Naming a Child

There are different traditions, rituals and beliefs relating to the naming of a child in Judaism: Some Jewish families name a newborn after a deceased relative, while others may honor a living family member. Regardless of which tradition is followed, the naming of a child is culturally significant. One viewpoint and tradition dates back to the biblical verse “Like his name, so is he,” asserting that a child’s name ultimately defines him or her, and is a large part of the heritage within most Jewish communities around the world. The primary factor and distinction made when naming a child of the Jewish faith is whether the family is of ‘Ashkenazi’ or ‘Sephardic’ descent.

Naming Traditions for Ashkenazi Jews

According to Ashkenazi tradition (Jewish sects traced back to Central and Eastern Europe), it is a kind gesture to name a newborn after the deceased – in most cases, a recently deceased member of the family, such as a grandparent or a great-grandparent. By doing so, the parents hope to instill the positive attributes of the deceased into the lives of the child and keep the memory of the deceased alive in the child. Additionally, there is strong belief that naming a child after a deceased relative will ultimately lead to curiosity about his or her namesake and generate interest on the child’s behalf in learning more about family lineage. A primary focus is perpetuating family by honoring and commemoration. An ancient tenet that is still in existence provides that by naming a newborn child after a deceased loved one, the soul lives on through the child. It is important to note, however, that naming a child after a deceased loved one is not a Talmudic mandate prescribed to Jews of Ashkenazi origin, and it is by no means forbidden to name a child after a living relative – though it is customary and respectful to first ask that person for permission.

Naming Traditions for Sephardic Jews

In the Sephardic tradition (Jews of Iberian or Middle-Eastern origin), it is common for families to name their children after a living relative. That is because when it comes to the naming of a child within Sephardim, the emphasis is typically on honoring a grandparent, and many grandparents are living to witness the birth of a grandchild. It is a significant point of pride within the Sephardic tradition for a grandparent to not only witness his or her grandchild’s birth, but also the honor and tribute paid by this naming ritual.

Additional Naming Considerations

Different scenarios may arise within Jewish families on the issue of naming a child. For example, what happens when one sibling has already honored a loved one by naming a child after him or her? Can the other sibling honor the same relative? Can such commemoration be “shared?” Yes. In fact, this situation is a special honor, which is considered an even higher tribute to the deceased loved one.

There also tends to be many questions and confusion surrounding the “Hebrew” name of a child. The Hebrew name is completely separate from a newborn child’s given English name, but there is a connection in that many Jewish parents will try to select a Hebrew name that is either similar sounding to the English name or similar in meaning. A Hebrew name is traditionally rooted in biblical origins, though that is not always the case.

When naming a child after a loved one, deceased or living, it is fairly common for parents to honor the relative and his or her name, but to alter or “modernize” the name when given to the child. For example, it is fairly common for parents to only use the first letter of the relative’s name, while others may choose a name that is not identical, but rather similar in sound, spelling or some other manner. One additional way to honor and commemorate through the name is to make a newborn child’s middle name, as opposed to the first name, similar or identical to that of a special relative.