I am one of 17 children (Thank God) and most of us, except for perhaps one or two, have only one name. Once I asked my mother, “Mama, why did you only give us one name? Most of my friends have at least two.”
My mother, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and a women of deep faith and commitment, answered me like this: “Modchela, each child is a blessing from above, so I bargained with God and said as follows: I have this relative, and I have that Rebbe that I would like to honor with their names given to one of my children. So I named each of you with only one name so that I could ask of God to provide me with yet another child so that another beloved deceased relative or teacher could be honored with the naming of one of my children.”
It could be said that one of the most frequent discussions that come up between expectant parents during the nine-month gestation period is what to name the long-awaited offspring. It could also be said that discussion is too light a word to describe the heated exchanges that can sometimes take place regarding this weighty responsibility.
A story is quoted in the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) of a couple who came to their rabbi in a quandary: They were expecting a child. If it was a boy, the husband wanted to name it after his father Meir, and the wife said she would like to name it after her father Uri. The rabbi pondered for a moment, then said, “I have a solution. Meir in Hebrew means ‘light’ and Uri in Hebrew means ‘light.’ Why not call the baby Shneur, meaning ‘two lights?’” Thus the name Shneur was born.
When my daughter Sarale was born more than 14 years ago, my wife and I had a name picked out: Sarah from her side and a second name from my mother’s family. While my wife was giving birth and with barely any time to spare (as it was Shabbat and I was planning to walk five miles to be in time for Mincha services to name her), we decided the name needed to be from my wife’s family alone. We quickly changed the second name to Elke, after one of my wife’s great-grandmothers. We marveled how up until that minute we had not thought of it. It was the perfect fit! It suited our little girl beautifully.
Choosing a name is a big deal. A name expresses the very essence of a person. All parts of the name — its sound, its meaning, and even the letters that make it up are descriptions of the soul. Kabbalah teaches that parents are given temporary prophecy to choose the right name for their child. This flash of insight and inspiration can come at any time before or after the birth, and when it does you just know you’ve got it right.
Our sages tell us that although two centuries of exile and slavery had all but assimilated the Children of Israel into the pagan society of Egypt, they remained a distinct entity because they retained their Hebrew names, language, and dress, and thus they merited their miraculous redemption.
On a deeper level, we learn in the Book of Genesis that God created the world with speech — “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” In the Kabbalah it is explained that the 22 sacred letters of the Hebrew alef-bet are the spiritual “building blocks” of all created reality, and that the name of a thing in the holy tongue represents the combination of sacred letters that reflect its distinct characteristics and the purpose and role toward which it was created.
Your Hebrew name is your spiritual call sign, embodying your unique character traits and God-given gifts. Your Hebrew name serves as a link, a conduit, channeling spiritual energy from above into your soul and your body. This is why Chassidic masters say that an unconscious person will often respond and be revived when his or her name is called.
In addition, according to Jewish custom, a critically ill person is sometimes given an additional Hebrew name — kind of like a spiritual bypass operation to infuse fresh spirituality into the person’s already existing name body. With this extra dose of spirituality, the body is given renewed vigor to heal itself.
When deciding upon a name, look through the names of the great characters of Jewish history, or the names of grandparents who have passed away. If one of those names jumps out at you, it may indicate that the child has a spark from that person’s soul, or may even be their reincarnation, and will emulate the positive traits of that person. Souls tend to stay in the family, and a child named after a departed loved one will continue to carry the flame.
Now that we have covered the importance of a having and using your Hebrew name, it’s time to get down to tachlis (practicalities). A boy is named at the time of the Brit (circumcision). If the Brit does not take place on the eighth day, you delay the naming until the Brit does occur. A girl is named at the first Torah reading after birth. The name should be given on the immediate Monday, Thursday or Shabbat, the three days of the week the Torah is read. Bear in mind that if you never received a Hebrew name, you can always choose one and be named at a Torah reading. Just contact your rabbi and set it up.
Remember, you are not just naming a baby. You are naming a teenager, an adult, and a senior citizen. Today’s “cool” names will be out of fashion by the time your baby stops teething; Hebrew names have stayed in vogue for 4,000 years. Be a prophet for a day and choose a name that describes your baby’s soul.