For the week ending 15 December 2007 / 6 Tevet 5768

Jewish Name-Calling

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jeremy Reissman

    Dear Rabbi,

    When parents name a child, why is it permitted to give the child a non-Hebrew name, such as Yiddish or Middle Eastern names? Thank you.

Dear Jeremy,

Allow me to address your question in the broader context of name giving.

One category of names regards those in transliteration, by which I mean the use of Hebrew names as written/pronounced in other languages. For example: the name “Mi-cha-el” for boys as Michel (Fr.), Mikhail (Rus.), Michael (En.); or “Rach-el” for girls as Rachelle (Fr.), Raquel (Sp.), Rachel (En.). “Shlomo” (Solomon) as Zalman in Yiddish or Sulamein in Arabic are two other notable examples. Sometimes the relationship is not readily apparent or well-known such as Jonathan from “Yehonatan”. Such non-Hebrew forms of essentially Hebrew names, if used by Jews as Jewish names, are clearly permitted.

Another category of names regards those in translation, by which I mean the use of original Hebrew names as translated into other languages. For example: “Tzvi” which means deer translated into Yiddish as Hirsh; “Aryeh” which means lion translated as Leib; and “Ze’ev” which means wolf as Wolf. In the original Hebrew, these names are based on the Torah’s comparing Tribes such as Naftali, Yehuda and Binyamin to admirable qualities of such animals (swift, strong, stoic). Therefore, the translation was often affixed to the original Hebrew as in Naftali Hirsh/Tzvi Hirsh, Yehuda Leib/Aryeh Leib or Binyamin Wolf/Ze’ev Wolf.

We find the same phenomenon regarding women’s names as well. For example, “Penina” (pearl), the name of a righteous woman in Scriptures, is translated as Pearlie. Similarly, “Shoshana/Vered” (rose) became Rosie in Yiddish and Warda in Arabic while “Malka” (queen) became Reine and Malika, respectively.

Jewish names in translation, despite their more tenuous connection to Judaism, were nevertheless accepted and practiced by all communities throughout the ages. This also applies to names not mentioned in Jewish sources but based on objects or concepts acceptable to Judaism as translated into other languages, such as the man’s name Zelig or Sa’id for happy; or the women’s names Bluma or Farcha for flower, Sheina or Jamila for beautiful and Shprintza for hope. [Note that the use as names of the Hebrew words for most flowers, or Yafa and Tikva for beautiful and hope as above is a recent trend.]

A third category of names is what I’ll call “non-Jewish” names by which I refer to names that are not Jewish names, but they are not specifically not-Jewish names either. This would include for boys names such as Gary or Stuart or for girls Pamela and Barbara. These “pareve” names should be avoided since they have no significant meaning, nor were they traditionally used. In fact, they may not be as “pareve” as they seem. Martin, for example, is related to the service of Mars; and Cynthia refers to the moon goddess Kinthos.

A last category of names is what I’ll call “not-Jewish names” by which I mean names that are specifically associated with other religions. This would include John (with an “h”, not to be confused with Jon, short for Jonathan), Luke, Paul, and Chris (related to savior in Greek) who, of course, were leading figures or concepts in Christianity. The name of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, which means revered, would also be included in this category insofar as it is particularly associated with another religion. Women’s names of this type would include names such as Mary (despite its virgin use as Miriam), Theresa and Fatima (the daughter of Muhammad and significant to Islam as the only child through which his progeny was perpetuated). These names were never, and should not be, used by Jews.

Two interesting exceptions of Jews using non-Jewish names were that of Ishmael and Alexander. Regarding the former, despite the Torah’s reference to Yishmael’s immoral and idolatrous inclinations (Gen. 21:9, Rashi), we find a great rabbi of the Talmud named R’ Yishmael who was a High Priest. Sources indicate that he was so great that G-d Himself asked R’ Yishmael to bless Him. He was also thoroughly versed with the use of Divine names. Regarding the latter, we find many Jews, including illustrious rabbis from dynastic families who shared the namesake of the great conqueror.

The explanation for this is as follows. According to Torah sources, Yishmael repented toward the end of his life and actually became righteous. This is evident from his giving precedence to Yitzchak at Abraham’s burial (Gen. 25:9, Rashi), and the subsequent mention of his own death as being “gathered to his forefathers”, i.e to the righteous Abraham (25:17, Rashi).

Similarly, the Talmud (Yoma 69a) ascribes righteousness to Alexander the Great. Incited by enemies of the Sages, Alexander intended to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. On the way, he was approached by R’ Shimon HaTzadik who headed a delegation of rabbis. When Alexander saw him, he got off his horse and bowed on the ground at his feet. The enemies of the Sages questioned why “The Great” should prostrate before the lowly. He replied that at the head of all his conquests he was led by the image of a righteous man, and this image was the countenance of non other than R’ Shimon. The rabbis asked Alexander, “Is it conceivable that your enemies should mislead you into destroying the House in which prayers for your success and for that of your kingdom are offered?” At which point Alexander recalled his soldiers and turned over the enemies of the Sages to the Jews. According to tradition, the Jews accepted several practices to honor Alexander for this event – one of which was to call Jewish children in his name.

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