Names are kind of a big deal, Jewishly speaking. A name is said to affect a person’s personality and even their destiny. Your name is the connection to your soul. But no pressure! Really, don’t worry, the Kabbalists teach that when parents are choosing a name for their child, the parents experience a little bit of prophecy, so you’ll probably be just fine.
But still, it’s no easy feat—and for many Jewish parents, the task is doubly hard if you are choosing both an English and Hebrew name. Even if you’re not planning on calling your child by their Hebrew name, choosing it can still be deeply meaningful. I asked the people of Facebook what their primary considerations were in choosing a Hebrew name for their child, and these were the most popular, in no certain order:
There’s something beautiful about honoring a family member by naming a child after them. It is a touching way of keeping the memory of a relative alive. Ashkenazi Jews only name after relatives once they are deceased, but Sephardim have the custom to name even after living relatives.
If the relative died young, some people add a name, like Chaya/Chaim, for life, or Bracha/Baruch, for blessing. If the relative had a, shall we say, less than stellar character, some people add the name of someone they admire so that the child might emulate that person.
Sometimes family names aren’t ones you necessarily want to use. When my husband and I were naming our daughter, there was a family member who didn’t have anyone named after her yet. She had a Yiddish name, which my husband and I weren’t crazy about (no offense, Yiddish).
One option would have been to use the Hebrew equivalent of the name, but it was somewhat unclear what that would have been. We decided to use the Yiddish name as her middle name and gave her a first name that was relevant to the time of year. Amusingly, we actually call her by her middle name far more often than her first. I’ve even grown fond of it.
Another option would be choosing a Hebrew name that sounds like or starts with the same letter as the deceased relative’s name.
One common tactic is choosing a Hebrew name that will align with your child’s English name. There are plenty of Hebrew names that have very accessible English corollaries, like Sarah, Naomi, or Leah for girls, and Ezra, Daniel, or Asher for boys. Then you can have the convenience of a dually functioning, and easy to pronounce, name.
Another option is to choose a Hebrew name that begins with the same letter or sound as the English name. Sadie could be paired with Sarah, Oliver with Leib (Yiddish for lion).
Finally, you could choose a Hebrew name that is similar in meaning to your child’s English name. Doing this, Ava, which means life, could lead to a Hebrew name of Chaya, which also means life. Milo, which means merciful, could have Rachamim as a Hebrew name.
There are two main types of Jewish names: Names that belong to people from the bible, and names that mean something. There are names that fit into both categories, like Deborah, who was a judge and generally awesome woman, and whose name also means bee. Like the insect. Buzz buzz.
When naming after someone in the bible, it’s good to consider what the person was like. Are they someone you’d want your child to take after? In my circles, we don’t use names of people who were infamously bad. Just because it’s in the bible doesn’t mean it should be used.
There are many beautiful non-biblical names like Shoshana, which means rose, or Aliza, which means filled with joy. There are more modern Hebrew names like Amichai, which means my nation lives, or Ilan, which means tree.
If your baby is due around a major holiday, you could choose from names associated with that time of year. For example, if you’re expecting a boy around Hanukkah, Yehudah (for Judah the Maccabee) or Matisyahu might be options. If you’re expecting a girl in the springtime, you might consider Aviva, which means spring.
Some people like to look at the weekly Torah portion and select a name from there. Others will name after an esteemed person whose yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) is on the day of birth of the child.
This is especially relevant if you’re not planning to give your child an English name. The notorious “ch” sound is one some of my friends avoided using, as a consideration to family, or just to the child. It can be a source of frustration to have your name constantly mispronounced at work, appointments, social settings, etc.
One of our children is named after a family member, which led to our first “ch” sound. I apologized in advance to my parents, but I felt good that at least this child had a pronounceable second name. I didn’t realize that the combination of “tzv” was also very tricky to pronounce! Oy!
6. You just like it
If none of the previous points speak to you, there’s always the method of getting a book of Hebrew baby names (or checking out Kveller’s baby name bank) and going through it. You can wait for that parental prophecy to kick in as you flip through the pages.
Or maybe you heard a name somewhere and it always stuck with you. One of my friends fell in love with the name of a friend’s child, and she ended up choosing it for herself when she converted.
Whatever the name you choose for your child, mazel tov on your new addition! Picking a name is just one of the first steps on this crazy, amazing, evolving trip of parenthood.