The Complexity of Naming a Child- Religious Jews

I found this story on Haaretz about the complexity of naming a child for religious Jews to be very interesting.

Here are a couple of snippets:

“Birenbaum examined 1,000 names of boys and girls in three settlements in Samaria, all of which have homogenous populations (participants in the study were assured that their settlements would not be identified): not extremist “Hardal” (the Hebrew acronym for nationalist ultra-Orthodox), but all of whose residents are religious. The parents were given a form to fill. Birenbaum was not only interested in the source of the name. She also wanted to know exactly why the parents chose this name, and what’s more, the special significance they see in the name they gave.

This may seem simple enough, but is far from self-evident. The study of Jewish names is a much deeper matter than might seem at first glance. Essentially, it is like any other decoding of a cultural text. Among Jews, with their complicated history, and Israelis, who continue this history but have made substantive changes to it, it is a multilayered text, the roots of which are deep and dense.

For example, it is obvious to every Israeli that to this very day Haredi society continues to call its sons Moses and Abraham, and its daughters Rebecca and Esther. Everyone is familiar with the story of changing names in pre-statehood Palestine, and afterward in post-statehood Israel, a phenomenon reported upon at this week’s congress by lecturers from abroad: Rosa became Shoshana, Faigie became Tzipora, Eisen became Barzilai and Mizrachi became Kedmi. Everyone who lives in Israel is also familiar with the alternating fashions in children’s names, which reached a point of absurdity when birthday cakes in kindergartens began to be inscribed with Tal (or Sapir, or Noam) “the boy,” and Tal (or Sapir, or Noam) “the girl.” Not to mention Don, Sean and Natali.

All of the above responds to familiar needs – integration in an immigrant society, compliance with national ideology, or contrarily, insistence on individuality and propensity for universality, in which the child would be allowed to choose his own ethnic or political identity when he grows up. Through children’s names, it is easy to discern not only the dominant social tendencies at the time the child was born, but also the worldview of its parents. It could be assumed that this reflection would be even more apparent in the settlements.”

The worldview is something that translates well. How many kids have you met named Hope or Chastity that are not at least 30.

“Based on studies conducted in Israel to date, one could also conclude that religiosity, in other words the clinging to a traditional lifestyle, would be strongly reflected in the conferring of names in this public. For instance, the need to call a boy born on Purim Mordechai, or a girl Esther, or a baby born on the Sabbath Shivti or a baby born on Succot after one of the Ushpizin guests. Previous studies of full names, conducted by Wittman and Beit-Hallahmi, described a reality that caused a clear dichotomy and even a clear contradiction between the new Israeli identity and the traditional-Jewish identity, as reflected in names given to children. It might have been anticipated that in the settlements surveyed by Birenbaum, there would also be more Moseses and Chaims and Esthers, and fewer, one assumes, Tals and Shirs.

Birenbaum found that only 40 percent of the names are traditional, which are rarely found in secular society. This conformed with expectations. But what of the remaining 60 percent? And so, they may be divided into five types, all of which are representative of the settlers’ doctrine of interpretive nomenclature. All five types are loaded with meaning. All of them are meant to wish, anticipate, sow hope or faith, or mark the connection to an ideal. In short, barely any names are given for no special reason. This is most certainly the case in settlements.

Birenbaum enumerates the following types: names named for an actual event, national or personal situation (Achdut [unity] after the Rabin assassination, for instance, or Eliyashiv [My God will bring back], to mark the immigration from Russia), commemoration of a cherished individual or exemplary person (for example Or [light] named for the Orot volumes written by the elder Rabbi Kook), names that reflects a link to religion and/or nationality (Tohar, Emuna, Or-El) [Purity, Faith, God’s light, respectively], names that has literal-cultural significance, and names chosen “because of the sound,” but in which the parents’ interpretation imbues them with additional or unconventional meanings. The name Livnat, for example, was chosen for these two last reasons, and its hidden meaning relates to the purity and whiteness of the Sabbath Eve.

In all of these cases, the parents chose names for traditional Jewish reasons, but the names came from the present-day Israeli stock of names. On Succot, the child was not named Ushpizin (related to the biblical guests who are said to visit the succa each day), but Tal [dew], because of the prayer for dew recited on that holiday. On Hanukkah they did not call their son Matityahu, as per tradition, but Yair or Ori, two names that describe light. A girl born after the end of the Sabbath was called Moriah, named for the spices used in the Havdalah ceremony; a boy born on the eve of Tisha B’Av was Ariel (an elaborate epithet for Jerusalem and the altar), a child born on Holocaust Day was named Amiad (My people forever), and a child born on the anniversary of Jerusalem’s liberation was named Yishai (an acronym of the day’s Hebrew appellation – Yom Shihrur Yerushalayim).

To instill faith

To instill hope and faith in the people, a daughter was called Ateret Malchut [crown of the kingdom]. To thank the Lord for births that took place after many difficulties, a girl was named Hodaya [praise God], and boys were named Matanel [gift of God] and Yehuda, in its original biblical meaning – hodaya.

The meaning is not always readily evident. Sometimes you have to know the midrash related to a name in order to understand its roots. Efrat, for instance, is the name in the midrash of Miriam the Prophetess. Through this device, it is possible to name a girl for her grandmother and simultaneously bestow on her a new Israeli name. This is the case for Nitzan [flower bud], which is related to Grandma Shoshana; Hadas on Purim (named for Hadassah, itself the alternate name of Esther); Eitan (the midrashic moniker for Abraham the Patriarch); and even Barak, after Barak, son of Avinoam (through whom a Grandma Devora, who was named for Deborah the Prophetess, was commemorated).

Children in settlements are also named after celebrated leaders – especially David and Moses, Hillel and Aryeh (named for Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the saintly, Mandatory-era `Father of the Prisoners’), and girls for renowned women – from Yisca, Yael and Noa to Shira-Nehama (named for Nehama Leibovitch, the 20th century biblical commentator. There are children whose names are derived from the prayer services – Renan, or Yikhat, while others are named for geographic regions – Benjamin, Zvi (as in Eretz Hazvi, the Holyland ), and Moriah, named for the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”

There is more to the article, but I didn’t want to recreate the entire piece here.

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  1. Jack's Shack August 3, 2005 at 8:28 pm


    Beats me. This is outside my area of expertise.

  2. Steg (dos iz nit der Å¡teg) August 3, 2005 at 7:48 pm

    Is that accurate? People name their kids Tzevi after “Eretz Hatzevi”, not because “tzevi” means ‘gazelle’?

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