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Thursday, August 18, 2005

What's in a name?

I received a comment yesterday that reminded me that I'm not always as careful as I should be about explaining things to the extremely diverse group of people who wander through here. 

I mentioned in passing that the parent's of the wounded soldier I've been talking about have decided to give him an extra name.  With all the disengagement (disestablishment) stuff going on, and yet another right wing Jewish extremist doing a spot-on impression of a bloodthirsty terrorist, I simply forgot that many of you might not be familiar with this custom... or even the more basic naming issues in Judaism.

It is worth pointing out that my knowledge of this subject is paper thin in some places, and I would not mind at all if some learned people chimed in with corrections or additions to my meager efforts.

Without going into too much detail (and without clarifying the different naming traditions found in the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities), here is some very basic information:

There is a lot of superstition surrounding names in Judaism.  Some traditions state that naming a baby for someone who has died will be a blessing to the deceased, and will impart some of that person's positive traits to the baby.  Others name for living people for similar reasons. 

There is also the issue of when to name a baby.  A girl is named in the synagogue at the first Torah service after her birth... and a boy is named at his Brit (circumcision) which normally takes place on the 8th day after his birth. 

Perhaps because there is a longer delay in a boy's official naming... from the time that a baby boy is born until he has has his Brit, he is considered (according to some) to be particularly vulnerable to 'bad things'.  I'm not specifically talking about any one 'bad thing', but some would call it the 'evil decree'... others the angel of death... and still others subscribe to the whole Lilith thing (go here for more info about Lilith). 

So whatever the basis, many people have the custom of not mentioning the real name of the baby until the official naming ceremony.  Others go so far as to use a false name for the baby until the real one is given in order to 'trick' the 'bad thngs' that might be out looking for him/her.

If several people have recently died in a family, some communities have the custom of giving a baby a secret name (which, according to some customs is never spoken) in addition of the real one in order to deceive the angel of death. 

In a similar vein... if someone is extremely ill, many have the custom of officially giving that person an extra name in the hopes that altering his/her identity will somehow alter the 'evil decree' against them.  For those with only one name this might mean adding a middle name.  For those with two names it might mean the addition of a third one.

This is what I was referring to when I mentioned that Elroi's parents had decided to give him an extra name today. 

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16b) states

"Four things can abrogate the decree of man and they are: charity, supplication, change of name and change of action."   

People around the world have been giving charity in his name... praying for him... and doing good deeds in his honor.  But as his condition remains basically unchanged his parents have decided to do the one thing that others can't do for their son.

When a baby is named they are given their name as follows:

[Baby's name] BEN/BAT (son/daughter of) [father's name]

This is also the name one is called in the synagogue.  But when someone is sick they are referred to as:

[sick person's name] BEN/BAT (son/daughter of) [mother's name]

I suppose that the nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship is the reason for this change in the way we refer to a sick person (feel free to tell me I'm wrong).

So while this wounded soldier's name on his 'dog tags' may be 'Elroi Mizrachi', this is not the name he was given at birth, the name by which he is called in the synagogue or the name we use in our thoughts and prayers now that his life is in danger.

Again, I apologize for mentioning this before without explaining it earlier.

UPDATE: This morning he was renamed Elroi (pronounced el-rowee) Refa'el ben Galia Glynis' (there were two versions of his mother's middle name circulating before but I have checked with his father and this is the correct spelling). 

As I've said before... I don't care if you use a book of Psalms, Rosary beads, chicken feathers or incense... please find a small place for this innocent young man in your prayers.  If organized religion isn't your thing, please just say his name a couple of times softly to yourself... and think good thoughts.


Posted by David Bogner on August 18, 2005 | Permalink


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Just to add one tiny detail to David's post -- the new name of Refa'el (Raphael) is Hebrew for "G-d heals". Other traditional additions in cases of serious danger are Chaim (life), Boruch (Blessed) and (primarily in Yiddish circles) Alter (long-lived, elder). For women, some people also use Miriam, as she was healed from Tzara'as (which is not quite leprosy, but that's the common translation).

