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Parshas Vaeira (5777)

What's in a Hebrew Name?

King David writes in Tehillim (Psalms 46:9): “Go and see the works of G-d Who has wrought devastation (shamos in Hebrew) in the land.” The Talmud in Berachos 7a interprets this verse homiletically (rendering shamos as sheimos, names) and teaches that the name by which a person is called is not arbitrary, but a result of Divine inspiration. A name describes a person's true nature and affords a glimpse into his future accomplishments. This we learn from a homiletical reading of our verse. Instead of shamos, devastation, read, sheimos, names. Thus, Go out and behold the accomplishments of G-d (which are man's destiny to fulfill), for He has placed "names" in the land.

We thus find in the Talmud (in Yoma 83b) that Rabbi Meir hava dayik b'shmah - Rabbi Meir used to look into people's names in order to gain a glimpse of their essence. And we are told that the great Kabbalists were actually able to perceive the true character of a person based on his or her Hebrew name.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his fascinating book Worldmask, quotes Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin who explains that the root of the word "name" in Hebrew, shem, is also sham, "there", because "there" is the final stage of any movement or process, its tachlis or ultimate purpose. While there is movement towards the goal, it is always "there", the focus and target of that movement. The root sham is also the basis of the word shamayim which means Heaven, the spiritual world, which is the tachlis of all the movement of this world, its ultimate "there". The final destination of everything in this world is its name, its original designation of essence.

NAMES AT BIRTH, DURING ILLNESS, AND AT DEATH

The great Kabbalist of sixteenth-century Tzefas, Rabbi Isaac Luria (better known as the Ariza"l - an acronym of his name), wrote that the Hebrew name that is given to a child at birth is not an arbitrary name that the parents "just happen" to choose for him, but is actually Divinely inspired. G-d, to Whom is revealed the essence and potential of that child, "places the name", so to speak, into the minds and mouths of the parents who name him. So the Hebrew name is an expression of essence. And the meaning of a name which is given at birth - such as at the bris milah (circumcision) for a boy, or at Kerias HaTorah (the Reading of the Torah) for a girl - is that the child's essence begins to be manifest when he arrives in the world, and now a fitting name must be found which is an expression of his nature and purpose.

We can understand from this that the Jewish name that we give to our child is very significant and is not to be taken lightly. The name we choose is the one that G-d has in mind for our child, and reflects the essence, character and potential of that child. We should therefore think very carefully about the name we choose, as the ramifications of that name are highly significant.

And it's not only on our way into this world that our Hebrew names are important, but also when we are suffering from a life-threatening illness, G-d forbid, and when we are on our way out of this world. It is an ancient Jewish tradition to "change" the Hebrew name of a person who is suffering from a serious illness. The idea behind this is that since the name represents the essence of the person, by changing that name (or by adding on another name), the person is no longer the same person he was until now as his essence has now changed, and whatever "Divine decree" of serious illness that he was subject to until now, no longer applies to him. This is a very complex mystical idea, about which, I must admit, I don't have too much knowledge. But this much I do know - that when a close relative is dying, G-d forbid, and the doctors have given up hope, most people will try anything in order to save the life of their loved one. And this custom of changing the name of the sick person has been practiced by our people since time immemorial - and is well rooted in the Jewish mystical tradition. [Generally, the name Chaim (meaning "life") for a man, or Chaya (which also means "life") for a woman, is added to the person's original Hebrew name, in a special prayer service which can be found in the Artscroll Siddur as well as in many other Prayer Books.]

And if we thought that names were important when we were born, or when we are, G-d forbid, experiencing serious illness, they are even more important to remember after we die and face our Creator in Heaven. The Kitzur Shelah writes that it is a source of merit to recite a scriptural verse symbolizing one's Hebrew name before Yehe'yu L'ratzon at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei (Silent Prayer). The verse should either contain the person's name, or else begin and end with the first and last letters of the name. (For a list of verses that correspond to people's names, see the Artscroll Siddur pp. 924-926.)

And the Kabbalists explain the special significance of reciting one's Hebrew name on a daily basis throughout one's lifetime. It is taught in the Mystical Writings that when a person dies and ascends to Heaven to stand in judgment before G-d for all that he did during his life, one of the very first things he is going to be asked is to state his name. It is therefore important for a person to repeat his name throughout his lifetime (e.g., at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei) so that he will remember it after he dies, enabling him to pass that very first "test".

The idea is as follows (as heard from Rabbi Yissochor Frand): As we mentioned before, the name that we are given at birth expresses our as-yet unrealized essence and potential. And the first and most important question that they are going to ask us in that Big Courtroom in the Sky is what our name is - meaning, did we realize that potential that G-d gave us and asked us to fulfill in this world. And since we don't want to fail on that very first question, it is a really good idea for us to remind ourselves daily of our Jewish name – i.e. of our potential and the reason why we were brought down to this world in the first place - this way, we will have nothing to worry about when we take the "finals".

