How to Name a Child in Judaism
Judaism has several traditions surrounding the naming of a baby. The Ashkenazi tradition is to name the child after a relative who has died. The Sephardic tradition says to name the child after a living relative.
Both Jewish traditions suggest that the child should be named after someone you respect and admire, a model for your child to follow (though both traditions rule that a child shouldn’t have the same name as his or her parent). Perhaps more importantly, the name should bring up joyful memories and feelings, so you wouldn’t name a child after your Uncle Shlomo, who embezzled from the family business.
Note that Jews outside of Israel usually have two given names: one in Hebrew and one in the language of their birthplace. The latter name usually appears on the child’s birth certificate, but the Hebrew name is what he or she would be called in religious circles and functions.
The Hebrew name is almost always either Biblical in origin (out of 2,800 personal names in the Bible, fewer than 140 are actually used today) or a Hebrew word such as Tovah (“goodness”) or Baruch (“blessed”). In Israel, of course, people just go by their Hebrew names, such as Yoram, Avital, Tamar, and Asher.
While the correlation between someone’s common name and Hebrew name is occasionally obvious (like Gabriel and Gavriel), more often you have to really stretch to see the connection. Generally, people choose a Hebrew name and common name that are associated using one of the following criteria:
The common name is a derivative of the Hebrew name. For example, Sam comes from Samuel, which comes from Shmuel, a famous biblical character.
The names share the same meaning. Helen comes from the Greek word meaning “light,” so you may use the Hebrew name “Orah,” which also means “light.”
The names sound alike. The name Lauren comes from the Latin word for the laurel (a symbol of victory). So Lauren may have the Hebrew name Dafna, which also means “laurel,” or she may be called Leah simply because they share the “L” sound. Similarly, a boy may be called Max by his schoolmates and Moshe on his Jewish name certificate.
The names have no connection at all. For example, the parents, wanting to honor the child’s great-grandfather Mayer, give their son this Hebrew name. However, perhaps they can’t think of any good corresponding English name, so the birth certificate reads “Lawrence.” Later in life, when people ask him about the connection between Lawrence and Mayer, he’ll get good at making up answers on the fly.
Note that Jewish names typically include the name of the child’s father, and sometimes both the father and mother. For example, “Shaul ben Noach” (“Saul, son of Noah”) or “Orah bat Adam v’Yehudit” (“Orah, daughter of Adam and Judith”).
Traditional Jews don’t use a child’s name until he or she has been formally announced to the community. For boys, this happens on the eighth day, during the brit milah. Girls are announced at synagogue or in a more private ritual. Most English-speaking parents outside of Israel also announce and explain their child’s English name.