This week we begin reading Shemot, which is the Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus. It’s called shemot ["names"] because the first line of the book is “these are the NAMES.”
Hebrew names are an interesting subject. One’s Hebrew name is like a Jewish Driver’s License. It is what we use to call a person to read from the Torah, to witness a ketubah, and at the end, to bury them as a Jew. Having a Hebrew name says, “I am a Jew, and here are my credentials.”
Most born Jews are given their names about a week after birth, in a naming ceremony. The parents choose a Hebrew name that may or may not match the “regular” name: a kid named Paul might be named Sha-ool (Saul, Hebrew for Paul), or he might be named Shlomo, because that was his grandfather’s Hebrew name.
A new convert to Judaism chooses a Hebrew name, too. It might be a figure from the Bible she particularly wants to emulate (I chose Ruth) or a family name (Linda chose Chava which is Hebrew for Eva, her deceased mother’s name.)
In either case, what follows after the given name are the names through whose merit [z'chut] one is a member of the Jewish People. For born Jews, that’s their parents. For our mythical kid Paul, his name might come out:
Shaul ben Eliezer v’ Sarah [Paul, son of Henry and Sarah] He is a Jew by the merit of his parents, Henry and Sarah.
For a convert, the z’chut [merit] comes through the first converts to Judaism, Abraham and Sarah:
Root bat Avraham v’Sarah [Ruth, daughter of Abraham and Sarah] Ruth is a Jew by the merit of the first patriarch and matriarch. Abraham and Sarah are not her parents, and this is not a “diss” to her biological parents. This is, in fact, her Jewish credential.
Occasionally, I have a student who never received a Hebrew name, even though they were born to Jewish parents. It is never too late to acquire a Hebrew name. Just contact your rabbi, and say, I want to have a Hebrew name! Like an adult convert, you’ll get to choose your own: a family name, or a name you choose as an inspiration.
Whatever your Hebrew name, may it be a shem tov, a good name, a name of honor within your community!