“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet of her beloved Romeo? Shakespeare’s characters find their love restricted by their family names and they question the importance of such labels, declaring, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It is certainly true that a name on one level is simply a superficial label. I am not a “Theodore” or a “Ted” or any other variation of my name; I am me. Names are simply the way we identify each other.
A Hebrew name, however, takes on a special meaning. More accurately, we could call it a “covenant” name. It is the name that ties us back to the time we all stood at Mt. Sinai, joining in an eternal covenant. Whether in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino or any other “Jewish” language, our covenant name establishes and affirms our connection with an entire ancestry of the Jewish people.
There are many traditions surrounding Jewish names. Ashkenazim (those from Eastern Europe) often give a child a name of a deceased family member. Sephardim (those originally from Spain) often name after a living relative. Both traditions are meant to honor a loved one.
Sometimes, rather than naming a child after a relative, we choose a name that is particularly meaningful because of someone else who bore that name: Moshe, Miriam, Jonah, etc. Or, we choose a name based upon its meaning: Yonatan/Jonathan (a gift of God), Shoshanah (lily or rose). There is yet another tradition that teaches us to name someone as a tikkun – a repair of past events or experiences in our own lives or in our lineage. For instance, if we have experienced a life of disruption and angst, we might use shalom (peace) in a name, such as Shlomo or Shulamit. There is even a tradition of changing a name at times of great peril or on the verge of death to trick the “angel of death”.
I have had the great honor over the years to help many new parents choose names for their children and bar/bat mitzvah students explore names for themselves. I have helped those choosing Judaism discover their own covenant names and I have even guided adults in uncovering new names that better express their connection with Judaism.
A Brit Bat is a female covenantal ceremony that is similar to a Brit Milah but involves no surgery. Traditionally, this naming ceremony takes place on the Sabbath after the birth or within the first thirty days. There is no mandatory time for naming a Jewish girl, although it is recommended that you do so as soon as possible after birth.
If you are ready for a covenant name or a new covenant name, please come see me and I will be honored to serve as your guide. Receiving a new name can be a public or private experience and together we will find the right fit for you.