What’s in a Hebrew Name?


Your Hebrew name is your Jewish ID. You will need it every time you are called to the Torah, when you sign your ketubah, and when you are sick. Those who mourn you will need it for your funeral.

A Hebrew name consists of a name, a relationship, and the names of those through whose merit a person claims membership in the Jewish people.

For example: My name is רות, Ruth, and בת, (daughter) followed by the names of those through whose merit I am a member of the Jewish people: in my case, אברהם ושרה, (of Abraham and Sarah) since I became Jewish as an adult.  A male who was born Jewish might be named דוד (David) בן (son) יעקוב ורבקה (of Jacob and Rebecca, his Jewish parents.)

What if you don’t know your Hebrew name? First, if your parents are living and are Jewish, ask them (ask for their names, too, while you are at it.) If it has been forgotten, look for any documents that might have it: a bris certificate, a naming certificate, or a bar/bat mitzvah certificate.

If you never received a Hebrew name, it isn’t too late! Talk to your rabbi. Tell them you didn’t get a Hebrew name and you want one. It is, after all, your Jewish ID! The rabbi can help you choose a name (perhaps a Hebrew form of your legal name, perhaps another name meaningful to you.) It is never too late for a naming.

What is your Hebrew name? Do you know why it was chosen for you? Or if you chose it, why that particular name?



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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

19 thoughts on “What’s in a Hebrew Name?”

  1. I once spoke with my mother about how stigmatizing it is to always have the parents’ names be Avraham and Sarah – letting everyone know that you are a convert. She spoke with her conservative rabbi and he agreed to let converts choose the names of their parents. This seems just as legitimate as choosing Avraham and Sarah, don’t you think? In fact, you could take your time and decide which biblical characters you would choose. I wonder if this could become a new tradition – choosing your parents when you choose Judaism . . .just an idea.

    1. There’s a very old custom of naming “ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah.” There’s a Reform Responsum (a question and answer from a committee of learned Reform rabbis) on the subject at http://ccarnet.org/responsa/rr21-no-5760-6/ which explains the reasoning.

      I personally have pretty strong feelings about this: besides the reasoning in the responsum, I do not want to buy into anyone’s idea of stigma connected to conversion. Conversion to Judaism is an ancient and very respectable way to become a Jew. Any born Jew who has a problem with it, well, in my opinion, it is their problem and they should work on that. I don’t want to encourage the idea that there is anything shameful about conversion. For a more complete take on my opinions on that, check out http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/2014/10/21/manifesto/

      Just as we don’t get to choose our parents when we are born, we don’t get to choose them when we are born as Jews.

      1. I appreciate both of your posts regarding treatment of Jews by choice (although, basically, I think at this point in history we are ALL Jews by choice – those of us to identify as Jewish – but that’s another story). I also agree that if the name that includes bat Avraham v’Sarah stimulates discrimination that those who do the discriminating are wrong and should be re-educated about their behavior. That being said, I still feel more comfortable with personal choice regarding names, responsa or not. Of course, I’m a secular humanist rabbi and am very comfortable with creating new traditions that fit better with my own values. I totally see your point, though, for those who have chosen a more traditional path than mine.

  2. ……What is your Hebrew name? Do you know why it was chosen for you? Or if you chose it, why that particular name?
    Back in my beginnings, about two years ago, I was an email pen pal with a lovely Jewish woman in London….it was through an organisation called Phone and Learn( the UK sister of Partners in Torah. Orthodox, but at that time, I was in a whirlwind of Jewish newness, and this was part of my finding out…as much where I *didnt* belong! as where I did. PaL were very accommodating….I’m not good with telephones( with good reason….episodes of anonymous calls) and so they really pushed the boat out and arranged an email partner.
    While I was with her, I decided I wanted my Hebrew name, and she had her rabbi say blessings at the synagogue, accompanied by a bottle of single malt whisky for those who wished to join in a toast to me. I have it in a certificate….can see it from where Im sitting.
    It’s Miriam Alexandra….I chose Miriam, as it’s the Hebrew version of my actual first name(I was born Mary Claire, named after my great aunt Mary, my grandmothers sister, who was no longer alive….that’s my Jewish connection, through my maternal grandmother)
    A few years previous to that, before I became observant(oh, how good it feels to say that!) I had decided to choose a name for myself(lot of reasons….I won’t clog your blog with it all)….I chose Alex, then, for three main reasons..
    – it’s gender neutral
    – a slight homage/tribute to a very dear friend called Alex, who had recently died, and who had been a huge help and influence to me
    – the song by Leonard Cohen”Alexandra Leaving”(LC is a HUGE influence for me)
    So, Miriam Alexandra bat Marie Patricia bat Minna Freda(I think that’s the correct way….please let me know if it isn’t)I am.

