Unusual Names in the Jewish Tradition

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19 Feb 2015

J_namesThis article originally appeared on TorahMusings.com

Jews traditionally name children after ancestors, Ashkenazim after deceased ancestors and Sephardim after living ancestors. However, there are many non-traditional Jews and many reasons why a traditional Jew may want to give a non-traditional name.

Is there anything religiously problematic with choosing a name simply because you like it or because it appears in the Torah portion of the week? Are you allowed to give a name that is unusual but biblical or even just a Hebrew word you like? [1] And perhaps most controversial, is there a problem with giving a gentile name?

I. After Ancestors

The midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 37:10) says that in earlier generation they named children with prophecy. Now, continues the midrash, when we lack prophecy and divine inspiration, we name after our ancestors. This midrash would seem to oppose giving a child any name other than from one of his ancestors. Choosing a name from the weekly Torah portion seems to lack approval. However, Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 3:297) understands it to oppose only new names. As long as a name was given in previous generations, it counts as an ancestors’ name.

While Rav Sternbuch does not quote this midrash, another text that militates against choosing a new name is the famously elusive midrash that one of the redeeming qualities of the Jews in Egypt was that they did not change their names.[2] However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:66) explains that this refers to before the giving of the Torah, when the Jews did not observe the Torah commandments. Those commandments now serve to maintain Jewish identity regardless of someone’s name.

Rav Sternbuch quotes Pe’er Ha-Dor (vol. 4, p. 6) that the Chazon Ish approved choosing a name from the weekly Torah portion. Rav Sternbuch remembers hearing that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik named his son Moshe (the father of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik) because the name appeared in the weekly Torah portion.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbauch also reportedly opposed choosing new names that previous generations did not use (Ve-Aleihu Lo Yibol, vol. 2 p. 142). However, others disagree.

II. New Names

Rav Menasheh Klein (Mishneh Halakhos 9:308) finds no compelling reason to refrain from choosing a new name. On the one hand, it is best to name after an ancestor but that is not always possible or appropriate. In such cases, he recommends choosing a name based on the season. For example, a boy born on Rosh Hashanah can be called Yitzchak or on Purim, Simcha. Rav Klein prefers traditional names but does not oppose, at least in theory, new names.

Rav Klein points out that we see famous rabbis throughout the generation with non-traditional names. There were Tannaim named Yochanan, Antigonus and Sumchus; Amoraim named Huna, Rava and Papa. We don’t see any talmudic figures named Avraham or Moshe (although we do find a number with the name Yehudah). Medieval rabbinic names include Sa’adia, Chisdai, Vidal and even Peter.

Rav Feinstein (ibid.) makes the same argument and adds that many common Jewish names, among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, originate in gentile society. He counts 25 non-traditional names among the correspondents in the 15th century Spanish/Algerian responsa of R. Yitzchak Ben Sheishes (Rivash).

The inimitable R. Aharon Rakeffet includes an anecdote on this theme in his recently republished biography of R. Eliezer Silver (The Silver Era, p. 261):

On another occasion, at an Agudah convention, one of the youth leaders was introduced as Fabian, the name he regularly used. An old-timer shouted from the audience that it was disgraceful that an Agudah leader should bear such a non-Jewish name. To this Rabbi Silver quickly rose and retorted, “If one of the authors of Tosafot was known as Rabbenu Peter, then our young colleague can be called Fabian.”

III. Christian Names

Others may counter that these rabbis’ parents erred in giving them non-traditional names. Rav Moshe Schick (Responsa Maharam Schick, Yoreh De’ah 169) argues that you are forbidden to use a gentile name because using the name amounts to pretending to be a gentile, which is forbidden. In contrast, Rav Shmuel de Modina (Responsa Maharshdam, Yoreh De’ah 199) permits conversos who returned to the Jewish community after leaving Portugal to use their Christian names in business and correspondence with family that remained in Portgual. He argues, in addition to the specific circumstances he was addressing, that using a Christian name does not imply identification with Christianity. Perhaps based on Rav Yosef Kolon’s responsum (Responsa Maharik, no. 88), which Maharshdam quotes, there is even more reason to permit if the name was not chosen in order to seem like a gentile but rather because the parents liked the name.

IV. Conclusion

However, even those who permit using gentile names do not endorse the practice. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:66, 5:10) writes that, while not forbidden, English names are improper. The Maharshdam (ibid.) similarly writes that while the Torah permits using a Christian name in the circumstances he discussed, it leaves ample room for acting beyond the letter of the law and consistently using a Jewish name.

Rav Menasheh Klein (ibid.) writes that you should name a child after an ancestor. If that is not possible then you should name the child after the time of the year in which he was born. He does not forbid other kinds of names but, through his recommendation, implicitly discourages them. Others, as we saw above, explicitly disapprove of creative naming.

In contrast, Rav Shlomo Aviner (Piskei Shlomo, vol. 2, p. 228) takes a permissive stance, writing that “if you want to create a new name, there is nothing preventing you.” While he cautions not to name based on a prediction of the future, a pseduo-prophecy, he allows that if our ancestors could name their daughters Sheindel and Feigel, we can name ours Geulah and Avivah.

[1] My name, Gil, is common in Israel and became popular because it is a Hebrew word people liked. “Gil” means happiness in Hebrew and appears in the Bible as a common noun, not a name.

[2] see Vayikra Rabbah 32:5.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.