Ask the Rabbi

Rabbi Carla Freedman
January 2022 QUESTION:

I know that the Ritual Committee is asking members of Beth Israel to provide their Hebrew names. I don’t have one, so what should I do? Why do I need a Hebrew name?

January ANSWER:

It is customary for parents to give a newborn baby a Hebrew name, but various circumstances sometimes interfere with that.

Hebrew names are one of the ways we stay connected with our ancestors. In the Ashkenazi tradition, a child is given the Hebrew name of a deceased family member or close friend. In the Sephardi tradition, children are often named for a living family member. Either way, the names go from one generation to another, and remind us of our history and our roots.
We use a person’s Hebrew name at certain times. One is called by one’s Hebrew name
to say the blessings over a reading of the Torah (an Aliyah). A Jewish marriage ceremony includes a document (ketubah) where the bride and groom are identified by their Hebrew names. And at one’s funeral, a prayer said or sung in Hebrew mentions the deceased by her/his Hebrew name.
A Hebrew name consists of two elements: your given name(s), and your parents’ given names. Thus, from the Torah, Isaac would be identified as Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. And Dinah would be identified as Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Surnames are a very recent addition to Jewish names, and were imposed by various European governments as a way of keeping track of Jews; they are not part of a traditional Jewish Name.
If you want a Hebrew name, there are two ways to proceed. You can look for the names of your grandparents (or other relatives) and adopt one of those. Or you can choose a name that you’d like, from the various Hebrew name dictionaries available in print or online.
Having a Hebrew name is part of having a proud Jewish identity. Whether it is a family name or one that appeals to you for other reasons, it places you within the Jewish people, and it will convey your Jewish pride to your family and others. That name might be given to your
descendants after you, thereby connecting you to them.
If I can help you decide on a Hebrew name, by all means let me know.

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