Hebrew Name Choices

Image: The Hebrew Alef-Bet, in a blue frame.

Many Jews have what we call our Hebrew name, a name by which we are called at major lifecycle events and when we are called to chant blessings for the Torah. They fall into several formats, depending on gender and preference:

Alexander Cohen might have as his Hebrew name:

  • Adam ben Ya’akov v’Sarah
  • Adam son of Jacob and Sarah
  • Normally, Adam would have received that name at his bris, eight days after his birth.
  • In some communities, he might be called Adam ben Ya’akov.

Susie Cohen might have as her Hebrew name:

  • Shoshana bat Ya’akov v’ Sarah
  • Shoshana daughter of Jacob and Sarah
  • Susie would have recieved her name sometime shortly after her birth, at a naming ceremony or brit bat.
  • In some communities, she might be called Shoshana bat Ya’akov.

Lee Cohen, a transgender or nonbinary individual, might have as their Hebrew name:

  • Leor m’beit Ya’akov v’Sarah
  • Leor from the house of Jacob and Sarah
  • Leor may have had that name from birth OR have received it in a naming ceremony as an adult.
  • For more info about nongendered Hebrew names, see this article in Kveller.

Chris Ryan, a convert to Judaism, chose a Hebrew name before his conversion. Since his birth parents were not Jewish, his Jewish credentials are from Abraham and Sarah. (More about this in What’s in a Hebrew Name?) So he might have chosen for his Hebrew name:

  • Caleb ben Avraham v’Sarah
  • Caleb son of Abraham and Sarah
  • He would have had a naming ceremony immediately following his immersion in a mikveh. If he prefers, he might be known as Firstname m’beit Avraham v’Sarah.

Now, as sometimes happens, imagine there is an Jew named Debra Levi. Her family was not religious and she never received a Hebrew name! It’s not too late for her to have one, though. She might choose the name closest to her secular name (Devorah for Debra). She might choose a name to honor a deceased relative (her grandmother, Channah.) She might choose the name of a Jewish woman who inspires her (Ruth, for the biblical figure and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.) Maybe it is hard to choose, so she picks two! Then she visits her rabbi and asks to arrange a naming ceremony.

  • Channah Rut bat David v’Sarah
  • Channah Ruth daughter of David and Sarah

Once the Jew has their Hebrew name, it will be used to call them to the Torah, to address them at their wedding, and to pray for them at their funeral. When they are sick, some will pray for them by their Hebrew name with the matronymic (mother’s name.) Finally, it will appear on their matzevah, their grave marker.

What’s your Hebrew name? How did you get it? If you chose it, why did you choose that name?

How the Rabbi Got Her Name

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“What about a Hebrew name?”

The question from an Intro student seemed routine.

“You choose your name,” I explained, ” but it is the custom to use ‘bar or bat Abraham v’Sarah’ for the second part of a convert’s name.” I focussed on the usual question (“Why Abraham and Sarah?”) but before I could trot down that line of thought, he pulled me up short.

“No, I mean, how do you pick the name?”

A n old memory stirred.

“Well, let me tell you how NOT to choose a name,” I said. “I had read in a book somewhere that ‘All female converts to Judaism take the name Ruth.’ So when my rabbi asked if I had chosen a name, I figured I’d give the right answer and said ‘Ruth.’  He said, ‘Great choice!’ and it was done. It was only later that I found out I had had a choice. But I was so intent on impressing him that I missed my opportunity to think about it with his guidance.

“Later, after thinking on it for a while, I decided that Ruth was actually the right name for me. The Biblical Ruth is my role model. But after that, I learned that with Judaism, questions and discussion were more valuable than ‘right answers’ and showing off.

“New Jews can choose their own Jewish name. It might be a name from a role model, or a quality you want to nurture in yourself. It might be an homage to a dead relative. It is a highly individual decision.”

He nodded, and the class flowed on. My younger self, the one who was afraid to look ignorant, who was afraid to ask questions, gradually faded back into memory.

“The shy will not learn,” said Hillel, in the 1st century BCE.

Yes, I thought, but they can learn not to be shy.

What’s in a Hebrew Name?

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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?

 

 

More About Hebrew Names: What if I Have One Jewish Parent?

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