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What’s In A Name?

Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

There was a time when Jewish names were relatively easy to identify. Moshe and Dovid—these were Jewish names. Chris, Winston, Thaddeus, and Peter—these were not Jewish names. True, there was one of the Baalei HaTosfos whose name was Rabbeinu Pehter, but by and large this was an aberration.

Chazal tell us (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:22) that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt because they did not change their names, their language, or their mode of dress. Indeed, the Maharam Shick (Y.D. responsa 169) and the Darchei Teshuvah (Y.D. 178:14) understand that the prohibition of giving a child a non-Jewish name is a biblical one stemming from the prohibition of “U’vchukoseihem lo seileichu.” (It is said of the Maharam Shick that when the authorities decreed that every family must take on a last name, he specifically chose Shick, as an acronym for Sheim Yisrael Kodesh.)

Clearly, having a Jewish name is important.

The Sefer Chassidim (244) writes of the tremendous importance for parents to think carefully as to what to name their child. The name itself can not only cause or remove psychological barriers, it can also become a factor in the spiritual growth of the child. The Midrash Tanchuma in Parashas Ha’azinu explains that a person should look to give a name that would help the child become a tzaddik, because at times the name can be influential in this. The Gemara in Berachos 7b cites Rabbi Elazar that there is a verse to this effect, that shema garim—names do matter.

So what has happened of late?

There are a number of Torah-observant Jews who, when visiting Eretz Yisrael, try to get an audience with the gedolei Torah. Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, is recognized as one of the gedolei ha’dor and receives visitors on a regular basis. When people ask for a berachah for a shidduch, however, they are sometimes in for a shock. Rav Kanievsky is of the opinion that the names “Shirah” and “Rinah” are actually not Jewish names. He advises that they should be changed immediately. Thus Rinah becomes Raizel or Rachel, and Shirah becomes Sarah or Shifrah. And we are witnessing these changes by the dozens. (The word shirah means “joyous song” and the word rinah means “a musical joy.”)

Did previous gedolim agree with this assessment that these are not Jewish names and should be changed? Is it not possible for a name to become Jewish simply because Jews start to use it?

Rav Moshe Feinstein’s View

Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, in Igros Moshe (O.C. IV #66) clearly learns that names can become Jewish names by virtue of their use among Jews. He cites as an example the name of Maimon, father of the Rambam, as well as Vidal, the author of the Maggid Mishneh. Originally, these were decidedly not Jewish names. He discusses it further in Orach Chaim vol. V 9:10. In these responsa, he explains that the initial people who named their children with non-Jewish names were in violation of this idea. However, when more Jews gradually began doing it, the names attained a Jewish flavor.

Possibility Of A Non-Name

Perhaps one could counter that Rav Kanievsky’s view is that the problems with the names Shirah and Rinah are not that they are not Jewish names, but that they are not names at all. In order to address this possibility, it may be worthwhile to examine some of the names found in the Mishnah and Gemara. We find in Pirkei Avos that Ben Hei Hei tells us, “Lefum tzaara agra, according to the level of difficulty involved (in observing a mitzvah) is the reward.” Most people focus on his message, but let’s take a moment to focus on the rabbi’s name. What kind of name is Ben Hei Hei?

The Torah Lishmah (responsa #402) cites this very notion as a proof that one may even name someone after a Hebrew letter. If this is the case, then it would seem plausible that one can also name after a full Hebrew word as well. This is especially true when we have so many people doing it; there are thousands of Shirahs and Rinahs. There are also quite a few Gilahs and Ditzahs too, but it is not known whether Rav Chaim has expressed an animadversion to these names.

There is a Tosfos in Chagigah 9b stating that Ben Hei Hei was actually a ger tzedek and that this name was given to him in allusion to Abraham and Sarah. Both Abraham and Sarah received the extra letter hei from Hashem. But this does not negate the idea that one may name after non-names. The Tosfos merely provide a reason why it was done, but no one is questioning whether it may be done or not.

Kibud Av v’Eim

There may be another issue here as well. More often than not, when a child is named it is because the father and mother both agreed upon that particular name. For a child to opt not to use the name that the parents had originated and decided upon may border upon issues of kibud av v’eim, especially when there are halachic authorities that would have clearly permitted the original name. There are also a number of sefarim that state that the name given a child by the parents constitutes the will and expression of Shamayim (see Sefer HaGilgulim chapter 59).

It is this author’s understanding that most of the time, it is not the parents or the child who first pose the question. If, however, one had actually asked the question to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, then the principle of following the ruling of a rav when one has posed a question comes into play. Generally speaking, if someone poses a question to one rav, he should not ask a different rav for a ruling. In such circumstances, one should weigh all the elements together in consultation with one’s rav or poseik. ϖ

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Posted by on July 31, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.