A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names

My drivers licence

My drivers licence (Photo credit: davidciani)

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!

 

4 Responses to A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names

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  2. I chose Selah Ysrael Ben Ami. Selah reminds me to pause and reflect, Ysrael describes my relationship with HaShem and my self, I chose Ben Ami because I am the son of my people and not just one set of parents.

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    • rabbiadar says:

      Dale, I am curious about your name and tradition: did you choose your name as part of a conversion process, or as a born Jew? If you did it as part of a conversion process, how did your rabbi respond to your choice?

      Looking forward to continued discussion!

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