by Rabbi Berel Wein
Names play a great role in Jewish life. They are not only important to the one who bears the name but also to the entire family and friends. There is nothing worse than saddling a child with a name that later in life may bring ridicule and caustic remarks from peers. Yet granting names to newborns plays an important role in Jewish life.
In Ashkenazic circles the custom was and is to name newborns after deceased ancestors and relatives or great Torah scholars. Amongst 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 takes on great emotional weight. I have been witness in my rabbinic career 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 – which unfortunately is not uncommon – I know of an instance of a great Chasidic 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.
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.
All of this was brought to my mind very recently when my newest great granddaughter was named after her departed great grandmother. Even though I have had other grandchildren and great grandchildren named after my departed parents I felt this naming more emotionally and deeply than the others. It was a great sense of comfort and complete closure that swept over me. The importance of names in Jewish life became very real and unexpectedly personal to me. I see that no one really knows one’s self until real life situations actually arise. I always thought that I was above the name game. Not so.
One of the facets of Israeli pioneer life was to abandon the custom of naming children after deceased ancestors and relatives. Instead new names of Biblical origin or of pure Hebrew names describing flowers, fruits, emotions, etc became and to a great extent still remains in vogue. As a complete departure from tradition and custom - and make no mistake about it, 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 who Jewish tradition rejected as role models for future generations.
Their ancestors would have been shocked to learn that their descendants bore such names as Omri, Nimrod, Avuyah, Shimi, Yeravam, etc. But times change and so do names. The old Yiddish names that were so common in Eastern European Jewish life are slowly disappearing from common usage even in very religious circles. They are now pretty much relegated to being middle names that are rarely used in everyday life.
This trend of lessening the use of traditional Yiddish names is now common throughout the entire Jewish world, not only in Israel. I imagine as Eastern European Jewry fades from time and memory, in spite of all of the Holocaust remembrances, the Yiddish names will also wither into disuse. So was it regarding the names of Babylonian Jewry and the great men of the Talmud – Abayei, Rava, Rav Papa, etc. – that have all disappeared from current Jewish life.
If such names are no longer present in the world then the Yiddish names, no matter how common they once were, will probably suffer a similar fate. The Hebrew names of the tanaaim of the Mishna, which in the main were pure Hebrew names, have survived rather nicely till our day.
The Greek names and the Roman names that were common in Second Temple times amongst Jews have also almost completely disappeared. English, French, Spanish and Russian names now take their place within Jewish society. 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, of our past and of our aspirations.