Naming a Jewish Child

Naming a child is a chance to bestow an identity upon him or her since every name has a meaning.

There are two different customs when it comes to naming a Jewish baby. The Ashkenazi custom is to name a child in memory of someone who has died (such as a grandparent), while the Sephardi custom is to name a new child in honor of a living relative.

A child can also be given a name for the expression of an idea, such as Yonah meaning ‘dove’, or Shalom meaning ‘peace’, or for the celebration of an event. For example, after the Six Day war, many Israeli newborns were named Sinaya, after the recapturing of the Sinai Desert.

Traditionally, a boy is given his name on the occasion of his Brit Milah (circumcision), while a girl is named at the first Torah reading after her birth.

Whilst there is no halachah (Jewish law) about choosing a name, a certain amount of common sense should enter the decision. There are some names that have obvious non-Jewish connotations and should be avoided, such as Luke or Christopher. Some Hebrew names of biblical personalities should also be avoided because of the unpleasant nature of the personalities who originally bore them, such as Esau and Laban.

In many Jewish communities, it is customary to give two sets of names: one civil (English, in Australia), and the other Jewish, in Hebrew or Yiddish. This custom began in European communities around the 13th century.

It is important to give your child a Hebrew name as this will be used on their ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), as well as when they are called up to the Torah and on other ceremonial occasions.

For every Hebrew name, there is a corresponding Biblical verse. The first and last letters of the verse are the same as the first and last letters of the Hebrew name. The list of these verses is found in many prayer books.

In Jewish ritual, a person is known as ‘Hebrew Name’ son/daughter of ‘Father’s Hebrew Name’. For example, a woman may be called Sarah, daughter of David. When prayers are made in the synagogue for people who are ill, their Hebrew name plus the name of their mother is used, for example: Solomon, son of Rivka.