What your Jewish Name says about you


Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Arik, Itzik, Yarkon. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah. Sarele, Revital, Raykhke, Lilach.

Your Jewish name says a great deal about you. It hints at when and where you were born, how traditional your parents were when they chose your name — and according to Jewish tradition, it reveals aspects of your personality.

Today I am going to tell you about some sites where you can learn more about the significance of Jewish names.

I had always thought of genealogists being solely preoccupied with family names, but I learned that was not necessarily the case at the always marvelous genealogical site, JewishGen.org. The introduction to the Given Names Data Base traces Jewish history and significance of Jewish given names from the Biblical period through the 20th century. Professor G.L. Esterson explains how Jewish tradition has always placed a higher value on someone’s first name than on the family name. For example, only the person’s first name and father’s name have always been key when being called up to the Torah. Similarly, it is a person’s first name and nicknames that are crucial to the validity of the divorce document, the get. [http://tinyurl.com/ftg9t]

And a given name can yield vital clues when researching your family tree. That is where their database can be quite valuable. If you enter an ancestor’s given name for his European country of origin, you will find many possible Hebrew, Yiddish and secular names he might have adopted. And that may help give you leads to documentation you may never have considered. For example, if you are working on your family tree and trying to guess what Great-Aunt Fannie’s Jewish name was back in Europe, the database suggests it might have been: Franya, Frumka, Vromot (in Poland); Feyge, Foygl, Froma (in Hungary); Fanni, Freydele, Fanya (in Galicia). [http://tinyurl.com/jre42]

The Given Names Data Base focuses on Jews of European origin, so if you have a question about the origin of a Sephardic name, you can join the Sefard Forum E-mail Discussion List. [http://tinyurl.com/qdapo]

The connection between a name and one’s soul has deep kabalistic roots. Rabbi Paysach Krohn points out that the Hebrew word for soul — neshama — is spelled with the four Hebrew letters nun, shin, mem and hei. Remarkably, the Hebrew word for name, shem — spelled shin, mem — is contained within the word neshama, indicating yet again the strong connection between one’s name and one’s soul, or essence. [http://tinyurl.com/ndy9e]

Your Jewish name is yours for life, and tradition rarely allows it to be changed. One exception is in the case of serious illness. Rabbi Simkha Weintraub quotes the Babylonian Talmud that says that one of the things that “may cause an evil decree passed on a person to be canceled [is a] change of name.” For example, a man who is ill may be given an additional name such as Raphael (God heals) while a woman may be named Brachah (blessing.) [http://tinyurl.com/zhw3c]

There is a belief that after death, an angel asks each soul for its Hebrew name. In order to train their soul not to forget, there is a tradition for people to insert a verse that alludes to their name each time they recite the Shmoneh Esreh prayer. For example, if your name is Sarah (spelled “Sin-Raysh-Hay”), you look for the verse that begin with the Hebrew letter “Sin” and ends with the letter “Hay”: “Se’oo yedaychem kodesh, u’varcha et Hashem.” “Lift your hands in the Sanctuary and bless God.” (Psalms 134:2) You can find the traditional verses that correspond to most Hebrew names at the following page. [http://www.hanefesh.com/edu/name.htm]

In another article, we’ll look at some sites that try to help you choose the right Jewish name for a newborn boy or girl, or maybe for yourself if you were never given a Jewish name. You might want to try out Jacob Richman’s My Hebrew Name website. If you are looking for a Hebrew equivalent to a secular name, type yours in and see what you get. When I typed in “Mark,” I got back the following suggestions: Makabi, Medan and Mordechai. Not bad (but for the record, my parents went with Moshe). [http://www.my-hebrew-name.com/]

Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at [email protected].