Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jewish Names

This is part of my regular series on Jewish customs and rituals:

“Each person has a name. We each have a name give by God and given by our father and mother” Israeli poet Zelda (Shneurson Mishkowsky).
The tradition of naming a child within the Jewish community dates back several thousand years. This custom is even indicated in the midrash. In Leviticus Rabbah 32:5, we learn Israel was redeemed from Egypt for four reasons. One of which was because our ancestors retained their Jewish names despite their centuries of enslavement.
Even though in more recent times we have since adopted the tradition of giving secular to our children; we have nonetheless kept the tradition of giving them a Hebrew name as well. The Hebrew name is important in part because these are the names we and our children are identified with by the community of Israel. For example, these are the names used when we are called to bless the Torah beginning with our bar or bat mitzvah. These are also the names that are written into the ketubah, the wedding contract. And these are the names used at times of memorial as well.
There are different customs with choosing a Hebrew name. In Ashkenazic tradition it is customary to name the child after a beloved deceased relative. In Sephardic tradition, it is often customary to name them after living relative. In Hassidic tradition, it is customary to name the child after a favorite tzaddik. And in Israel, one will find children often named after modern Israeli heroes. One can also pick a name from the Tanaach like Abraham, David, Miriam, or Ruth.
Because the Hebrew name is so very important, we have the custom of celebrating the naming within the community. For a boy, it is usually done at their circumcision, and for a girl, it is usually done at a naming ceremony in front of the congregation usually at Shabbat services. As part of the ceremony a Mi Shebeirach prayer is recited for the health of the mother and child as well.