"ASSIMILATION MAY HURT OUR NATION, BUT NAMES CAN REALLY HELP US"

The Midrash teaches that the Jewish people in Egypt were able to maintain their distinct identity and uniqueness even as they were surrounded by a morally degenerate and depraved culture - thus enabling them to be redeemed as a nation and to make their Exodus from Egypt - because for all the 210 years that they lived in Egypt they retained their Hebrew names, their Hebrew language, and their distinctly Jewish mode of dress and did not adopt the names, language and fashions of their host country. [Can you imagine what kind of names the Jews would have had had they become totally assimilated into the Egyptian culture? ... Tutankhamen Goldberg, Ramses Schwartz, Pharaoh Finkelstein.]

So we see how important Hebrew names were during our ancestors’ stay in Egypt as a way of identifying themselves as Jews. And this is equally important in our own times when assimilation and intermarriage are gradually diminishing the Jewish people, and when we have very few guarantees that our own grandchildren will remain Jewish. So long as we carry our Shem Yisrael Kadosh - our special Jewish name - we are guaranteed to be constantly reminded of our essence - of who we are as Jews and of our special Jewish mission and destiny here on earth. [And this is especially true if we actually go by our Hebrew name … "uh, could you spell that for me, please?"] And although this is hardly the entire solution to the very pressing problem of assimilation among the Jewish people ... every little bit helps.

NAMING A CHILD AFTER A DECEASED RELATIVE

In addition to the benefits of giving a child a Hebrew name in terms of identifying him as a Jew and reminding him of his essence and special destiny even as he lives among different cultures, the Kabbalah teaches that there is a special merit to the neshamah (soul) of the deceased when we name a child after him or her with the deceased's Hebrew name (in addition to whatever secular name we might choose to give the child). [It should be noted that Sephardic Jews have the custom of naming their children after their living relatives as well.]

By the way, I always kid with people who meet me and ask me my name, that I was named after U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And when they give me that inevitable confused look, I explain to them that it's really true - you see, first FDR was named when he was born in 1882, and then I was named - after him!

But seriously, folks, it is considered to be a great aliyah (spiritual elevation) for the soul of our deceased loved one for our new baby to be named after him. Additionally, we honor our living relatives by choosing to name our children after relatives who meant a lot to them.

Many people have questions about which Hebrew names they should use to honor their relatives, and there is a whole lot of confusion as to which names are appropriate, as well as which deceased relatives' names should not be used for a variety of reasons. I would therefore like to share with you some basic guidelines in Jewish Baby-Naming that I collected from various sources, and which might help make things a little easier for you as you contemplate which Hebrew name and/or which deceased relative you would like to choose: (For more guidance in specific cases, please refer to your local neighborhood Rabbi or mystic.)

(1) We don't generally give a child the name of a wicked character in the Bible or the Talmud. No Lavans or Hamans, please! (Although I did happen to bump into a rather nice flight attendant on El Al Airlines named Nimrod). It is interesting to note that prior to World War II, many Jewish children in Germany were given the then-popular name Adolf at birth. But, of course, today it is highly unlikely that any self-respecting Jew would give that name to his child.
(2) It is considered by some Kabbalistic authorities to be a bad omen to name a child after a person who died very young and without children.
(3) Some have the custom to name a child born on a Jewish holiday, after a Biblical or post-Biblical personality who is connected to that holiday. So, for example, if a boy were born (or the bris takes place) on or around Passover, one would name the child Moshe (Moses). Or if a girl were born on or around the holiday of Purim, one would name her Esther (obviously after Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story).
(4) Although it is definitely of some merit to give a Hebrew name to the child starting with the same letter as the Hebrew name of the deceased relative, the greatest aliyah to the deceased person's soul happens when the baby is named exactly as the deceased person was called. So, for example, if the grandmother's Hebrew name were Miriam, the best thing to do would be to give that exact name (or two, if she was called by two names) to the grandchild. (Of course, sometimes the grandparent has a really weird or even nasty-sounding name, especially if he/she was born in Europe before WWII, in which case one would have to take into account the feelings of the child, too, before giving him or her such a "bad" name.)
(5) Some people have the custom of not naming a girl baby after a deceased male relative and vice versa.
(6) It is the Jewish custom to give a boy baby his Hebrew name at his bris milah (circumcision) and not before that. A girl baby is traditionally named publicly in the synagogue at the first Kerias HaTorah (Torah Reading) after the baby is born (be it a Monday, Thursday or Shabbos Torah Reading), when the father is called up to the Torah for an aliyah. It is customary for the parents to sponsor a kiddush (festive party) for all their friends and relatives upon the birth and baby-naming of a baby girl, just as they make a festive meal at the bris and baby-naming of a baby boy.

TWO GOOD BOOKS ABOUT JEWISH NAMES AND THEIR MEANINGS

If you would like to learn more about the meaning and significance of your own Hebrew name, or of Jewish names in general, or if you have a child on the way and you're looking for a meaningful Hebrew name for your baby, then I recommend two books for you to read: The first is Your Name Is Your Blessing: Hebrew Names and Their Mystical Meanings by Benjamin Blech and Elaine Blech. The other book is called A Dictionary of Jewish Names and Their History by Benzion C. Kaganoff. Both books are available online or at your local Jewish bookstore.

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