name if it does not resonate with them. [Y.D. 240:25]

• One convention to keep in mind is that while Sephardic Jews can name children after living relatives, Ashkenazi Jews, after the Talmudic period, primarily do not. Sephardic tradition points to the Talmud, where a man named Natan, “gift” (Nathan) describes two instances in which he offered medical advice to young mothers that saved their children's lives, and in both cases the mothers, in appreciation, named their infants after him. [Shabbat 134a] In Hassidic communities, when a rebbe has had a positive impact on the parents regarding the pregnancy, some will name their child in his honor.

• There are approximately 2800 original first names in the Bible, which makes for lots of interesting characters and stories to help a child relate to the name a parent chooses. Biblical names often relate to the circumstances around conception or birth and tend to have a pun-like quality. For example, Isaac is Yitzchak, laughter, referring both to Sarah’s reaction to the idea that she and Abraham could conceive in their old age and to the incredible joy the baby brings. Jacob’s wife Leah dies birthing their last son, whom she terms Ben Oni, son of my suffering, which is quickly changed by Jacob to Benyamin, Benjamin, “right hand son.”

• Sacred names are often related to:

a. The natural world. Tamar, for example, means palm, and Tziporah, or the affectionate diminutive Tzippi, means bird.
b. Emotion words, Nahum meaning comfort, and Simchah happiness, for example.
c. The 12 tribes, such as Dan and Ruben or Ruvein.
d. Prophets’ or angels’ names with the letter hey or term el or yah for G*d in them like Nataniel, “Gift of G*d,” Uriel, “Light of G*d,” or Talya, “Dew of G*d.”
e. Descriptive names like Benjamin, or more accurately in Hebrew Binyamin, “Right Hand Son” or Binni or Bibi in affectionate forms.
f. Israelis often favor Hebrew nouns that relate to things or times of the year, such as Vered, “rose,” or Tammuz, a month of the year.
g. Some name a child in relationship to the season or characters in a major Jewish holiday or the Torah portion near the time of the birth. A child born near Shavuot might be called Rute, Ruth or Naomi, for example.
h. Giving someone a Hebrew name that starts with the same first letter as his or her secular name or means something similar isn’t terribly meaningful, but was quite popular in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
i. One does not use the name of an evil person, unless that name already exists in the family lineage with good associations. Still, consider the impact on a child of a name associated with evil at any point in time.
j. For adopted children, some seek words with an affinity between the child’s language of origin and Hebrew. For example, an American dad thinking to name his adoptive son Leonard after his father Leibel, decided to call him LiYam, ‘the ocean is mine.” The cultural resonance of the name’s sound connects the child to his original homeland and family of origin, the Hebrew meaning to his new people, and the image to the journey from his mother’s womb, across this watery world, into the mikvah, “ritual immersion” and his new life as an American Jew.
k. Some follow the tradition of not announcing a baby’s name until their covenantal ceremony. Sources for this are in Torah because Abraham's name is changed in conjunction with his circumcision -- at biblical age 99! [Genesis 17:15].

Note: Internet sites do not often have accurate translations of Jewish names on their lists. Rabbis have books in our studies that will be helpful to you, as do Jewish libraries and Jewish bookstores. 

For a sacred name to take hold in the imagination of a child and offer value for living, it is important to creatively help the child relate to it over time.

Sustaining a Sacred Name

• If you name a child after someone from your family who has died – an elective Ashkenazic practice--or someone yet alive--an elective Sephardic practice--you might create a list of adjectives describing the fine qualities of that person and collect stories about his or her personality and accomplishments. Share this material regularly with your child and make a game of having the child tell the stories back to you or to others. Stories touch us more deeply when we get to retell them to others, and doing so may also stir new memories of the person that friends family members can share and retell as well.

• If you name a child after a character from Torah, or another Jewish sacred source, collect stories about the character from Torah and commentaries to read and discuss regularly.

• On Friday night, when it is traditional after lighting the candles to bless our children, also bless the child with the qualities of the character s/he is named for.

• From time to time give a gift that echoes the sacred name in some clever way. If you name a child Ari, for example, “My Lion,” a toy lion called Ari can be used at bedtime to animate the name as you tell lion stories. Much later, the life and teachings of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari, might be introduced to strengthen the name and the person’s Jewish connection. A child given the sacred name Ah-moce (Amos in Western parlance) might be introduced to the prophetic tradition and also the powerful poetry of Israeli national Amos Oz. If it is possible for the child, perhaps as an adolescent or teen, to eventually meet a prominent Jewish author, musician, or leader who shares his or her name, this can be source of inspiration and direction.

• If you name a child after a quality, start a wall of verse or prayer in which that quality appears and add to it over the years.

• The question arises in a midrash as to what Hebrew name should be used for a woman raised by a foster father. The decision is to use the foster father's name, because "he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth." [Exodus Rabbah 46:5] By extension, today most would also include the foster mother in the lineage naming. So if the child is being named Hannah and her foster [meaning in the Jewish sense, those who will care for her in loco parentis] parents are Naomi and David, then she would be named Hannah bat Naomi v’David. Where a conversion took place, some communities always have the convert’s lineage named as Avraham v’Sarah, to connect him or her back to the first parents in the lineage of the Jewish people, but most use the names of the parent(s) who are raising the child so that the adoption is not obvious whenever this person is called to Torah throughout life.

• A nice present to foster pride of people and connection to one’s name at any age is a Jewish sacred name necklace or bracelet. Include a few different lengths of chain if given as a baby gift. These are readily available in silver or gold by special order from Jewish gift shops and on-line.