Posted by: Mike Miller | Aug 18, 2005 12:00:18 PM

I didn't know about the custom of giving a secret name to a child in which several family members had died. Thanks for teaching me something new!

Posted by: Rahel | Aug 18, 2005 12:23:40 PM

2 questions David, pardon my naïve inquisitive tendencies about Judaism and Israel; Is the difference between an Ashkenazi or Sephardi or Ethiopian Jew of any social significance in Israel? Why are many Jews especially from America shy to use their Jewish names?

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 18, 2005 2:05:43 PM

Wow, Kakarizz posed some good questions. I'll be interested in seeing how / if you address them.... (Now you have your work cut out for you.)

My prayers are with Elroi Rafael.

Posted by: mirty | Aug 18, 2005 2:26:32 PM

Thanks for sharing, David. I didn't know about that custom. But then again I've been away from the Jewish community and traditions for many many years.

Elroi Refa'el ben Galia Glynis' is in my thoughts. This is one occasion I wish I knew any prayer (and I had the faith to say it).

Posted by: Sandra | Aug 18, 2005 2:26:35 PM

David.. dont forget about the giving of the so called "rap' name... in the beis medrash ( house fo study ) I am known as "B.I.G. HETER "

Posted by: shabtai | Aug 18, 2005 2:55:28 PM

I too was very interested in this post. As you said, what you may see/hear of everyday opens another world for those of us coming from different countries and cultures. (Just one reason why I like Treppenwitz so much!)

Elroi Refa'el will be in my thoughts and prayers.

Posted by: zemirah | Aug 18, 2005 3:29:26 PM

Thanks for updating us on the name change. Keeping him in my prayers. Refua Sheleima.

Posted by: Essie | Aug 18, 2005 4:19:14 PM

Here is some more info on names:
Chazal tell us that the name of person captures his essence and mission in life. As in the way Moshe's (Moses) name refers not only to the fact that "min hamayim mishiseeu" ( “For I drew him from the water”) but also that he would "draw" the Jews out of the Red Sea.

Posted by: Jewish Blogmiester | Aug 18, 2005 4:26:17 PM

I've been praying for him since you first mentioned it. In fact, I'm reminded of him every time I hear of the current settler situation in the news. It's a sad situation, all around.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Aug 18, 2005 4:55:36 PM

Mike... Thanks for the assist. that hadn't occurred to me.

Rahel... I learned a lot of this stuff today while trying to fill in some of my own blind spots.

Kakarizz... You have asked some excellent questions, but I am really not up to answering them just now. If you google Sephardic and Ashkenazim traditions you will come up with tons of good historical background on the origins and traditions of these two communities. The divide between the two communities is still apparent in Israel but is not nearly as loaded a social issue as it once was. This is largely due to the mainstreaming of Sephardi culture and the high rate of intermarriage and socialization between the two groups. I was not aware that American Jews were shy about using their 'Jewish' names... can you give me an example?

Mirty... I don't do this full time, and the whole Sephardi/Ashkenazi issue is a dissertation, not a comment response. :-)

Sandra... You just did. Please continue.

Shabtai... Very cute (for those outside the tribe, a 'heter' is basically Rabbinic permission to do something).

Zemirah... thank you... and thank you. :-)

Essie... Thanks.

Jewish Blogmiester... First of all, I should explain for some of our readers that 'Chazal' is an acronym for Chachomim Zichrono Livrocho, which is Hebrew for "our sages may their memory be blessed". Now that that's out of the way... thank for extra info on names. :-)

Steve... Thanks for keeping him in mind. Yes, it is quite bad for all involved.

Posted by: David | Aug 18, 2005 5:09:44 PM

This is basically what I figured. Names are big juju in a lot of cultures (I'm particularly superstitious about them, myself) but I've never heard of someone changing an adult's name.

Judaism is matriarchal, yes? Could the switch to the mother's name during sickness have anything to do with that?

