Jewish in Name: What's the Point of Having a Hebrew Name?

A few months back, celebrity watchers held their collective breaths awaiting the announcement of the name of Natalie Portman's new son. Fans were curious whether her Israeli/Jewish identity would effect the choice of name, and while Aleph is certainly not a traditional Jewish name, it is unquestionably Hebrew (being the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). For Jewish fans, the choice of the name was strange but, in a way, reassuring. As far as she has come professionally, she is still connected to her Jewish-Israeli identity.

Whether a person uses it on a regular basis or not, a Hebrew name is one of the critical totems of Jewish identity. It connects a person to his/her family and to generations of Jews. Imagine how many Sarahs and Isaacs have listened to the resonant call of the shofar or swept out their cupboards to prepare for Passover.

Young Aleph does not share a name with any of the usual Biblical heros, but the use of Hebrew words as names is not without precedence. Pesach (Passover), Yom Tov (a festival day) and Abba (father) are not-uncommon Hebrew names for boys. Tova (good) and Mazal (fate) are Hebrew words used as girl names.

Hebrew is an ancient language that has survived two millennia of exile. In many countries it was almost lost save as the language of prayer and study. Hebrew names, however, were slower to change and many Jews still have a Hebrew name given to them at birth, even if they use an English name in daily life. That Hebrew name connects a Jewish person to some key moment in life.

The first, and most obvious, ceremonial use of a Jewish name is at a child's naming. In fact, prior to a boy's brit milah (circumcision) or a girl's naming (either with a special prayer recited as part of a Torah reading service or at a simchat bat celebration), it is traditional to keep the baby's name private until the official naming. While there is no specific source for this tradition, the custom is so entrenched in Jewish life that it is now considered k'halacha, like law.

One's Hebrew name is used for all synagogue ceremonies, such as being called to the Torah for an alliyah, and every religious milestone is marked with one's official name. Knowing the Hebrew names of the bride and groom is essential for the writing of a proper ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. Likewise, these names must be used in the writing of a get, a Jewish bill of divorce. With the final life cycle, death, a person's Hebrew name is left as a permanent record on his/her tombstone and is used in memorial prayers at the funeral, as well as on the annual yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death).

Beyond the life cycle and synagogue honors, one's name is used when a person is ill or in need of any sort of prayers. In such cases, the person is called so-and-so ben/bat (son/daughter) mother's name. (If one does not know the Hebrew name of the parent, one may use the English name. If neither Hebrew nor English name of the mother is known, one should say so-and-so ben/bat Sarah. If the father's Hebrew name is unknown, Abraham is used instead.) This is a reflection of King David's prayer for salvation: "I beseech you, O God, for I am your servant, the son of your handmaid..." (Psalms 116:16). Another reason the mother's name is added is because the Hebrew word for compassion (rachamim) is derived from the Hebrew word for womb (rechem).

Jewish tradition, from Genesis through the writings of the great sages, reflects the importance of a person's name. The first human being was named "Adam," which is derived from the Hebrew word adama, ground. It is a descriptive name, since Adam was created from the earth. Eve (Chava), the name of the first woman, derives from the word chai, life.

Abraham and Sarah both received new names from God before Isaac was conceived. The sages explain that the mazal (fate) connected with the names of Abram and Sarai indicated barrenness. God changed their names, thus their "fortunes," and then He declared that the descendants of Abraham would not be dominated by fate -- they could go above and beyond what normal fate/mazal indictates.

God's alteration of existing mazal through name change is a concept upheld even to this day. It is customary in cases of critical illness to add a name to the patient's name -- usually a name such as Chaim (life) or Rafael (healer).

Later in Genesis, we read about Abraham's great-grandsons: Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, and his 11 brothers who came to buy grain from him. Joseph's brothers did not recognize their brother because he wore Egyptian clothes, spoke Egyptian and went by an Egyptian name. This was a lesson for the generations to come. By the time Moses came to redeem the Jewish people from slavery, the Midrash tells us that they had lost most of their distinctive identity except for the way they dressed, their language and their names. This story highlights the incredible importance of identifying with our Hebrew names.

One might, of course, point out that a new Hebrew name such as Aleph is less connected to Jewish tradition than a Yiddish name like Mendel or Russian name like Masha, both of which are common in Ashkenazi Jewish communities. In truth, host countries and foreign conquerors have influenced Jewish naming patterns since the days of the Maccabees (Hanukkah story). The Maccabees who liberated Judea from the Syrian-Greeks and founded the Hasmonean dynasty, had both Hebrew and Greek names (e.g. Simon Thassi, Yochanan Hyrcanus, etc.).

The same was true in Spain, in the countries of North Africa, and certainly in Europe. Thus, the seemingly modern custom of having an English name and a Hebrew name is not new at all. Having both a common name and Hebrew name often makes it easier to function in non-Jewish society, but what happens when Jews no longer know or give our children Hebrew names? This, sadly, is often a sign of a Jewish community that will soon disappear.

So if you are Jewish, take pride in your Hebrew name and let it work for you! And if you don't have a Hebrew name, ask a local rabbi, or tweet us for advice! And don't miss your opportunity to explore the background of 25 of the most popular names of Hebrew origin on throughout the month of November.