What’s in a name? A lot.
In Jewish tradition, a name can honor a departed loved one, express hope for the future or create a connection to biblical heroes and heroines. Selecting a child’s Hebrew name might be as simple as giving a baby girl her maternal great-grandmother’s Hebrew name — or as complex as choosing a name for a boy that synthesizes all of the characteristics of Judaism’s forefathers.
Every Jewish family has its own traditions. Ashkenazi Jews (those of Eastern European heritage) frequently name their children after a deceased relative. Jews whose families are descended from Spain or North Africa (Sephardi Jews) often name their children to honor family members who are still living.
Hebrew names connect us to our Jewish heritage. The name itself is only part of the story. A full name in Hebrew also includes the names of the child’s parents. For example, a baby named Isaac, whose parents are named Abraham and Sarah, might be called Yitzhak ben Avraham v’ Sarah (Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah).
“Naming our children is one of the greatest gifts we can give them,” says Rabbi Dalia Samansky, a Valley-based rabbi with the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.
Samansky, who performs baby-naming ceremonies for Jewish and interfaith families throughout the Valley, helps parents select a Hebrew name that best suits their family.
“Many American couples these days pick an English name that they like, and then they pick a Hebrew name. Sometimes they will use the English initial and then the traditional Hebrew name,” she said. “Of course, that doesn’t always work. If you have an Aunt Sadie, you may not be able to find a Hebrew name beginning in ‘s’ that you like.”
Samansky also explains to parents that a Hebrew name can describe a trait of someone who is departed. “When parents are searching for a name, I ask them to tell me about the person for whom the baby will be named. One family said the honoree was a musical person, so we named the baby Shira [to sing],” Samansky said.
Jewish baby boys typically receive their Hebrew names on the day of their bris (Yiddish for circumcision). A bris — or brit milah in Hebrew — takes place on the eighth day after the baby boy is born. However, Samansky said, some families are choosing to have the circumcision performed in the hospital shortly after the baby’s birth, and then to host a baby-naming celebration later. If the name is given during the bris, the mohel (ritual circumciser) announces the baby’s name to those gathered for the ceremony.
For families who choose to have the circumcision performed in the hospital, Samansky says she encourages them to do a public welcoming for their son. “If a child has been circumcised without a mohel … then we replace the medical procedure with a ceremony of welcoming,” she says.
For girls, the formal baby-naming ceremony is a much more recent phenomenon. “There are several names for the ceremony,” Samansky says, including simchat bat (celebration of the daughter), shalom bat (welcoming the daughter) or brit bat (covenant of the daughter).
A generation ago, Samansky says, most baby girls received their names at the synagogue. Fathers typically were called to the Torah for an aliyah shortly after the baby’s birth, and the daughter would receive her Hebrew name.
“As women’s liberation took hold, families and rabbis started saying that we needed to welcome our daughters into the community the way we welcome our sons,” Samansky says.
Since much of the ceremony for a male child is focused on the circumcision, rabbis have looked for ways to incorporate rich traditions for naming female children. Samansky says she offers parents a few options.
“Sometimes we will wash the baby’s feet, which is reminiscent of the mikveh (ritual bath). Other times I will wrap that baby girl in a tallit that is special to the family. This could be the tallit that was used for the parents’ wedding chuppah, or one belonging to a grandparent. We also light candles,” she says.
During naming ceremonies the parents are usually asked to say a few words about the history of the child’s Hebrew name. This helps personalize the naming for the family and friends.
Giving a child his or her Hebrew name is a way to connect the child with the family throughout the generations, Samansky said. “That is what baby-naming ceremonies are all about.”