06 March 2008

Closing circles: Jewish naming traditions

Evolving Jewish naming traditions is the focus of a Jerusalem Post story, "Closing Circles" by Berel Wein, which discusses the important role of names in Jewish life, not only to the child who bears the name but to the family involved.

In Ashkenazic circles, the custom is to name newborns after deceased relatives or great Torah scholars. Among many of our Sephardic brethren, the custom is to name children after living grandparents or relatives of importance. In both customs, the naming of a child thus takes on great emotional weight. I have been witness to many a bitter family dispute at a brit over the naming of a child for one grandfather and not for the other. Because of this type of occurrence, I know of an instance of a great hassidic rebbe who instructed his family that no child be given his name after his death for at least three generations in order not to generate family disputes. I have lived to see his fourth generation where his name abounds in plentitude.

But in most instances, people are very zealous to have their parents' or grandparents' name preserved in the family. It lends a sense of continuity, even immortality, to family structures and emotions. It serves as a constant reminder of Jewish survival and tenacity, of how our past lives are always with us and how all Jewish generations are somehow bound together. So there is a lot more to a name than would apparently meet the eye or the ear.

The author discusses his newest great-granddaughter named after her departed great-grandmother and how deeply he felt this emotional and very personal connection, as well as naming in Israeli pioneer life:

One of the facets of Israeli pioneer life was to abandon the custom of naming children after deceased relatives. Instead new names of biblical origin or describing flowers, fruits, emotions, etc. became and to a great extent still remain the popular vogue. The original secular pioneers were determined to throw off all vestiges of Jewish tradition; these new biblical names included names of villains, idolaters and other people whom Jewish tradition rejected as being any sort of role model for future generations. Their ancestors would have been shocked to learn that their descendants bore such names as Omri, Nimrod, Avuya, Shimi, Yerovam, etc.

He laments the passing of old Yiddish names and their relegation to middle names rarely used, and connects this to the past of the disappearance of Babylonian Jewry's names.

It is really possible to trace the events of Jewish history simply by studying the names borne by Jews in certain times and places. So names are important to Jews. They tell our story, our past and our aspirations.

Read the complete story here.

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