Rabbi Wein.com The Voice of Jewish History

Rabbi Wein’s Weekly Blog
 Printer Friendly


 I have long been fascinated by the subject of the names of human beings especially Jewish names. It seems that names given to children throughout the centuries of Jewish life vary greatly and come and go in waves. Naturally, we have the names that appear in the Bible and those names have remained constant throughout Jewish history. Yet, it is obvious that certain names are much more popular than others and that there seems to be no rationale for this to be so. Parents tend to name their children after heroic and positive figures and thus it is completely understandable why David is a much more popular name in Jewish history than is Goliath or Doeig.

As part of the secular revolution that marked the early stages of the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, in the early 20th century and under the influence of Marxist atheism, names of people who were wicked in the eyes of Jewish tradition were once again being used in Jewish society. Even though that trend has diminished somewhat in our time, when much of Marxist atheism has lost its luster, there still are very strange names given to wonderful Jewish children here in the land of Israel. But we are certainly in the middle of a wave of new names, completely Hebrew in origin, that are now very popular in modern day Israeli society. And many biblical names, that for some reason seem to have been ignored in the society of the Jewish diaspora, are now much more common here in Israel. And, what happens here in Israel greatly influences Jews who live in the Diaspora as well.
What I have found most interesting is that the names of the great men of the Talmud were hardly ever used in current Jewish society and in fact were absent in the main for the past millennia. We do not hear the names Abayei, Rava. Zeirei, etc. Apparently, those names were restricted to certain centuries of Jewish life in Babylonia and the customary use of those names did not spread to other areas of the Jewish exile.
What did happen was that the naming of Jewish children, both male and female, after animals, birds and other living creatures became very common and accepted in all sectors of Jewish society. Jews are named for lions, deer, wolves, bears and other such creatures. This led to the use of the names of animals in other languages, such as Spanish, German, Yiddish and English and were used regularly and respectably in Jewish society.
In the Bible, when the names of the spies who were sent by Moshe to tour the land of Israel are recorded for us, there were those who were named for horses and camels as well. We find that in the blessings of both Jacob and Moshe, the positive attributes of strength, grace and beauty of the animal world were regularly used to characterize certain tribes who would comprise Jewish society.
In the traditional Ashkenazic society, children are given the names of their ancestors or of great departed Torah scholars. In the Sephardic world children are named after living grandparents and great leaders. Because of this personalization of names, it often becomes a source of aggravation and tension within a family. The baby itself is unaware of these problems but as the child matures and learns more about its origins, it will undoubtedly become aware of what the significance of its name is to certain members of the family. Because of this the idea of multiple names became very common in Jewish life.
In order to preserve family unity and avoid strife, the child was endowed with several names representing all sides of the family. It also became common, especially in the English-speaking countries of the exile, to give a child a Hebrew Jewish name and a secular English name as well. This was felt to be necessary for the child to more easily integrate itself into the general society.
In our time, because of various factors and the influence of the state of Israel on Jewish life, Jewish children bear only one name and many Hebrew and traditionally Jewish names are now common not only in Jewish society but in the general Western world as well. In any event, names are important and each one of us should treasure our own name and realize what message it contains.
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein

Subscribe to our blog via email or RSS to get more posts like this one.