A while back I wrote A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. A thoughtful reader of this blog commented over on twitter that I neglected to talk about the Hebrew name of children of interfaith marriages. Excellent question!
If you haven’t read the earlier piece, it explains that Hebrew names include a given name and the names of the people through whom one has a claim to Judaism. So for children of two Jewish parents, their name follows the pattern Firstname ben/bat JewishFather’sName v’ JewishMother’sName. For a convert to Judaism, their name is Firstname-of-their-choosing ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah. (If that doesn’t make sense, you might want to click on the link and take a look at the other article before reading further.)
I did an informal survey of Reform rabbis about this very question a few months ago.
Out of eight rabbis who replied, three said they included the name of the Gentile parent, transliterated to Hebrew. So Ruthie, whose parents are David (a Jew) and Susan (a Catholic) would have the Hebrew name Rut bat Da-veed v’Su-san. Or Joe, son of Steve (Hebrew name Shlomo) and Jane (a Methodist) would have the name Yosef ben Shlomo v’Jane.
The other five rabbis said, no, they only use the name of the Jewish parent, so the children above would be Rut bat Da-veed and Yosef ben Shlomo. Almost all rabbis mentioned that they would be very careful to mention both parents’ names in English at an event like a bar mitzvah or naming. This is a more traditional answer.
It’s a delicate subject, because names and family relationships are close to the heart. The latter approach is more in line with strict Jewish legal terms, but given that we are commanded to “Honor father and mother,” naming the non-Jewish parent also has its logic.
What do I think? I think that as a general rule, the traditional answer makes sense. I love my parents, but I did not receive the Torah from them; I receive it through the merit of Abraham and Sarah. My biological parents are not in my Hebrew name because it is my “ID” when I am called to the Torah, and it has to do with my credentials as a Jew, without any rejection or disrespect to them. However, in a case where the non-Jewish parent has been instrumental in raising a child as a Jew, I can see the logic of including their name. As with many things in Jewish life, there is a theoretical answer, but in real life I would make the call on a case by case basis.
Again, if that was gibberish, take a look at A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. I invite your comments!
— HaRav Root bat Avraham v’Sarah
7 thoughts on “More About Hebrew Names: What if I Have One Jewish Parent?”
Great answer, Rabbi. I believe there are many things to be balanced here. A bar or bat mitzvah is not a private ceremony held just for a family. A child is being called to the Torah during a community Shabbat service. Just as I may have to take off my shoes at one place of worship and cover my head at another, during a b’nai mitzvah experience the child and the family are accepting the minhag/custom of the community around them. One just hopes that the love between the family and the community is such that they can agree to bend towards each other.
Thank you, Dawn! You are right, the bar or bat mitzvah is not a private ceremony but a simcha [joyful occasion] that takes place within the context of a community. Just as congregations have customs like “handing down the Torah” or throwing flowers or candies at the young adult, they will also have customs about naming with which families will be familiar from attending the simchas of others.
Chiming in late on this but, would it be ok to merge the parent and ancestor components? So the names for Jewish children of mixed marriage could be ‘firstname ben fathersname v’Sarah” or “firstname ben Avraham v'”.
I guess the brackets I used chopped off the end of my comment, will try without those now. Was trying to say “firstname ben Avraham v’mothersname” at the end there.
I bow to minhag b’makom on this subject, wmillsongm. That’s “the custom of the place.” Personally I am uncomfortable with that appellation, but it is really up to the local community (not the individual) to set the standard on naming and incorporation of non-Jewish names.
The custom of my synagogue is: hebraize the non-jewish parent name if possible (examples: 1- Joseph is not jewish, but his name is obviously Yosef, 2- Vivian is not a name with hebrew roots, but by the meaning is the same as hebrew name Chaya)
If not possible, we use Avraham or Yisrael as fathers name or Sarah as mother name.
A related question: how do we pray for a gentile’s health? Well, there is no hebraization, we just use his regular name + ben/bat regular mother name, or fathers name if we dont know the mother’s, or Chava if we dont know any, since she is mother of all life
Thank you, Ed! That matches the custom in many synagogues. I just like to leave some flexibility here, for God forbid someone go to their rabbi and say, “You are doing this wrong, Rabbi Adar says thus-and-so!” Whatever is the custom of the community, that is the correct practice for that place unless there is some very good reason to change.