    1. Alex, what an interesting story! So you were born Jewish but never received a Hebrew name? And your penpal arranged a naming for you in London?

      Alexandra (via Alexander, the masculine form) has an interesting Jewish history. Although the roots of the name are Greek, it shows up frequently as a Jewish name because of a story in Josephus about Alexander visiting Jerusalem and meeting with the high priest. Rather than retell it here, I offer you the link: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1120-alexander-the-great.

      As for the form of the name, usually the format is “[Name] bat [father’s name] v [mother’s name].” OR “[Name] bat [father’s name.] We use the matronym [mother’s name] by itself when we pray for someone who is ill. In the case of someone with a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, however, it is “[Name] bat [mother’s name.] I hope that isn’t too confusing.

  3. Thanks for the clarity….I wasnt sure about the bar/bat…..my father was a (nominal Church of England) Royal Navy sailor….and the very definition of a mensch; and my mother was ….her mothers daughter; a strange way to describe her, but it’s difficult. …
    So….it’s me bat my parents? Ie Miriam Alexandra bat Cyril George v Marie Patricia?
    I welcome advice on this….names in my family have always been odd – hardly anyone called by their birth name; usually nicknames. My father was born Cyril, which he hated, and was known as George, because he was a Geordie. My Mum was born Marie Patricia, as she was born the day before St Patricks day, and her father was Irish…she was called Mick, or Argy(because she was argumentative when she was wee)….I have no knowledge of her having a Hebrew name; when her mother( Jewish)married, I suspect there would have been a bit of family discord….in the 1920s, from an Orthodox immigrant Russian/Polish Jewish family, it’s hard to think they would approve of her marrying an Irish soldier: how I wish they were still here, to ask about things…..so much will always be a mystery.
    As for me, Ive had more nicknames than I can count, and that was another reason for choosing my own name – Alex, later to become Alexandra. Off to read the link….Im enjoying this early morning blether….just after 4am, cats fed, and here I am…..let me know if this is correct:
    Miriam Alexandra bat Cyril George v Marie Patricia

    1. Your Hebrew name would be Miriam Alexandra bat Marie Patricia then – only the Jewish parent is named (it’s that Jewish ID thing – your claim on Jewish peoplehood, no disrespect to your father at all.)

  4. Back again…..not properly awake yet( even though this is my usual rising time)….
    Miriam Alexandra bat Marie Patricia(because only my mother was Jewish)…..have I got it this time? 🙂

  5. I ultimately decided not to make an issue and just use “bat Avraham v’Sarah” when I converted, but I thought for quite a while that I really wanted the “parental” part of my Hebrew name to be the names of my husband and daughter, as it was they who brought me into the fold and I thought that would be a nice way to acknowledge that. Would have given the genealogists fits, though, I’m sure.

    As to the stigma issue, of course those born Jews who stigmatize converts are the ones with the problem and they should stop behaving badly, but that hasn’t exactly been enough to eliminate the issue, has it? I think it’s entirely reasonable to acknowledge that using that name formulation stamps a big (though not necessarily scarlet) C on anyone whose full name is known, and that some people might prefer to avoid the resulting tsuris even if they are entirely secure and happy with their status as converts.

  6. I originally chose Jacob because I like the name and have known/known of several Jacobs who I admired. But as I found connections between the biblical biblical and myself in my present circumstances, I think it was unavoidable.

    Jacob clung to the heel of Esau, and as a convert, I almost feel like I’m second-rate. Fortunately, both the Jewish and non-Jewish people with whom I’ve discussed conversion have been very welcoming to my formally entering the Jewish community.

    Jacob bartered for the birthright of Esau, and I almost feel that I, myself, am claiming something which I did not have at birth but want badly enough.

    Like Jacob in Genesis, I’m a person who enjoys the quiet countryside… a gentle, wise and thoughtful person, and a person who is careful and attentive with his work.

    And like Jacob, I am a person who, in the process of discerning his destiny, has wrestled with angels, as well as with men and with demons.

  7. Jacob is also a family name on my mother’s East European side of the family, and I have reason to suspect the presence of Ashkenazi Jews somewhere in my family tree.

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