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?

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?