(kakarizz: I don't know if this will help at all, but there's an overview here that was useful to me.)

The young lieutenant and his family are in my thoughts.

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 18, 2005 5:47:13 PM

He is being davened for. If it is possible to help this way than I am confident that help is on the way.

Why are many Jews especially from America shy to use their Jewish names?

If I may insert myself here I think that there are some people who want to fit in as best they can so they prefer to use a name that is not going to get a lot of attention or point to them as an outsider.

It is not the case with everyone, but I am aware of this. Also I know of some parents who were teased as children about their names and consequently were very careful in naming their children which I suppose really ties into to my first comment.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 18, 2005 5:49:01 PM

"Why are many Jews ... shy to use their Jewish names?"

I agree 100% with Jack's explanation.

Posted by: Sandra | Aug 18, 2005 6:13:23 PM

Those of us born in the 60's and 70's were given 'English' names to fit in better. People like me are more comfortable with our English names than our Hebrew names because that's what we're used to being called. For me, being called Moshe reminds me mostly of Hebrew Classes and that's not always a great association.

I wrote a whole post about "Moish", the dimunitive of Moshe, that my uncle called me.

I decided to give my kids only Hebrew names so they don't have this dichotomy (except for Perel, which is Yiddish, but that was my Grandma's only name).

As for me, I would prefer you all start referring to me by my new Indian name:

Posted by: psychotoddler | Aug 18, 2005 6:37:19 PM

My gag got ruined because I guess there's no more HTML in the comments:

You can refer to me by my Indian name:



Posted by: psychotoddler | Aug 18, 2005 6:38:57 PM

Hmmmm. Must. Weigh. In. On names -- since my given name is a doozy, I can whole heartedly agree with points made by both Jack and Psychotoddler! And since I'm a contemporary (closer to Psychotoddler than Jack) can 2nd the whole growing up in the 60's and 70's thing too... Sorry, though Psychotoddler -- my Mom (z"l) gave me a Yiddish name after her Grandmother too, and I must say I'm not too wild about it. (This is NOT, btw, an invitation for those in the know to go blasting my given name publicly!). The name I go by now is obviously hebraicized -- and the original is not Golde....

Posted by: zahava | Aug 18, 2005 7:41:55 PM

P.S. -- We also gave our kids only Hebrew names to avoid the dichotomy. When we still lived in the States is was a hoot when the kids came home from school asking what their Hebrew names were! Of course we'd answer Ariella/Gilad accordingly, and they'd answer, "No! THAT's my English name!" and we'd say, "Nooooo. THAT's your Hebrew name." Of course, they would then demand to know their English names, and once they realized they were without, they wanted to know why!

Posted by: zahava | Aug 18, 2005 7:48:05 PM

And since I'm a contemporary (closer to Psychotoddler than Jack)

Cool, I love being the baby because in my office I am the old man, or one of them. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Aug 18, 2005 7:54:30 PM

Zahava, I thought that was your real name. Is it an Israeli name anyway? It is so romantic.

Posted by: Sandra | Aug 18, 2005 8:46:05 PM

Sandra, it IS my real name (now anyways). I legally changed it when we made aliyah. It means golden. In the States I always felt like a three-way-street: I had the name that was given to me at birth (the Yiddish version of Zahava -- Zahava is a direct translation from the Yiddish), but I also had an English name (was also on my birth certificate) because my Dad knew that with my given name I would face a life-time of childhood taunts for being different and weird (hey, Dad! THANKS AGAIN for looking out for me that way!!!! I LOVE the idea of who I am named for, but sheesh! the name itself?!). I never loved the name Cheryl, and I didn't loathe it either, it simply never felt like me.

When I was still in grade school, my parents started sending me to a small Jewish Day Camp run out of one of Conservative Synagogues in Albany (Camp Givah, and it was the BEST place on earth to be in the summers!). The program was intensely Zionistic -- we had a working kibbutz (overnight camp for the high schoolers) with chickens, vegetation, and a cow. We davened (prayed) daily, we had shiurim (Torah lessons), and chuggim (Israeli-style enrichment activities like folk-dancing, etc). We spoke Heblish (combo Hebrew and English depending on the activity), and everyone was required to use their Hebrew names.

