Names of the Children of Israel

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – February 25, 2015

Upon pondering the Torah section of Tetzave and its various mentions of the term “names of the children of Israel ” (Sh’mot 28:9 et al), the noted Torah scholar R. Yitzchak Zilberstein discusses a question concerning naming a child that sheds significant light on the entire subject (VeHa’arev Na II, pp. 215-218).

The question posed concerned a woman pregnant with her first child who got separated from her husband and was left in hiding during the Holocaust.  After the child’s birth, she named him Dan, after her husband, having no doubt in her mind that he must have been murdered by the Nazis.  The mother and child, a number of years after surviving the Nazi inferno, received a surprise visit from none other than the man whom they presumed to be deceased.  The jubilation was immense; and then the father asked the boy what his name was.  “I am named Dan, after you,” said the boy.  Having been named such under the mistaken assumption that the father was dead, the question arose whether the boy’s name should now be changed.

This question was addressed in Teshuvot Mishneh Halachot IX, 248 by R. Menasheh Klein.  Firstly, he notes that it was once customary in medieval times to name children after their own grandparents – even if the grandparents were still alive – as is evident from an anecdote of the son of Ramban, aka Nachmanides (1194-1270), who was married to the daughter of Rabeinu Yonah Gerondi (died 1264), who had wanted to name their son after Ramban but were persuaded by him to name him after his son’s recently deceased father-in-law instead (Teshuvot Rashbash 291).  Another support for this practice, as cited by R. Yehuda Assad (1796-1866) in Yehuda Ya’aleh, Yoreh Deah 247, is found in a comment by Rashi on Divrei HaYamim I 2:50 in which he states that Chur named his son after his own father Kalev who was still alive at the time.  Secondly, there are Talmudic sources for naming a child even after his own live father.  In Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 85b, someone called Bunyas, son of Bunyas, was asked to pass on a message to his father.  Tosefta Nidah ch. 5 tells of R. Chanina, son of R. Chanina, whose father vowed not to allow him benefit from his property.  And in Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 6:3, we find that Shimon HaTzadik foresaw his own death and instructed his son Nechunya to take his place, thereby sparking the jealousy of his other son Shimon.

Apparently, there is no prohibition of naming children after living relatives.  However, R. Zilberstein notes, in line with Sefer Chasidim 460, it has become customary among Jews of Ashkenazi descent to refrain from naming children after one who is alive, and R. Yosef Chaim David Azulai (1724-1806), known as Chida, noted in Brit Olam that, although some customs allow naming children after living grandparents, all customs agree not to name after oneself.  Additionally, R. Assad is found to have addressed the situation of a father named Yitzchak Ber who named his son Ber.  Although it was once accepted to name a child after a living parent, it was no longer the custom, and one must not go against the current prevailing custom.  Consequently, R. Assad ruled that a suffix should be added to the son’s name, e.g. Berman instead of just Ber.

It is noteworthy, R. Zilberstein points out, that R. Assad advised adding letters to the name rather than changing it outright.  This may be understood in light of the name changes of our forefathers in which the replacing of a given letter was met with objection, as in the case of Sarah, as opposed to just adding letters, as in the case of Abraham (see Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 2:6).

In light of all the aforementioned, the solution to the original question posed was to add a suffix to the name of the boy whose father was thought dead.  He should be called Daniel rather than Dan.

It has been said, “What’s in a name?”  Apparently, from the aforementioned, we see there is much significance to a name.  In fact, in Shemot Ba’Aretz (edited by Tzvi Yabrov in consultation with R. Chaim Kanievsky) many sources are cited as to the importance and significance of finding an appropriate name for someone.  From the above and many sources, we see a name is not just a name.  A name is meaningful and needs to be treated thoughtfully.