My experiences in the Talmud Torah program I attended 3 days a week after public school did not instill the biggest love for my given name (there are a LOT of cruel taunts with very old-fashioned Yiddish names in a more modern society!) and for this reason, I was a bit hesitant to go to the camp when I heard we used our "Jewish" names. Imagine my delight when the rebbeim had rachmanas (pity) on me and said "Zahava! it means the same thing AND IT is actually Hebrew!" So for about 14 or 15 years (I returned as a staff member as I got older) I was Zahava for two months out of the year.

In college, where I both encountered a number of Cheryls and went through an "individualistic" period, I went by Zahava with my closest friends, and one friend from that era continues to call me Za to this day.

To end what should have been a shorter story -- changing my name legally when we made aliyah was no big deal, because it had already been a major part of my identity. That, and the Israeli pronunciation of Cheryl --- Shaireeeeeeyl --- was a specter too frightening to face multiple times daily! ;-)

Posted by: zahava | Aug 18, 2005 11:04:29 PM

Zahava, we did the same thing with our three kids; they were named with Hebrew names only. When we were living in the States, we *always* knew when it was our turn at our HMO pediatrician. (It was the blank look on the face of the admitting nurse while she looked at the patient register that was the giveaway.)

And while we never considered ourselves superstitious, every one of the kids before birth and before their official naming was called "Dvashma." Since you know our last name, you figure it out. ;)

For anyone who isn't within travelling distance, but would still like to have a note put in the Western Wall praying for Elroi Refa'el ben Galia Glynis, AishDOTcom will do it for you. Go here http://www.aish.com/wallcam/For_the_Sick.asp and click on the link to place a note in the Wall. They do require a valid email address to do this.

Wishing Elroi Refa'el ben Galia Glynis Refuah Shleymah.

Posted by: jennifer | Aug 18, 2005 11:06:37 PM

This is so interesting. Thanks for sharing. This young man will be in my thoughts and prayers.

Posted by: JC | Aug 18, 2005 11:08:43 PM

Zahava, a Cheryl you are not. :) (But please don't ever ask to see my ketubbah! It's a nightmare.)

Posted by: jennifer | Aug 18, 2005 11:10:57 PM


Your experience is similar to my wife's. Her grandparents made her parents put an English name on her birth certificate, which she despised and never used.

She changed her name legally to her Hebrew name when she was a teenager.

As far as Yiddish names go, I agree most of them are butt-ugly. When we named our daughter (who was born 3 months after the death of my Grandmother), the gabbai actually said this:

"Mazel tov to the Skiers on the birth and naming of their daughter, Perel Shifra, and I assume they'll be calling her Shifra."

I'm pretty sure it was at that exact moment that my wife decided that she would NEVER call her Shifra.

Anyway, within a few weeks I couldn't imagine calling her anything BUT Perel.

Posted by: psychotoddler | Aug 19, 2005 12:03:52 AM

Zahava: My mother's name is Cheryl (I've probably mentioned that before), and one of her best friends used to call her "Shair-ee-iiiiiihl" like that. It always made my flesh crawl, but I think mom thought it was endearing. Probably because it was only one person doing it...

I think Zahava is lovely. (And I hope I'm not pronouncing it wrong in my head, like I was Bogner...)

Posted by: Tanya | Aug 19, 2005 3:55:45 AM

I think the differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic names is that Spehardim will name a kid after a living relative while Ashkenazim will only name a kid after a deceased relative.

Posted by: Ed | Aug 19, 2005 5:22:26 AM

Tanya: I was pronouncing Bogner wrong in my head for the longest time also. Who knew?

Zahava in Hebrew is pronounced "Queeezooveh".

Just kidding. It's pronounced just like it looks. 3 syllables; same vowel in each one.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Aug 19, 2005 6:25:48 AM

Like you say David – it’s like auto pilot….Jack was obliged to do some explaining. The reason I asked was because I have a friend who always uses her ‘American name’ instead of her Jewish name and after reading your article I thought it was also part of a Judaic naming custom that I never knew about.

Thanks Tanya for the resourceful reading, I must say I had a hard time trying to concentrate with the cartoon to the left (my eyes kept drifting) ;-)

Photo Friday - One reason to keep checking treppenwitz on Friday's.

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 19, 2005 8:45:22 AM

Photo Friday, must have Photo Friday. What will we see. I feel like a zombie, but I look much better. It must be the Tang.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 19, 2005 9:15:46 AM

we are also thinking of elroi - he was in yeshiva with my son at maale gilboa.
chazal is chachamim zichronam livracha (sorry to be a nitpicker). which is usually translated as our sages of blessed memory (again nitpicky).

cheryl transmorgaphies (how should i write that) to shir-el.
shirley becomes shir-li
my grandfather's english name was orrin (like in hatch) and we called him oren.
there are many switches
another is nata-li .

shabbat shalom

Posted by: kobi | Aug 19, 2005 12:18:53 PM


Cheryl may transmorgaph into Shir-el, but I chose to Hebriacize my Yiddish name as my identity is much more wrapped up in the person I was named for than for the English name my parents gave me so I would blend in while living in the States. Shir-el is a beautiful name, and the Israeli pronunciation is very pleasing, but it is not my name.

Posted by: zahava | Aug 19, 2005 2:09:22 PM

Zahava, thanks for the very nice story about your three names. I know it means golden (one of the few scattered Hebrew words I know), that's why I find it romantic. Like in Jerusalem of Gold.

I am now REALLY curious about your name in Yiddish. If it is not Golde, what is it??? :) Does it sound like what Dr. Bean suggested (Queeezooveh)?

I am named in Hebrew after my deceased grandmothers (Sarah, both of them), but so were several of my cousins, and when I was little there were a lot of confusions at those big family gatherings :)

Posted by: Sandra | Aug 19, 2005 2:36:33 PM

I love discussions surrounding names and the way superstition or belief affect them. Sephardic Jews think nothing of naming a baby after a living relative and most Ashkenazi wouldn't dream of it. I have a very unusual double first name, and one of my first names means "John", which is a deviation of a Portie naming custom. Girls are often given double names which include a man's name (John, José, Manuel). Boys are often given Maria as part of their doble name as well. No one can pronounce João (John) and that's why abroad I am known by "Johnny". Now, my Hebrew name starts with a Het and cannot be properly transliterated into Portuguese so I'm a "H" (we read "Ch" read as "Sh" so I intensely dislike that option). Blah.

Hope the name works and he is soon awake and out of danger. And see, it is Shabbat and this week I even know it! Shabbat shalom!

Posted by: Lioness | Aug 19, 2005 3:17:11 PM

Since I am one of the least superstitious people I know (aside from Dr. Bean) I don't really resonate to the name-changing idea. However, far be it from me to criticize people who are in such pain and anguish. They must do what they can to endure.
On the subject of names I have so many ideas. First, I would have given my children solely English/Yiddish names. However, the good doctor, being an immigrant, wanted our children to be as American as possible. If you only knew!

Conversely, I also believe that if you are going to name a baby for a deceased relative, you should give the baby the name that the person used. For example, Dr. Bean and I both had grandfathers with the same English name, let's say it was Maynard. We bit the bullet and named our first-born "Maynard." There wasn't a dry eye at the bris. I don't believe that would have been the case if we had named him they're Hebrew names, Moshe or Michael (going by the "using the first letter convention. Further, "Maynard" really suits him now.
Psychotoddler: would you have still used the Yiddish name if it was Yenta or Zushka? Just wondering. You really lucked out, Perel is kinda cute!

Posted by: ball-and-chain | Aug 20, 2005 4:10:20 AM

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